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Feeding beef cows? Check over little things before they add up

Things change over time, so it’s a good idea to see if beef cow/calf herds are still operating as well as possible. Subtle changes can make a significant difference in the herd.

Stacy Hoffman, district sales manager for Westway Feed Products, recently talked about successfully managing water and nutrition for the beef cow/calf herd.

She spoke at the University of Minnesota Cow/Calf Days seminar held at the Jim Wulf Sales Facility, Clear Springs Cattle Company, Starbuck, Minn.

Following are some things to ask yourself that apply to all sizes of beef operations:

Water is leading cause of death in mature cows in Minnesota

“Are your waterers working? Are they thawed out? Are they clean?” asked Hoffman. “If your cows are not eating, check your waterers first.”

Attendees at the Cow/Calf Days wanted to know why water is the leading cause of death.

Mature cows need a lot of water, from 5-30 gallons daily, based on the temperature, their size, and whether they are lactating or dry.

In addition to quantity, cows need quality water.

Water-related deaths occur for many reasons, according Hoffman.

Frozen cattle tanks in the winter can lead to dehydration. The air can become very dry, and the snowpack is insufficient for water needs. Abomasal impaction from dehydration plus poor quality forage is another major cause of cow death, especially in the winter.

Cows can be exposed to poisonous algae in the summer. Death can also occur from sulfur or manganese toxicity. Heat exhaustion and dehydration are a serious threat in the warm months.

“When I was young, I learned the two most important things in cattle production are water and salt,” said Jim Wolf, seminar host and beef producer. “They’re the cheapest ingredients, and a lot of times, both of them are short-changed.”

He’s noticed that cow producers don’t clean electric waterers often enough. The thermostats get set too high, the bacteria grows, and the waterers aren’t cleaned out.

His family has found that continuous flow waterers keep the water fresher. It’s cheaper than running a heater, too. At Clear Spring Cattle Company, running a continuous flow pump is about one-third the cost of the electric heater.

“The benefit from a drain system is that you clean your water much more often. In the summer, you won’t make a mud hole, and in the winter, you won’t make an ice mess,” Wolf said. “You just pull the plug, clean the water, and it is a huge thing to have high quality water when you have a continuous flow system vs. the electric heater.”

Record low hay stocks are estimated in North Dakota and Minnesota

Is your nutrition up to the needs of each cow during gestation, transition, and lactation?

As of Dec. 1, 2021, U.S. farm hay stocks were down 6 percent from Dec. 1, 2020. After living through 2020 and 2021, we’ve learned that shortages can change our behaviors, so it’s necessary to consciously fight stockpiling hay that livestock need now.

“When we transition from winter to spring, and late spring to summer, we tend to either overfeed or underfeed, and that’s when we make assumptions on our forages and forage quality,” Hoffman said.

Cattle producers will want to review their rations, as well as the quality analysis of their hay.

Do you need to consider other commodities or products to fill in nutritional gaps through spring and early summer?

There is good nutritional information on the energy needs provided by various roughage beyond hay. These could include beet pulp, cereal grain straw, corn stover, CRP hay, oat hulls, soy hulls and stover, and wheat midds, Hoffman suggested.

Most of these roughages are going to be less than 7 percent protein, however. To balance out the roughages, protein products are included in the ration, such as alfalfa hay, dried distillers grains, canola meal, soybean meal, sunflower meal and wheat midds.

Hoffman’s company, Westway Feed Products, offers liquid feed supplements and tub supplements to provide supplemental protein, energy, vitamins and minerals. The costs are higher than meal or byproducts but offer convenience and supplemental nutrients to bridge feedstuff shortages.

Vitamins and minerals

Hoffman reminded producers to find someone they trust to assist with cattle nutrition.

“If you have cows on a TMR, look for a mineral that is going to work for those cows,” she said. “Are you having trouble calving, issues with feet? Are you having some issues with coccidiosis when they are born? Talk to your nutritionist and they will be able to tell you what is best for your operation.”

Hoffman added that beef cow producers need to be aware of the cow’s calcium and phosphorus requirements during gestation, transition, lactation and dry off. And, cows need copper, but they can also suffer from copper toxicity. The availability of copper matters, as well as how it is going to be given.

“It’s not well understood how cattle use copper in the liver, and how it is broken down,” she said. “More isn’t necessarily better with copper because you can go in the other direction. It depends on the form, whether chelates, sulfates, or oxides that are being used and at what feed rate.”

Feeders and bunks

The days have been colder and windier than average across the Upper Midwest. These uncomfortable weather conditions affect cattle as well as their caretakers, who often need to get inside as quickly as possible.

Look at your feeding facilities now that the days are longer and a little warmer. Is there feed waste?

“Is that cornstalk bale feed or bedding? I don’t ask,” Hoffman said humorously.

She added more seriously that roughage is the largest feed component of cow/calf diets, but the average feed waste is over 30 percent.

On the average, with a 5-foot, 6-inch bale, wasting just the outer 6 inches of the bale results in a 33 percent loss of the feed.

Big hay bales that sit out in the grove can easily lose that amount of nutritional value, she added. Some ideas to reduce the waste are to properly space bales that are stored outside so rain or moisture doesn’t pool and get absorbed. Wrapping bales reduces waste for bales that sit outside. Putting up high quality hay, and then stacking or covering it correctly will go a long way toward reducing feed waste.

“Really the objective is to get the bale to shed water. That’s what you are trying to do,” she said. “Anything that holds water is going to spoil that outer 6 inches of the bale.”

The type of hay ring used can be very important. Taking videos/photos of how the cows eat hay can help the producer determine if waste is minimal.

“Maybe we could start looking right at those feeders, so you can gain a little more feed efficiency and save some feed,” Hoffman concluded.

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