Questions every producer should ask to optimize herd nutrition
By Jena McRell
Range cubes, tubs, liquid feed. Trace minerals or commodities. When it comes to developing a supplementation or feeding plan for your cow herd, the combinations are infinite.
That’s according to Dusty Abney with Cargill Animal Nutrition. He holds an animal science doctorate, with an emphasis on ruminant nutrition, from Texas Tech University. Abney and his colleague Wesley Moore recently spoke at Cattlemen’s College during the 2021 Cattle Industry Convention and NCBA Trade Show in Nashville, Tennessee.
“It’s not one feed, supplement or calculation,” Abney said. “It is a universe of things, and we have to take a systems-based approach when determining the right answer.”
And it is an answer that changes, year after year. Abney recommends an annual review of the herd nutrition plan to fully understand how it’s impacting productivity and profitability.
“This year wasn’t anything like last year, and last year wasn’t like anything we’d ever seen before,” Abney said. “Change doesn’t stop happening because you’re comfortable. We need to look at this every year.”
Here are five questions to guide the conversation.
What’s your forage base?
An effective nutrition strategy begins at the ground level.
Collecting grass or hay samples is the cheapest investment you can make in your operation, Abney said. If not already doing so, the experts suggested cattle producers reach out to local Extension offices or nutrition professionals to gather test samples.
The results offer a critical look at the nutrient content grazing animals receive from the pasture. It also grants insight into plant identification, protein, palatability and other measures. Understanding how these variables change throughout the year is key, too.
“Knowing our forage base is important in developing our least-cost nutrition program,” Moore said. “Once we understand the forage base or basal diet, then we can start developing what our plan should look like based on the cattle that we want to perform on that forage.”
What are your cow requirements?
Once you know what your forages bring to the table, next comes evaluating what exactly your animals need. Moore said this involves knowing your cows’ weight, current body condition score and phase of production.
“Are we looking to maintain these cows, or do they need to gain?” Moore asked. “Are they body condition score four, and do we need to get a 100 pounds on them before they calve in the next 90 days?”
Also consider nutritional requirements for milk production and environmental factors like the weather, all of which vary over the course of the year.
With this information in hand, cattle producers can chart a nutrient budget overlaying the available forage supply against the herd’s nutritional demands. Visually mapping this information helps to see the ebbs and flows of what the cow herd needs versus what the forages provide.
Moore shared an example of a fall-calving herd grazing mostly fescue.
“If you look at it, energy deficiency occurs fairly often, about half the productive year of a fall calving cow,” he said. “So how do we compensate for that?”
The equation looks differently for a spring-calving herd. Moore explained in the fescue belt, there’s some energy deficiency in the middle of the summer, but at the same time, the cow’s nutrient requirements are declining as her demand for energy for lactation decreases. So it ends up well matched.
Having this information makes all the difference when it comes to pinpointing exactly what the herd requires without over or under spending your feed budget.
How can you correct deficiencies?
Once you know what your forages provide and what your cows demand, you can plan for the nutritional gaps. Every pasture, ranch and operation are different, so it is important to remember there’s no one-size-fits-all approach.
Protein and energy are top areas of concern when looking at nutrient deficiencies, followed by trace minerals like selenium, cooper, zinc and manganese.
“So, what are your options?” Abney asked. “What are the pros and cons? How can they line up with your needs? And what are the realistic expectations about what a supplement can and can’t do?”
Looking at protein, Abney discussed the positives and negatives associated with several supplement options. He said range cubes are relatively inexpensive, come in a multitude of choices and are an outstanding management tool. But they have marginal trace minerals and can be hard to come by in the winter months.
Tubs are great when labor is short and pastures are a farther distance away. They are long-lasting, but can be expensive and it’s difficult to manage intake. Abney explained liquid feed is a popular choice and is another low-labor option. There are times it works really well, but it can also be too much.
Byproducts and commodities, depending on your location, can be cost-effective and flexible in terms of how you use them, he said. Options include things such as distiller’s grains, cottonseed meal, rice bran and others.
“If you are building a total mixed ration to grow calves or for cows in the wintertime, commodities are an outstanding ingredient,” Abney said. “By themselves, they are rarely great feeds. They may have a fit in your operation, but understand all the variables.”
What are your labor costs?
It’s a pressing concern no matter what business you are in. Time is valuable. And it is worth factoring into the equation when determining what happens on the farm or ranch.
“We’ve got to understand how labor correlates with what supplement option we are going to use,” Moore said. “We need to assess what we are currently doing to figure out what our labor expenses are, then match what our viable options might be in the supplement market.”
Questions to consider: are you feeding a total mixed ration? Are you feeding hay in the winter or going out to your cows on a frequent basis? Are you rotational grazing or strip grazing? Do you have more limited access to the herd?
“This really helps us look at the options for your operation, infrastructure and labor resources,” Moore said. “And then convert that into the optimal-cost program to maximize performance and reduce expenses.”
It’s easy to look at the out-of-pocket expenses. But an overarching review of equipment, fuel and time will help establish a clearer picture of the nutrition program’s total cost.
“I think we don’t understand what labor and time are worth,” Abney added. “If you value your time, maybe you will make decisions a little bit differently than you have been now.”
What do your finances look like?
“At the end of the day, your profitability is our goal,” Moore said. “Once we’ve discovered where we are from a financial performance standpoint, it really comes down to what areas can we save money, and what areas do we need to spend more?”
The optimal investment in nutrition is spending the least amount of money to meet your cows’ requirements, while still achieving maximum performance, he added. That looks differently for every producer. Abney said it’s not necessarily about chasing the cheapest or most convenient option. It’s about achieving balance.
Based on his figures, liquid feed and commodities run about $10 per unit of crude protein. It’s about twice that high on 20% range cubes, and the all-natural protein tub will be about three times as expensive per unit of crude protein.
When you factor in convenience, and knowing that your time is valuable, tubs and liquid feed easily top the list for some cattle raisers. Abney and Moore encourage ranchers to seek out the solutions that work best for the operation, and then plan to review again the following year.
“We need to make sure we examine everything about what we are feeding,” Abney said. “That’s going to take a pencil and a calculator, and it is going to take a little work.”
Because there are many factors at play, it can seem like a daunting task to fully review and optimize herd nutrition plans. Abney and Moore suggest reaching out to professionals for assistance, and are quick to remind producers that even small changes can make a big impact.
“We like to think of nutrition as this big complex equation,” Moore said. “If I could just get the industry to stop wasting 30% of their hay, everybody would spend 30% less on their winter feed program. Sometimes we look at the simple things that are easy to fix before it becomes too complex.”
Always keep the end goal in mind: a healthy, thriving cow herd.
When nutrition is lacking, Abney said it costs cattlemen conception rates, average daily gain and weaning weight through the milk production of the cow. The longer-term impacts have been studied through fetal programming, which proves a mother cow’s nutrition, starting at conception, significantly impacts her calf’s performance.
Most importantly, keep an open mind.
“Your decisions are yours, but make sure you are being open minded,” Abney said. “Consider all of your options. Use all your resources, your grass, your genetics and utilize professionals. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.”
This story first appeared in the November 2021 issue of The Cattleman magazine.