by: Stephen B. Blezinger

Part 1

In today's market beef cattle producers are enjoying unprecedented prices for the calves and cattle they are selling from their herd. This is certainly helping many cattlemen recoup some of the losses they have experienced over the last few years when drought conditions caused herd liquidations, large cash outlays for forage purposes and purchases of high priced feed and supplements. Cattlemen commonly talk about their genetics. Many producers invest large amounts of time, energy and money in the selection of animals that have the right genetics to meet their production goals. This should have a significant effect on the appearance of the animal (phenotype) in terms of color, horned or polled, muscling, skeletal structure, body size, etc. But it also affects performance including calving ease, birth weights, milking ability, average daily gains, feed efficiency, reproductive efficiency, etc.

Herd genetics have a direct effect on profitability. It shares this critical role with nutrition and management. Given a herd's genetic potential, as affected by the choices the producer makes, nutrition and management directly affect how well these genetics are “expressed.” In other words, if the calves produced by a given herd of cattle have the genetic potential to wean at an average weight of 600 pounds, management and nutrition must be provided in order for this potential to be reached. If not, the calves may not reach the weaning weight they have the potential for. They may only reach a weight of 550. In today's markets this can mean that an income potential of $75 to $100 per head is lost.

So how do producers determine WHAT this potential actually is? This is a good question and not easily answered. There is no formula that determines in advance how a given calf crop will perform utilizing a specific bull and specific cows. So it becomes a matter of trying to do everything right that, given our current understanding of health and nutritional management, we know to do. On top of this we have to consider the costs of reaching this protential. In some cases it may not be cost effective to achieve that extra 10 lbs of weaning weight even though the calves have the genetics to reach that level.

Over the next few issues we'll discuss how to make the most of the genetics the producer has assembled. This follows up the previous series where we looked at how to take advantage of the strong markets we are currently enjoying. This series will simply be another take on that discussion but hopefully can be applied even when markets are not as strong.

Step 1 – Begin at the Beginning

Research, over recent years, has determined that establishing and meeting genetic potential starts very early in an animal's life, perhaps even before life begins. Fetal programming (FP) is a term that is seen regularly in discussions of managing the breeding and pregnant dam. As has been discussed here before, FP is the term used to for the process of how we feed and manage the cow before and during pregnancy and how this affects the calf she is carrying from the time of conception through its entire life. Essentially, the feeding and management from before pregnancy and while the calf is “in utero” will “program” the calf from birth on.

Producers, nutritionists, vets and academics have long known that the nutrition and management of a pregnant female (the concept was actually first recognized in humans) has direct effects on the health and growth of the fetus and the baby. Some of the earliest specific work showed that human mothers who were malnourished during the first half of their pregnancy had children that had an increased incidence of health problems as adults including diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease to name a few.

For the cattle producer this is very tangible. Mismanaged nutrition programs or failure to take steps to minimize stress during pregnancy will affect the unborn calf. Initially the calf may be born very weak or even dead. The calf born as a result of that pregnancy may not gain weight to its potential while still on the cow or later in the feedyard. The calf's immune system may be compromised and the young animal may not be able to fight off sickness as effectively as it should. A heifer calf, as it matures to a producing cow, may not be as reproductively sound as she should be because some genetic groundwork was not laid properly. Fetal programming means that the producer is managing the cow (and the bull) as best possible from before conception through calving to insure the calf's genetic potential is at its best. It is now believed that this very early nutrition and management may dictate what the calf's genetic potential really is.

This sounds like it is only a long term prospect and as such may be difficult to see the results. However, how we manage the cow carrying the fetus from the time of conception can have dramatic effects on growth and development of the calf while in the uterus and then after birth. In addition to the performance issues such as those listed previously we can also see negative effects on pregnancy rates and initial calving date in females. Fetal programming may also impact carcass quality in the form of muscling and the amount of marbling. So when we look at ribeye area ultrasound scans, what we see in an animal at 12 months of age may have been affected when it was an embryo only a few weeks old, when the initial tissues were being formed and the animal's DNA and RNA are being transcribed.

In general, most producers recognize how important it is to provide adequate nutrition to the cow during the third trimester of pregnancy. Most of the unborn calf's growth occurs during this latter part of gestation, with about 75% of growth occurring during the last two months. The cow's nutritional status during the later months of pregnancy also influences how quickly her reproductive system recovers after calving and resumes normal estrous activity. It has been proven time and time again that it is hard to get a cow ready to breed if she is in poor condition at the time of calving. Consequently, much research have concentrated on the cow's dietary needs during late pregnancy.

Historically, for many producers, the first half of gestation has seemed less important — once she's bred we can sit back and relax. This seems especially true when you consider that the fetus has limited (apparent) nutrient requirements for growth and development at this stage. However, growing evidence suggests that because of the events at the very beginning of this process, at and post conception, the basic fetal tissues that are produced at an exceptionally rapid rate have significant effects on producer profitability — as a result of fetal or developmental programming.

Some Basic Concepts to Understand

There are two primary keys to understanding the initial fetal programming process in the animal. First, there has to be recognition of what is happening at conception and the period following. This includes what is going on with the genetic material. Secondly, once conception takes place, there has to be a connection made between the developing embryo and the cow.

To begin, the blueprint for all life is deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA. This material is essentially the instruction manual for everything happening in the animal anatomically and physiologically from the start. This includes:

1) How cells and tissues divide, multiply and accumulate.

2) How the fetus and later the animal grows and develops, establishes the immune system, the ability to grow at a certain rate, and so on.

The DNA for a given individual is established at the point of conception and is a combination of that DNA delivered from the sire in the sperm and from the dam in the ova. This is the true mechanics of the selections breeders make when mating specific males and females. Many producers carefully consider EPD's which provide an indicator of what an animal's genetic potential is for traits like birth weight, weaning weight, milk production and so on. These EPD values have a physiological base in the genetic material that is the platform for this performance. Providing the proper nutritional and management support for the dam is critical to optimizing the expression of the genetic investment.

The DNA begins its role almost immediately after conception, instructing the fertilized egg cell to begin dividing and transitioning into an embryo and then a fetus. The DNA blueprint then goes on to set the protocol for how the tissues and various physiological systems in the growing body develop. This is a key period of time. During these very early stages (only a few days after conception) the new embryo is undergoing exponential growth, some of the most rapid cellular division in its entire life. If conditions are not optimal, opportunity exists for problems or errors to occur in the genetic codes or instructions. This is where a material known as RNA or Ribonucleic Acid comes into the picture. While DNA is the instruction manual that resides in the nucleus of the cells, RNA leaves the nucleus and the cells and is essentially the individual pages of the instruction manual. It provides specific instructions on how the countless actions and reactions in the cells, tissues and entire body are to occur.

This is where a significant opportunity for problems to develop. While DNA is very stable, it has methods of error detection and the means to correct these errors, RNA does not have these same capabilities. Both DNA and RNA are capable of making copies of themselves. DNA copies are generally very good. With RNA this is not always the case as it can make flawed copies of itself and does not really have a way to repair these flaws. Additionally, RNA replicates itself about 10 times faster than DNA so appropriate nutritional building blocks must be in place constantly to support this copying process.

It has been well known for many years that many nutrients are critical to this entire process. For most producers the nutrients given the most attention are protein and energy. An adequate supply of both these nutrients is critical for production of the genetic materials. It is also important for these two nutrients to be provided in the correct proportions. Remember that both DNA and RNA are essentially proteins. In order for proteins to be synthesized, basic building blocks (dietary amino acids) must be available to create the structure. Energy is required to facilitate the synthesizing reactions (like the gas in your car it is the fuel necessary to make the process take place).

The availability of protein has very practical results. Research studies have shown that calves born to cows that are fed a diet lacking in protein in the early stages of pregnancy, may be more susceptible to respiratory and other disease later in life. This is thought to be caused by poor lung development during gestation. This could be related to a lack of the basic building materials for tissue synthesis or for proper RNA replication which instructs the body HOW to build these tissues. Further research has examined the incidence of bovine respiratory disease (BRD) in feedlot cattle. Fifteen to 45 percent of cattle have been affected by BRD to some degree and one percent to five percent of cattle placed in feedlots die from this disease. Anything done to reduce BRD and respiratory problems will be huge for the industry in the form of additional profits. There is a good likelihood that FP through proper nutrition can help reduce the incidence of BRD in these cattle. This may also become increasingly important as the industry's access to antibiotics becomes more restricted.

Protein and energy are only a couple of the critical nutrients. It has been known for years that minerals have long played a role in embryo and fetal development. For example, Wilberg and Neuman reported in 1957 that there was a relationship between DNA and Manganese (Mn). Their work suggested that Mn has a functional relationship in the transmission of genetic information. De Carvalho and co-workers (2010) reported that Mn seems intimately involved in the synthesis of protein as well as DNA and RNA. Their results suggested that epiphiseal growth plate cartilage (growth area of bone) was affected during the early stages of embryo development due to Mn deficiency in the diet of the dam. This went on to result in malformations of the calf's reproductive systems and birth of calves with congenital defects in the skeletal tissues. This would imply that if Mn is in short supply in the cow, this deficiency will be present in the reproductive tissues and may be in short supply during the initial phases of cellular division when the transmission of this genetic information is critical.

Additionally, to illustrate the importance of certain nutrients at very early developmental stages, Lequarre and co-workers (2001) reported the presence of Zinc (Zn), Copper (Cu) and Mn dependent enzymes in bovine embryos prior to placental implantation. These enzymes include superoxide dismutase (SOD) which is a critical anti-oxidant found in virtually every cell in the body. This study showed that this enzyme was present from the very early stages of life. The synthesis and effect of this enzyme requires the presence of Cu, Zn and Mn.

A second key to FP is the development of the placenta and the vascular system the supplies the blood flow in the fetus. From conception to Day 90 the fetus is developing vital organs along with the development of the placenta so cow nutrition is important at this time. The critical time period for attachment of the placenta to the uterine wall and the subsequent vascular system for the fetus begins at 90 days after conception. By day 120, blood (and nutrient) flow to the fetus has increased greatly. During this critical span of days, (90 to 120 days) if the cow is malnourished, the development of the vascular system between the uterus and the fetus affects the ability of the fetus to get nutrients and oxygen from the mother. If this nutrient delivery system is inadequately developed it will negatively impacting the growth and development of the fetus (Vonnahme, 2007).


Most producers will tell you that they focus strongly on management and nutrition during the period prior to calving and leading up to breeding. But, in many cases, this focus is driven by a desire to get the cow rebred after calving. The fetal programming concept emphasizes that not only do we need to be attentive to preparing for the next pregnancy but also that what we are feeding and how we are managing the cow at this time has significant and long term implications on the overall life and productivity of the new calf. In a time when production efficiency is so critical, the producer cannot leave anything on the table.

So while it is important to pay attention to year-round nutrition and total management special attention should be given to that period starting 45 to 60 days prior to calving on through the first 90 days after conception. First, because we are equipping the cow to deliver the optimum genetic material (DNA). Also remember, it takes approximately 60 days for sperm cells to develop so there needs to be a focus on the bulls prior to the breeding period as well to insure their genetic integrity as well. Second, at conception we want that initial cellular multiplication, growth and development to be as sound as possible and for that embryo to become implanted and the vascular attachment to develop optimally. Finally, the nutrient supply from the cow to the developing fetus must be complete with nothing compromised. Again, all of this attention being given to insure maximum genetic expression and performance throughout the unborn calf's life.

So this discussion tells us that taking the shotgun approach to the nutrition program is not wise. All facets need to be carefully planned and designed for your operation and your herd. Many producers already have a good nutrition and management program. This is where fine tuning really pays benefits. This is also an opportunity to inject added value into your marketing program. There is a distinct advantage to not only promoting your genetics but also the fact that your program addresses the genetic integrity of every animal from the point of conception.

The next part of this series will continue this discussion of optimizing the expression of your genetics.

Copyright 2014 – Dr. Stephen B. Blezinger. Dr. Steve Blezinger is a management and nutritional consultant with an office in Sulphur Springs, TX. He can be reached at or at (903) 352-3475. For more information please visit us on at www.facebook/reveillelivestockconcepts.

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