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IS SUPPLEMENTATION WORTH THE ADDED COST?

by: Stephen B. Blezinger
Ph.D, PAS

Routinely we discuss supplementation in its various shapes, forms and fashions and generally we proceed under the assumption that supplementation of the cow, the calf, the growing stocker steer or heifer, etc. is cost effective. Generally, given the prices we have been experiencing for cattle the last few years and even with the high grain prices right now, supplementation is a cost-effective practice. Some will disagree with this premise and their position is to be respected and possibly learned from.

One of the first questions that must be asked is: Should your cattle be able to get all the nutrition they need from pasture alone, or are supplements worth the added cost? The answer varies from region to region and depends on the quality of cattle produced and the type and condition of the pasture. The first thing a producer has to determine is their needs, and those needs are dictated by the timing of use and grass quality. In many areas, the first half of the forage growing/grazing season has most cattle grazing native grasses, which generally provide more than enough energy – the driving force in growth and reproduction. Later on in the season (into the summer as it gets hotter and dryer), protein supplements may be a good option as protein quality of grass deteriorates a digestibility decreases.

Research has shown a boost in later season performance when cattle receive protein supplements along with native grass. In the Midwest, warm season grass is typically 12% to 14% crude protein early in the season, dropping to 5% or 6% from August to October. Depending on breed, type and size, cattle require at least 11% crude protein for optimum performance. Supplementing with 0.5 lb. crude protein per head during these periods of low forage protein has been shown to improve performance through better feed conversion, i.e. lower amounts of forage and supplement per lb. of gain.

Supplementing energy is a “horse of a different color.” When energy is in short supply, feeding high levels of grain while cattle are on grass can actually be a disadvantage. Instead of complementing or supplementing the forage available, cattle can, and will, eat primarily grain in this situation. The key is limiting intake to 1 to 3 lb. of grain to get good conversions and it simply makes economical sense to meet their minimum energy needs through energy supplementation in these situations.

Finally, supplementation of minerals and vitamins is almost never an option and is on-going. Few, if any forage systems, grazing or stored, supply all the minerals and vitamins required for optimal production and in many cases, even for minimum production. As we have discussed before, mineral supplementation is highly variable and should be based on the average forage mineral content on the producers operation or in the area. The development of an accurate, quality mineral supplementation program requires determination of forage mineral contents and availabilities as well as type of cattle produced on this forage base. So while the exact type of mineral and vitamin supplement may change based on animal and forage variables, the need is generally year-round.

Studies at Kansas State have resulted in a recommendation of four things to evaluate prior to making the decision to purchase supplements. These include:

1) Quality of forage available and its energy and protein content. This is a moving target.

2) Condition of the cattle when they are turned out on grass, and a target condition.

3) Value of the weight gain on cattle relative to the supplementation program (dictated by level of cattle prices relative to protein and energy supplements. i.e. what is the cost of gain relative to current cattle prices?)

4) Benefits of supplementation to carcass quality or yield grade.

More and more producers are retaining ownership of their calves from the cow/calf stage through the growth period on grass and on into the feedlot. Subsequently they are marketing their calf crop as fat or finished cattle in that marketplace which is significantly different from the feeder or yearling cattle market. For producers marketing cattle for a program such as Certified Angus Beef® (CAB) or through one of the many quality grid systems set up by packers, the benefits of supplementation may make economic sense. Research has shown that supplementation in the grazing phase can have some impact on carcass quality. If a producer is trying to affect carcass quality and reap some benefits through some type of a retained ownership or grid program, that can have some impact on a supplementation program selected.

Weather/Environment is often the Deciding Factor

The process of determining whether or not to supplement is not the same for everyone and as always, weather and environment play a significant role. In many parts of the United States there is a common concern with the quantity of forage. We know that in some areas some plants have been affected by multiple years of drought stress. In some parts of some Midwestern states, there is concern that optimum subsoil conditions and high-quality growth has not been reached in some time. Fields and pastures may run out of moisture early in the season which can lead to a deterioration of grass plants early in the production year. From the perspective of supplying as many nutrients as possible to the animal from the forage base, this is an obvious problem. This can also put the producer into a situation of needing to make supplementation decisions early in the year when he may not have the necessary information to make these decisions. This is one reason many producers have moved to early-intensive summer grazing programs. This allows the producer to avoid being forced to make supplementation decisions long before he has the correct information. Subsequently, the producer can get the high-quality forage harvested by mid- to late July and get the production and animal performance needed without having to engage in a protein/energy supplementation program.

Supplementation Logistics – Some Peripheral issues

In addition to the cost of purchasing supplements, i.e. the cost of product, selection of supplements needs to include the cost of labor and delivery of those supplements. Delivery is a factor in the economics, and the time, labor and expense of making a trip out to the pasture has to be considered. Interestingly some of the more convenient - and more expensive - products may look a little better by the time producers consider delivery costs.

Commercial options available that can reduce delivery expense include:

•Limiter Feeds (salt and more technologically advanced limitation – self feeders)

•Liquid Feeds (delivered by dealer to liquid feeders in your pasture)

•Tubs or Blocks (limited intake, producer placement)

If delivery is not the limiting factor, numerous studies have shown that use of byproducts as an alternative can be very cost effective. For instance, soybean hulls are an excellent fiber source with energy levels equivalent to grain. Wheat midds, corn gluten feed, cottonseed meal and distillers dried grains are all good options. Distillers dried grains have 30% protein, are palatable and high in energy. While there is nothing wrong with using a straight grain base (i.e. corn, milo, soybean meal), byproducts price in very competitively and in some if not all situations a combination may be the best alternative.

Other Options

Supplementing provides an excellent opportunity to deliver minerals, vitamins or other additives.

A producer can work with his feed supplier to put as many virtues (management tools) into the supplements as we can and deliver those to cattle in addition to the transportation expense of supplement. A perfect example of this is to have the feed manufacturer put a mineral and vitamin pack into the supplement. Any manufacturer can include it in the premix.

Other options include (but not limited to):

•Ionophores – RumensinTM and BovatecTM are both effective in improving feed efficiency and growth response.

•Bambermycins – somewhat similar to an ionophore, GainProTM has shown improvements in feed efficiency and gains in pasture cattle.

•De-Wormers – numerous products

•Fly control – AltosidTM (IGR) and RabonTM

•Medications – CTC, OTC, etc.

•Yeast Products, other microbials

•Mineral options – chelates, organic complexes, etc.

Cow Nutrition and Supplementation and Effects on Calf Carcass Quality

Earlier in the article we touched on improving the carcass quality of the calves produced. The previous section touched on the benefits that can be found by supplementing these calves early in their life while still on the cow or on pasture. Taking a step farther back we find that the nutrition the cow has access to can also affect the carcass of these calves once they have gone through the feeding period. Interestingly this is related to the health of the calf as affected by the nutritional plane the cow is maintained on. The producer has to ask himself: “Am I feeding my cow herd the diet they need to produce a calf this spring whose immune system is strong enough to ward off disease?”

If the answer is no, carcass quality can suffer. Studies have shown 11 percent to 30 percent of calves born into well-managed calving environments receive inadequate passive transfer of antibodies from their dams. In other words, up to 1/3 of the typical calf crop does not acquire the natural antibodies from the cow (normally through colostrums) that provides it with a strong immune system. These calves are three times more likely to get sick in the feedlot. Subsequently, programs like Texas A&M's Ranch to Rail and other retained ownership research programs have shown that sickness in the feedlot dramatically reduces the chance of carcasses grading Choice. According to the A&M data, healthy, untreated cattle have an ADG of 2.92 lbs./head/day and carcasses grading 41 percent Choice, 53 percent Select and 6 percent Standard. Cattle that have gotten sick and received just one treatment have an ADG of 2.77 lb./head/day. These cattle have carcasses grading only 25 percent Choice, while 61 percent of their carcasses grade Select and 14 percent Standard. Cattle that have gotten sick enough to require as many as four treatments have an ADG of only 1.99 lbs./head/day and carcasses grading 18 percent Choice, 45 percent Select and 37 percent Standard. The variability in performance between healthy and sick cattle contributes to a large spread in net returns. The Ranch to Rail numbers show average net return for the 1,197 participating ranches has ranging from a profit of $307/head, to a loss of $310/head with animal health being a factor having one of the greatest effects.

Another recent study shows that events surrounding the calving process affect what is found at the packing plant. The likelihood of carcasses revealing respiratory lesions at the packing plant as the result of significant respiratory illness is greatly decreased if the calf has had adequate colostrum at birth. The occurrence of such lesions is surprisingly high and takes a toll on carcass quality. Significant respiratory disease which is defined as illness severe enough to reduce carcass quality, occurs frequently enough to affect 25 percent to 33 percent of all carcasses. The effect of disease shows itself first in loss of average daily gain (ADG), which is reduced from 0.1 to 0.3 lb./head/day in cattle showing lesions at slaughter. Additionally, the marbling scores on affected carcasses are reduced by an average of 50 points. This amount of reduction in marbling is enough to push these carcasses down from the threshold of 500 marbling points carcasses need in order to meet the Certified Angus Beef quality specifications.

The degree to which calves acquire passive immunity from the cow influences their ability to survive (and resist disease) from calving to weaning, and throughout their adult lives. Calves are most likely to acquire sufficient passive immunity when they're strong enough to stand and nurse soon after birth, and when cows produce high-quality colostrum in sufficient amounts. Both of these factors (strength of new-born calf, colostrums production) are affected by the cow's nutritional plane. The last trimester of pregnancy is the most critical nutritional period. The cow's nutritional level during that last 30 to 60 days of gestation is absolutely critical to the survivability and subsequent health of the calf. Providing insufficient energy in the ration during late gestation is the most common mistake producers make which can be the difference between a weak calf that's slow to nurse and a vigorous calf that'll nurse quickly. Research clearly shows that the time of nursing influences the calf's ability to absorb the immunoglobulins (IgG) needed for it to acquire passive immunity from its dam--and thus develop disease resistance.

Reducing energy in the ration to 70 percent of the NRC requirement during the 30-day period before calving can lead to reduced birth weights and a higher incidence of disease in calves, according to a University of Wyoming study. Heifers fed a low-energy diet lost 23 lb. during the 30-day period, while heifers receiving a high-energy diet gained 93 pounds. Calves born to the low-energy heifers weighed 59 lb., while calves born to the high-energy heifers weighed 67 lb. Of the calves born to heifers fed a low-energy ration, 52 percent scoured, and 19 percent died. Of the calves born to heifers fed a high-energy ration, 33 percent scoured but none died.

Also, calves born to dams receiving a low-energy diet during pregnancy may be more prone to cold stress. A CSU study found that calves born to heifers receiving a ration containing only 61 percent of the NRC recommendation for energy during the last 90 days of pregnancy had 11 percent lower heat production than calves born to heifers receiving 100 percent of the NRC recommendation for energy.

It's a common misperception among producers that reducing energy late in the gestation will minimize calving problems or that by supplementing the cow's diet late in the gestation period it will increase calving difficulty. While birth weights of calves may be greater as a result of cows being fed a higher-energy diet late in gestation, it's also true that the cows will have more energy for calving. Some studies have shown that the incidence of calving difficulty is lower in cows on a moderate to high energy nutritional program in the last trimester when compared to cows on a low energy program. This indicates that you cannot starve calving difficulty out of cows and heifers. However, an overfat body condition is undesirable since it contributes to dystocia also.

Providing sufficient protein for cows prior to calving is important to calf health, too, of course. Researchers from the University of Idaho studied 19 herds to discover the role that pre-calving nutrition might play in "weak calf syndrome." They found the problem associated with the amount of protein consumed by the cow during the last 60 days of pregnancy. Cows eating hay containing more than 10 percent crude protein had no problems with weak calf syndrome. On the other hand, cows eating hay containing less than 10 percent crude protein had an average of 8.5 percent weak calves. Additionally, this research shows that protein-deficient diets affect cows' production of colostrum. While the research team did not see a reduction in quality of colostrum produced by cows fed a protein-reduced diet, they did find that the restricted cows simply produced less colostrum. And, as discussed, calves from those cows are clearly more susceptible to disease.

Conclusions

Supplementation is a valuable management tool for breeding and growing cattle. Many options exist for the producer to meet the needs of the cow herd and maximize the utilization of his forage base. It also provides a good delivery vehicle for a host of other management tools. Finally, supplementation decisions while the cow is carrying and nursing the calf can have long-range implications and can ultimately play a tremendous role in the long term profitability of the calf.

Dr. Steve Blezinger is a nutritional and mangagement consultant with an office in Sulphur Springs, TX. He can be reached at (903) 885-7992, by mail at 667 CR 4711 Sulphur Springs, TX 75482 or by e-mail at sblez@peoplescom.net.

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