Fetal calves are depending on how you feed your beef cows

Feeding pregnant cows this winter will determine how well newborn calves will survive and perform. Managing feed will affect the profitability of beef cow-calf herds.

As a beef cow-calf producer, your job this winter is managing the feed resources you have to meet the needs of your cows until grazing season begins again. That is an important job because the vast majority of those cows are carrying spring calves. Feeding the cow this winter, during late gestation, is also feeding the fetal calf and that can have long-lasting impacts.

According to a Louisiana State University AgCenter publication, proper cow nutrition affects calf performance, health and survivability more important than any other factor. There are four principal negative impacts of insufficient energy for cows in late pregnancy; decreased strength and survivability of calves, decreased colostrum quality, increased sickness and decreased growth potential.

Cows with insufficient energy will have a higher rate of difficulty calving and prolonged labor, leaving both dam and calf more vulnerable. Calf birth weights will be lower, in part because of less brown fat storage. Brown fat in newborn calves is important for generating warmth – a critical concern as cows calve in winter.

Colostrum, the source of antibodies for newborn calves, as well as energy, protein and vitamins, will be of lower quality in energy-deficient cows. In addition, calves born weak will take longer to suckle. These two effects produce a higher risk of failure of passive transfer (FPT) of antibodies that are needed to protect the calf from pathogens in the environment.

Calf survivability is reduced when born to thin dams compared to calves born from cows of adequate nutrition and body condition. Calf deaths, caused by inadequate dam nutrition, may continue from birth through weaning.

Cows need nutrients in amounts related to their body weight and environmental stress. Hay fed during mid-to late-gestation should have a minimum of ten percent crude protein (CP) and at least 60 percent total digestible nutrients (TDN). Forage analysis is the only way to accurately determine the quality.

Body condition is one way to monitor the adequacy of feed for cows. Mature cows should have a body condition score (BCS) of five at calving and first-calf heifers a BCS of six on the nine-point scale. This is a good time to evaluate the condition of your cows.

Feeding the cow-calf herd is the topic of a series of winter meetings being conducted by the Michigan State University Beef Team this February at four locations in Michigan. The challenges beef calf producers face are not only the scarce supply of forages and high grain prices, but the continued potential for more expensive feed for the foreseeable future.

The Beef Team meetings will help producers better understand alternatives to increase profitability. For more information or to register, visit the MSU Event Management website, see the MSU Beef Team website or contact an MSU Extension Beef Team member.

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