The nutritional needs of spring calving cows and heifers should be evaluated before calving begins

While spring calving season is a ways away, it is never too early to start providing your cows with the nutritional extras and energy boosters they will need to birth healthy babies during one of the coldest times of the year.

Part of a successful spring calving feeding program is understanding the cow’s nutritional needs for the entire year.

“The beef cow herd’s nutritional requirements vary greatly throughout the yearly production cycle. Lactation is a major component of that variation,” Andy McCorkill, livestock specialist with the University of Missouri Extension said. “The energy requirements related to milk production increase for the first 60 days or so of the calf’s life and will then start tapering off as the calf gets more size on it and begins eating on its own up until weaning when we take the lactation component out of the nutritional requirements. That’s roughly where we are now in the spring calving cow’s production cycle.”

This point in the year is a good time to begin putting weight on cows that are harder keepers, McCorkill said.

“Another group that deserves special care are the heifers that are getting ready to have their first calf; besides taking care of the developing fetus they are carrying, they are still growing themselves. In a perfect world, it is advisable to sort those thinner cows and heifers into groups of their own so we can add energy supplement to them without having the expense of overfeeding the ones that don’t really need it. Not everyone is set up to split the herd like that, but it is something to consider,” McCorkill said.

Dr. Shane Gadberry, nutrition specialist with the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension, recommended using special software to accurately calculate the nutritional needs for your spring calving cows.

“There are ration programs available, like Cowculator, that can help plan for body condition gain. Feeding for body condition early will also help improve the odds of having the cows in the right body condition for calving,” he said.

Some people have concerns about continuing to heavily supplement feed as spring calving draws near.

“A common fear I hear is supplemental feeding during late gestation causes increased dystocia because of increased calf birth weight,” Gadberry said. “The reality is there is much greater production risk in not supplementing thin cows to calve in good body condition. Properly supplemented cows aren’t at greater risk for dystocia, but thin cows are more likely to wean off lighter calves and are less likely to maintain a 365-day calving interval.”

If you are unsure of whether your cows need additional groceries supplemented, McCorkill suggests using the Body Condition Scoring System as a guide. “The scoring system, which has been around for years, runs from 1 to 9, where a cow with a BCS of 1 is very thin and emaciated and 9 is extremely obese. We like to see cows calve in at a 5 or 6. In this range, you likely won’t see any ribs showing at all, the hip bones will be visible but will have a rounded over appearance and a little fat in the brisket,” McCorkill said.

Once you’ve determined whether your cows need some supplemental feed, the next question is what to offer them if they do need it. “The go-to feed for supplementation will depend on where a rancher buys their feed and what’s available from that source.  If forage test results indicate energy only is required, ranchers may consider a low-protein grain like corn or a low-protein byproduct such as soybean hulls; if energy and protein are needed, then a higher protein feed like corn gluten feed or distiller’s grains will be needed; however, if the price is right, grain and protein meal blends such as corn and cottonseed meal may be the feed of choice. Feeding rate and method will also play a part in determining the best feed options,” Gadberry said.


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