Dr. Perry Spitzer: The art and science of feeding cows

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Looking after cows is both an art and a science, and many factors play a role. Cows are ruminant animals that eat forage plants that are chewed and swallowed to the large stomach, where the mixture of plant material and fluid supports a population of microbes that help digest the feed. Ruminants all re-chew this material to decrease the size of the particles, so it can be more completely digested. In general, this process involves the cow collecting the material by grazing and then re-chewing it while they rest. However, in our area, grazing just doesn’t work well for all 12 months of the year. In the Peace region, the period of time we need to supply stored forages to the cow is long and offers many challenges.

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Weather affects the feed program in the winter in several ways. The cow’s protection from the cold is the hair coat, her thick skin and the layer of flesh under the skin. Conditions that take the heat away from her core increase the needs of the cow. Ambient temperature is one aspect, but if you add in wind chill, wet conditions and having to lie down on frozen ground, things begin to ramp up.

Less flesh on her body makes it more difficult for a cow to keep warm. With experience and some training, a beef producer can learn to recognize the body condition of his cattle. A system for this has been developed called body condition scoring. This estimates the flesh cover on the cow by assessing the sharpness of the points of her skeleton that can most easily be checked, like her pelvis points, shoulder, spine and ribs. This system gives us a scientific way of keeping track of changing body condition.

There are also some other little things to remember. Younger cows are still trying to grow and don’t compete for the feed as well with their mature herd mates. Older cows can have similar competition issues. These are the cows to watch for change. Wide bellies don’t necessarily mean fat cows – it’s better to look at their back. Flesh is round, and as the cow loses condition, the cow’s back starts to look flat (or even hollow) between the points of her skeleton.

Cows are expected to calve every year in most beef herds, and they often need to go through the winter season when they get into the last part of their pregnancy. During this stage, the fetal calf increases dramatically in size, demanding more nutrition. If the cows drop body condition during this part of pregnancy, it is extremely difficult to reverse the situation.

There are ways to calculate how much to feed beef cows at various stages of production. If you analyze your forage, several computer programs exist that will help calculate how much to feed. Usually a margin for feed waste and errors must be included. These can all be calculated at your desk.

The art of applying feed calculations does require some practice. Learn to recognize the body condition score of your cattle. Walk through frequently with a critical eye on their body condition, especially the younger, smaller ones and the older ones. Plan for increases to their feed in the late part of pregnancy, and plan to add or improve feed during poor weather. Wind breaks and bedding always help with temperature regulation. Set out extra feed, as the intake of feed rises when the thermometer drops. Add energy sources to the ration like cereal grains, or changing to better forages. Also, don’t forget that even though snow is a water source, it requires body heat to melt the snow into water. Offering open water to drink is best.

Science can help develop rations and score the condition of the cows, but it takes time to develop the art of adjusting for the ever-changing variables Mother Nature throws at us. As we have all heard before, ‘if it was easy, everyone would be doing it.’

Dr. Perry Spitzer is an owner and director of North Peace Veterinary Clinic Ltd. with his life and veterinary partner, Dr. Corinne Spitzer.

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