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Information Key in Designing Supplemental Feeding Program

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Even though many areas received much-needed rain this fall, drought still should be a consideration in day-to-day management. In livestock production, nutrition arguably is the single most-affected factor during a drought. True, producers may have witnessed below normal reproduction rates, and, yes, some folks have had a hard time combating poor animal health. However, most of these issues can be directly attributed to nutrition or, better yet, to what nutritionists commonly refer to as the "plane of nutrition" during summer 2006.

Lack of forage (quantity and quality) is the cause of many cattle being in less-than-desirable body condition going into the winter. The next few months are going to be critical, regardless of whether your cows calve in the fall or spring, due to bull turn-out and calving season rapidly approaching. So what can be done to cushion the wrath of Mother Nature? Well, in some form or fashion, we must intervene.

This intervention can come in many ways, but one of the easiest notice I did not say most economical is to implement a supplemental feeding program intended to meet a set of designed goals and objectives. This doesn't mean feeding your cows 3 to 6 pounds of 20 percent breeder cubes because that's what you did last year. What I mean is collecting the necessary information to implement a program designed to meet actual nutrient deficiencies and targeted performance criteria. So, what is this information, and how do you get it?

  1. Start with your forage base. In order to strategically design a supplemental feeding program, you must have an understanding of forage type and its stage of production, due to their influence on forage quality (Figure 1). It's important to send in a forage (hay or clipping) sample for a nutrient analysis if you really want to be accurate. Once you have this information, estimate whether forage quantity is limiting. Dr. Robert Wells provides a good rule of thumb for estimating hay needs in his October 2006 Ag News and Views article "It's Time to Consider Winter Feeding Strategies."
  2. Determine the cattle's nutrient requirements (Ag News and Views November 2000 "Nutritional Management: A Tale of Two Seasons" and October 2006 "It's Time to Consider Winter Feeding Strategies"). These requirements will be affected by many factors (i.e. breed type, metabolic body size, etc.). However, the most important points to consider are current body condition score (BCS) and physiological stage of production. Both of these variables are influenced by management (good or bad) and, for the most part, have very little to do with individual animal characteristics. This is where having a defined breeding season pays for itself.
  3. Consider other management "issues" and/or constraints, such as the ability to buy in bulk, if you are limited to feeding on the ground, and whether you need feed additives (antibiotics or ionophores) incorporated.
  4. Gather information regarding feeds nearest you, taking into consideration the answers to the above questions. Make sure to ask for all pertinent information, such as the total digestible nutrients (TDN) of a feed, the cost and whether it can be delivered.
  5. Calculate how much feed is needed to meet a defined nutrient deficiency based on the cost per pound of this nutrient. This step is the easiest to accomplish if the input variables are relatively black and white. But very few things in agriculture are without some gray areas, so you may want to contact a livestock professional for help. Remember, if you have answers to the above questions, it will expedite your receipt of an accurate answer.