It starts with water.
Among the nutritional needs of cattle, “Water is the most essential, and many times, most overlooked,” according to Justin Sexten, professor of animal science with University of Missouri Extension. Cattle can be adversely impacted by limited access or availability to water, or by poor water quality. Sexten told Ozarks Farm & Neighbor poor quality water can create a mineral imbalance or, in the case of an algae bloom, toxicity; this can reduce dry matter intake, and stunt cattle performance.
“The challenge with a pond is it needs to be deep enough, with steep banks, so there’s not an opportunity for a lot of algal bloom in shallow water,” Sexten said. “A lot of ponds have been dug out the last three to four years because of the drought; there’s just availability to do so, whether it be to dig a new pond or just move them to rural water or a well.” If access to the pond isn’t restricted, the cattle can pollute it with animal waste and increased sedimentation from eroded banks when they wade out into the water; in the winter, they can walk out onto an ice-covered pond and fall in. He said, “The best case is to put a stand pipe in the pond that ultimately takes water from the bottom or the mid-point of the pond, and takes it to a water source.”
Next, of course, comes food. Sexten said forage should be grazed early in the spring so it doesn’t get “stemmy” or produce a seed head. He said, “If you can keep forage between 4 and 10 inches tall, the protein and energy content will largely take care of itself.” Stored forage needs to be tested to determine its nutritional quality; it should have been harvested before the plants went to seed. “I would hesitate to put a date on that,” Sexten said, “but I would say earlier is better.”
Dr. Shane Gadberry, University of Arkansas Extension professor of animal science, told OFN while ranchers can have protein-deficient forages, particularly during a dry summer, the protein requirement is usually met when practices to improve pastures are employed. On the other hand, “About 40 percent of the time, our harvested forages will be deficient in protein for lactating cows, and about 80 percent of the time our forages will be deficient in requirements of total digestible nutrients (TDN).” Gadberry said “foresight” knowledge, which involves forage testing and supplementation where needed, is preferable to “hindsight” – that is, when cows lose body condition, looking back for the reasons why.
At the same time, from an economical perspective, supplements are undesirable if stored forages already have adequate energy and protein. “If the forage base by itself is exceeding requirements that’s okay, but we don’t want to be bringing in any purchased nutrients to correct that cow to excess status,” Gadberry said.
Other necessary nutrients are vitamins and minerals. Gadberry said the nutrients that are most likely to be deficient in Ozarks forages on a year-round basis tend to be sodium, which can easily be addressed with a free-choice salt mix, and the trace minerals copper, zinc, selenium and manganese; there can also be a minor deficiency in phosphorus. A severe selenium deficiency can result in what’s known as white muscle disease in calves. It’s rare to overdose cows on minerals; they have a high tolerance for salt, which can be used as a feed intake controller.
One possible source of toxicity could be poultry litter, which is high in minerals and is sometimes fed to cattle during drought conditions. Excess potassium in the diet can prevent the animal from absorbing magnesium and produce the condition called grass tetany, which often occurs in the springtime on very lush pastures. In addition, cattle can get too much sulfur if their diets are high in distillers grains; this leads to the neurological disorder called polio, which is short for polioencephalomalacia.
But Gadberry said minor nutrient deficiencies can go unnoticed, and can prevent cows from breeding back early during the breeding season. He said, “You might have a higher percentage of cows open at the end of breeding season, and you may not be able to exactly pinpoint the cause for those cows being open.” In addition, a subclinical deficiency can cause the cow’s immune function to be suppressed, and defeat efforts to protect the cows from disease through vaccination.

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