By John Grimes, Ohio State University Extension Beef Coordinator
The term “defensive driving” may seem like an odd choice of words to start an article about beef cattle. Stay with me on this one. When I think about defensive driving, I think about watching out for factors such as the surrounding traffic, weather conditions, time of day, driver fatigue, etc. and how they may affect your ability to travel safely from point A to point B. How does this concept relate to beef cattle production?
As we are in the midst of changing both weather and production seasons, now is the time to be analyzing your animals and the environmental conditions around them to make important management decisions that can impact your operation for the short- and long-term. Most of you are painfully aware that the beef herd has faced many challenges through the winter of 2018-2019. As we move into spring with green grass and warmer temperatures, do not get lulled into a false sense of security that any problems we have been experiencing are going to magically disappear.
We fully realize the current situation. We have experienced months of cold, wet conditions that have resulted in excessive amounts of mud. Unless you have had a laboratory analysis of the forages fed your herd through the winter, we have to assume that forage quality of hay supplies is sub-par. Excessive moisture in the spring and early summer of 2018 simply did not allow for the timely harvest of forages to generate high quality feed. Based on my observations and conversations I have had with producers, veterinarians, and other industry representatives, the weather and feed quality has resulted in large numbers of cows in thin body condition and significant health issues in baby calves.
A large portion of this year’s spring calf crop is on the ground and the remainder will be soon delivered. Most cows are in late gestation or the early stages of lactation. Once calving season is complete, the cows must be in body condition score 5-6 (on a 9-point scale) to achieve acceptable conception rates and deliver a healthy calf next year. All of this sounds like business as usual. I fear that the current environment and animal status will make it extremely difficult to achieve conception rates of 90% or higher.
Changing seasons does not automatically improve the situation. Much like producers, cows have grown tired of seeing marginal hay and excessive mud over the past several months. All parties are anxious to see green grass and more solid footing. Early season grass growth may be high in quality but it will be difficult for cows to consume enough nutrients as lush pasture is low in dry matter. Keep in mind that many pastures have been damaged due to animal traffic through the winter. The high moisture content of young grasses and potentially thinner stands will make it nearly impossible for typical stocking rates to meet their nutritional needs.
Producers should honestly evaluate animal body condition and current feed resources to take appropriate action to minimize long-term production issues. Maintain cows in sacrifice areas or in dry-lot situations as long as possible to avoid over-grazing early season pastures. Unless you have a supply of grass-legume mixed hay that is at least 10% crude protein and Total Digestible Nutrients (TDN) of 55% to 60%, be prepared to do some type of grain and/or protein supplementation. Do not ignore the benefits of feeding a high quality, well-balanced mineral as well.
A 1,200-pound lactating beef cow needs 3 pounds of protein and 17.6 pounds of TDN. Under good environmental conditions, she can eat 2.5 percent of her body weight as dry feed or 30 pounds. If the diet contains 10 percent protein and 58 percent TDN, the cow eats 3 pounds of protein and 17.4 pounds of TDN, almost exactly what she needs. Bigger cows will obviously require more nutrients. A 1,400-pound lactating beef cow needs 3.5 pounds of protein and 20.5 pounds of TDN.