Cows must maintain their condition, as well as provide for their calf, so proper nutrition is key

When a cow has a calf, her nutritional needs change. She is now going from maintaining condition for herself and the unborn calf during pregnancy to recovering from birth, trying to get back in condition and providing milk for her newborn calf. This is the time producers will want to make sure their new mommas get the right nutrition.

“There’s a pretty dramatic change in a cows nutritional needs after calving,” explained Eldon Cole, field specialist of livestock for the University of Missouri Extension. “A 1,200-pound cow in the last three months of pregnancy needs about 24 pounds of dry mater. It should contain 54 percent Total Digestible Nutrients (TDN) 24 pounds x .54 = about 13 pounds of TDN. The protein level needed is 8 percent or 1.9 pounds per day. After calving the nutrient needs increased to 30 pounds of dry matter; 58 percent  TDN and 9.8 percent crude protein. So that’s a total of 17.4 pounds TDN and about 3 pounds of protein per day.

“If a newly freshened beef cow is a really good milker (25 pounds-plus per day) she will need even more feed and higher quality,” Cole added. “Protein could go up to 10.5 percent protein and 59 percent TDN. The daily dry matter would go up to 32 pounds for the cow if she was producing 25 pounds of milk per day.”

The nutrition of first-calf heifers is a bit complex, especially since they are not only eating to recover, gain condition and nurse, but for rebreeding preparations as well. Dr. Shane Gadberry, professor of ruminant nutrition at the University of Arkansas, explained that getting first time calving heifers rebred to calve within a 365-day calving interval is one of the more, if not most challenging parts of a cow-calf system.

“Some producers choose to wait until heifers are more mature and breed them to calve as a 3-year-old instead of 2-year-old,” he said.

Waiting an extra year takes on a lot of extra expense that is hard to recoup. Others will try to breed heifers to calve one month ahead of the mature cow herd, so they have an extra month to recover from calving. Nutrition is key to increasing the odds of getting 2-year-old lactating females bred for their second calf. Adequate protein and energy must begin pre-calving. Heifers need to calve in a body condition score 6. The most common mistake is treating these heifers like mature cows. They are best managed separately for both ease of assisting with calving difficulty and feeding. The energy needs of these immature cows is greater than mature cows because the immature cow is growing, nursing, and hopefully rebreeding. It is rare that hay quality is sufficient to meet the energy need for a mature lactating cow, so first-time calving females are more prone to lose more body condition from calving to rebreeding than mature cows.

“First calf heifers will need extra groceries to provide for growth gains along with milk production following calving,” Cole said.

Producers have a variety of feed choices when it comes to meeting the nutritional needs of newly lactating cows. Commercial feed mixes, soybean hulls, whole corn, distillers’ grain, range cubes and lick tubs are all possible options. Good quality forage is a must as well, either in hay or pasture form, or both. The quality of the forage will determine what supplements are needed for the cows.

“Determining the right amount and type of supplement is best accomplished with a forage test,” Gadberry advised.


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