If you want to get your cows bred back, start with these outstanding tips from the pros
By Gilda V. Bryant
Improving conception rates in cows and heifers depends on the correct mix of minerals, vitamins, protein and energy. The next calf crop also relies on bulls, cows and heifers that have received an increasing plane of nutrition resulting in healthy body condition scores.
Nathan Elam, Ph.D., Beef Nutritionist, Nutrition Service Associates, says supplementing a quality mineral year-round is an easy way to avoid conception problems. Calcium and phosphorus are the most important macro minerals for health, while copper and zinc are vital trace minerals.
“For [ranchers] who want precision and specificity, the first step is to identify which [mineral] is most commonly deficient in their area,” Elam explains. “Producers need to know their geographical region and make sure they’re supplementing to that. Better yet, they could sample their resources routinely to ensure [deficient nutrients] are available in the mineral supplement.”
Take forage samples when grass has changed, such as a month after green-up, mid-summer, after frost and the dead of winter when dormant forage is at its worst. Ranchers should also routinely test the hay they buy or grow. Forage sample results along with production records can help producers track nutrition and health issues, including lackluster conception rates.
Some ranchers start calving season before new grass is plentiful. When producers fail to time the availability of pastures with calving season, cows require heavy energy and protein supplementation. If that is the case, the highest energy and protein demands come when grass is the weakest. This management style is not as productive or efficient as calving later when grass is plentiful.
“Most mama cows consume enough roughage to achieve their energy requirements, especially if their stage of production matches seasonal changes in forage quality and there is plenty of it to consume,” Elam explains. “Protein is a required supplement, especially during winter months when protein quality and availability increasingly declines until forage dormancy ends and new growth begins.”
When roughage is inadequate, Elam prefers to supplement with hay, gin trash or any roughage source that helps cattle feel full. If forage is adequate and animals need energy supplementation, producers may feed the cheapest source of low-starch energy, such as range cubes or hay. For protein supplementation, the cheapest source of predominately natural protein is the best decision.
“Manage states of reproduction to the availability of resources,” Elam advises. “Maintain year-round mineral supplementation programs for the bull, cow and calf, especially to promote good in utero passive immunity functions. Consult a veterinarian concerning herd health vaccinations that promote maternal and fetal health.”
Hint – match mineral needs to forage growth stage
Tom and Matt Perrier raise registered Angus cattle in the southern Flint Hills of Central Kansas, on their family operation, the Dalebanks Angus Ranch. Some 450 cows graze on native tall grasses year round. This father-son team also grows feed for yearling bull and heifer development. Matt Perrier says pairs also graze on annual forages or cool season grasses during AI breeding when available.
All Dalebanks cattle receive mineral supplementation, matching mineral needs to the forage growth stage, and the production needs of the animal. Plus, the Perriers provide free-choice minerals with an organic trace mineral package for their developing yearling bulls and mature herd bulls during the off-season.
Perrier used to deliver a mixed ration to weaned heifers through the winter and spring. They weighed over 65 percent of their mature weight when bred. “They looked great, but they were too fat, plus they didn’t graze very efficiently,” he reports. “Some of these heifers gained very little weight through the summer breeding season, so conception rates suffered.”
Several years ago, Perrier began developing heifers on dry grass with minimal protein supplement through winter and early spring, aiming for a one-pound average daily gain. Today he delivers a ration of ground wheat straw, dry distiller’s grains and some silage during the 60-day synchronization and AI season. He turns the heifers onto native grass about 45 days after the first AI service.
“This change has resulted in significantly higher AI conception rates,” Perrier explains. “Heifers weigh basically the same at preg check time, but they continue their steady gain throughout the development and breeding phases.”
Protein is essential
Dusty Abney, Ph.D., Cargill Animal Nutrition Cow-Calf Nutritionist, says the best plane of nutrition includes adequate to excess calories and sufficient protein. He recommends feeding a thin cow more than her nutritional requirements.
“Data indicates a cow on an increasing plane of nutrition will cycle faster than a thin cow on her own,” Abney reports. “Not only is body condition score (BCS) important, but increasing the amount of calories going into that cow is of the utmost importance as well.”
Protein is essential to support the animal’s caloric intake and to feed the rumen’s microbes. Abney reports cattle on low-quality forage, such as dormant winter forages, lack protein for both animals and rumenal microbes. That reduces the amount of fermentation occurring in the rumen. Inadequate dietary protein also prevents microbe replication. The rumen’s fermentation rate drastically slows, as does the cow’s digestion or rate of passage. Because she will not clear her rumen or be hungry as quickly, intake is reduced and ADG suffers.
When ranchers supplement lower quality forage with protein, both digestibility and feed intake improves. The cow receives more nutrients from the forage and in turn, she consumes more, because protein supplementation drives caloric intake.
Should producers feed liquid, cubes, blocks or range meal? It depends on labor, infrastructure and cost. Determine what the best supplement should be and consider options. Instead of figuring price per ton, Abney recommends calculating cost per unit of crude protein.
Body condition also plays a crucial role in successful conception. Most experts recommend cows have a BCS of 5 and heifers a 5.5. Abney suggests producers calibrate their eyes to the right numbers. Land grant universities have terrific BCS websites and PDF files producers can download to ensure they learn to score their cattle as accurately and efficiently as possible. The NUBEEF-BCS app for Smartphones is also available for a reasonable fee.
“[Check BCSs] at least on a monthly basis,” Abney advises. “Pick out a few cows in your herd that are easily recognized. Take a picture of them with your Smartphone to see the changes. When we look at a cow, especially in the cow-calf segment, whatever metric we measure is a lagging indicator. By the time we figure out we’ve got a problem with BCS, we’ve had that problem 60 to 90 days at least. Your eye can’t pick up those differences unless you’re really paying close attention. Calibrate your eyes and use technology to your advantage, so you can pull up pictures you took of that cow last month. Use her like a canary in a coalmine. Either she’s slipped or she’s in good shape.”
Don’t forget about the big boys
Ranchers tend to forget about bulls until they need them. Abney recommends they pay special attention to the bull’s BCS and supplementation program about 90 days before turn out because sperm needs at least 60 days to mature. A bull consumes about one and a half to two times as much mineral as a cow. Abney reminds producers a bull breeding soundness exam (BSE) is imperative. “To motivate my customers to get a BSE, they have the vet vaccinate, deworm and get the bull ready,” Abney explains. “That’s a way people can talk themselves into doing the right thing. I cannot overstate how important the BSE is every year.”
How can producers support improved conception rates? Start by providing protein, energy, minerals and vitamin supplementation. Deworm on schedule and bring vaccination protocols up to speed.
“If you’re doing all those things right and your numbers are still not where you want them, get in touch either with your extension folks or a consulting nutritionist and your veterinarian,” Abney councils. “The veterinarian and nutritionist will give you the best overview of your operation and where the holes may be. Don’t have unrealistic expectations, but have good expectations.”