by: Stephen B. Blezinger

Part 1

There are somewhere in the neighborhood of 700,000 beef cattle operations in the United States. Of these there are tens of thousands of purebred or seed stock operations. These purebred operations are divided among the 80 or so breeds of cattle now to be found in our country. Spread across the varying landscape this results in a lot of variability between operations. The result being that no two cattle operations are the same and each is unique.

With all this, however, there is some commonality, the main one being that each of these operations has to have a nutrition program which should focus on delivering the appropriate nutrients to each animal at the appropriate time in its life to best meet its maintenance and performance requirements as cost effectively as possible. A problem, however, is that for many purebred producers there is a challenge in managing all the facets of a typical purebred nutrition program (which is not all that different from a commercial program).

Let's take a moment to review the primary parts of the “typical” purebred (PB) nutrition management program.

Start with Basic Nutrition

With little exception, PB nutrition programs are based on pasture and hay or other forages, just like a commercial program. Cows eat grass and hay. That's how God made them! So the big part of the program is supplying forage to these animals in their various stages of production. And while this sounds reasonably simple the finer part of this message is to supply forage in adequate quantity and quality throughout the year. As many producers know who have been around for any time at all – this can be a real challenge particularly during drought periods.

At the same time, as producers we have to understand that the basics of nutrition is the provision of specific nutrients. The animal requires protein, energy, minerals, vitamins, water and oxygen. Oxygen is a given. Water is often taken for granted unless it is in short supply. The other four, protein, energy, minerals and vitamins become a little trickier because they are moving targets in the forage supply and the requirements in the animal change based on its stage of production. For example, from a broad perspective the protein requirements vary for an animal from:
1) the time it is born
2) through its early rapid growth stages
3) at and after maturity
4) as it begins its reproductive life
5) For the cow, based on where it is in breeding and stages of pregnancy.

Nutritional requirements may also vary depending on:
1) Breed (particularly large vs. smaller framed)
2) Age
3) Health status
4) Stress Status
5) Environmental conditions (wet vs. dry, cold vs. hot)
6) Combinations of these

Nutrients are not required independently although to look at many programs you might think that was the case. It is not adequate to ONLY meet an animal's protein requirement or their energy requirement. For optimum performance whether it is reproductive, gain, milk performance or health, all the nutrient requirements must be met.

Meeting the Requirements

To fail to meet one of these creates a condition in nutrition known as “first limiting nutrient.” The animal will perform only up to the level supported by the nutrient provided at the lowest level. Picture this: Imagine you have a wooden barrel, such as a whisky cask. The top is cut off so it can be filled with water but the staves are different lengths. You will only be able to fill the cask with water up to the level of the shortest stave, the rest will pour out. You will never be able to fill the cask up to the fullest mark (the highest stave) so you will never be able to make the most use out of the cask to hold water.

The same is true for the cow. Imagine the different nutrients are the various staves of the barrel. Protein is one, energy is another, calcium is another, fat is another, etc. The water is like the animals performance. You will only be able to get as much performance out of the animal as the lowest nutrient (stave).

Thus it is important to look at the entire nutrient profile needed by the animal at any stage of its life and be familiar with what its requirements are. There are a variety of reference sources out there both in hard copy and on the internet. Additionally, a qualified nutritionist can also provide guidance in these areas. Finding the right nutritionist to help you structure and develop your nutritional program can save (and make) you a lot of money by making sure all the requirements are met at all stages of production for the animals on the farm or ranch.

Stages of Production - Understanding the Needs and Options

Let's start at the beginning:

1) Newborn or young calf up to weaning. When a calf is born the vast majority of its nutritional requirements are provided by the cow's milk. Milk is high in protein and energy as well as the macro minerals. It's not a great source of the trace minerals such as zinc, copper, manganese or selenium. When a calf is born it is storing all the trace mineral that it has until it begins eating mineral supplements kept out for the cow. If, by chance, the cow's mineral requirements have not been met during pregnancy, there is a very good likelihood that the calf will be born in a deficient trace mineral state. This can cause health and growth performance issues since these trace elements are heavily involved in an adequately functioning immune system. If this is the case, that the cow was deficient in minerals while pregnant, research has also shown that the colostrum provided to the calf during the first few hours after birth will also be poorer in quality and may not deliver the initial antibodies needed to the calf to help it fight off pathogens and disease. In these cases early diarrhea (scours) may be noted which can cause the calf to dehydrate, weaken and potentially die. If it does live through this period it may be “behind the curve” on growth and immune performance in general and thus never reach its genetic potential.

The best way to manage meeting the nutrient requirements of the young calf are to be sure the nutrient requirements of the pregnant cow are met the entire length of the pregnancy. As we have discussed here before, the cows nutrition has a direct effect on the calf from conception until weaning and then on for the rest of that animal's life (known as fetal or developmental programming).

A common practice for years, particularly during periods such as now when cattle prices are very good, has been creep feeding. Creep feeding allows the provision of higher nutrient levels to the calf that are not needed by the cow (although the cow is more than happy to take advantage of the creep supplement given the opportunity). A creep program may not only consist of providing some type of feed product. It can also be a small pasture adjacent to the main pasture where more nutritious or succulent plant varieties have be planted but the access is limited by a structure of some type to only the smaller cattle.

A creep feed can be provided up until weaning. Some work has also shown that a creep program can help the calf deal with the weaning and transition period more effectively and thus not suffer from the performance depression common to immediate post-weaning. Direct benefits are higher weaning weights for the calf (although the creep supplement needs to be designed so that it does not result in very fat calves). It can also benefit the cow by taking some of the load off normally created by heavy suckling of larger calves. This can help improve body condition particularly during the periods after breeding and through the first 2 trimester of pregnancy.

Another potential benefit of creep feeding is that I can help the calf reach its genetic potential. With some of the exceptional breeding and genetics programs to be found in today's industry, simply milk and grass may not provide adequate nutrients to support the growth and performance these calves are capable of achieving. Again, a well-designed program can help deliver that level of performance and help the investment in the genetic base pay off.

2) Weaned/transition cattle. For most purebred breeders their weaned calves typically go one of three routes. First, there are the female calves that will be raised as either retained heifers or heifers that will be sold for replacements. Second, the intact male calves that will be grown out for bulls, either for sales to purebred herds or commercial herds. Finally, the animals that do not have the quality for breeding purposes that will be sold as commercial calves and will ultimately go to the feedyard. These cattle maybe sold at weaning or can also be grazed for some period for additional pounds.

Generally the primary focus is on the developing heifers and bulls. There are numerous ways this can be accomplished. Heifers are generally grown out on pasture and forage with some supplemental feed (not necessarily) with a target rate of gain based on a specific goal (1.75, 2.0, 2.25, etc. lbs. per head per day). For the target gains to be achieved the forage base has to be assessed and if necessary an appropriate supplement be found or formulated.

Developing bulls can also be grown out on pasture but in many cases a higher rate of gain is desired so more feed or supplement is provided. In many case the bull's value at sale time is dictated by his EPDs as well as his individual performance which can be affected directly by the nutrition program. Again, there are a wide variety of ways this program can be developed and will depend on the producer's goals as well as on forage and environmental conditions.


This is a brief description of just a couple of the program types purebred producers have to manage effectively. In part 2 of this series we will look at the variation in requirements and the needed support for the breeding cow and some specifics on how these programs need to be configured and implemented.

Copyright 2015 – Dr. Stephen B. Blezinger. Dr. Steve Blezinger is a nutrition and management consultant with an office in Sulphur Springs, TX. He can be reached at (903) 352-3475 or by email at For more information visit Livestock Concepts.

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