Minimize Consequences Of Poor Body Condition At Calving

A cow herd’s nutrient requirements are greatest from immediately after calving
through peak milk production.

“Inadequate nutrition during this time may have immediate impacts in terms of
lower calf birth weights, weak calves and/or increased death loss, and decreased
milk production,” says Janna Kincheloe, the North Dakota State University
Extension Service’s area livestock systems specialist at the Hettinger Research
Extension Center.

“However, the consequences of low body condition at calving also can extend out
to the breeding season,” she adds. “Research indicates cows with a body
condition score of less than 5 at calving are more likely to have difficulty
resuming estrous cycles, which can increase the number of days to conception and
reduce overall conception rates.”

Although the majority of producers are well aware of the importance of late
gestation nutrition programs, cold temperatures and wind chills across North
Dakota the past several months have added stress and increased nutrient
requirements beyond what might have been expected. Feeding lactating cows to
meet increased nutrient requirements and maintain or improve body condition is
challenging and expensive this time of year if cows already are thin.

Even if additional nutrients are provided, increased requirements for milk
production make increasing body condition extremely difficult, particularly in
old cows and young cows that still are growing, according to NDSU Extension beef
cattle specialist Carl Dahlen.

“There is no shortcut to reproductive success that doesn’t involve good
management,” he says. “Now is a good time to take a critical look at the
situation and determine what steps need to be taken to help lessen potential
negative impacts of cows calving in less than ideal body condition.”

The nutrient density of rations for cows in late gestation or early lactation
should be at least 60 percent total digestible nutrients and 10 percent crude
protein. Producers should test the feed to determine nutrient deficiencies and
to choose a suitable supplement if necessary.

John Dhuyvetter, area Extension livestock systems specialist at the North
Central Research Extension Center near Minot, suggests feeding heifers and thin
cows separately from mature cows if facilities are available to help minimize
competition for feed.

In addition to providing proper amounts of energy and protein, producers need to
ensure they have an adequate mineral supplementation program in place prior to
breeding. Minerals such as calcium, phosphorus and manganese are important for
reproduction, health and growth, which are all areas that drive profit potential
in beef operations.

Producers also could consider feeding an ionophore, which is a class of feed
additives that alters bacterial populations in the rumen and improves feed
“Ionophores have been shown to have positive impacts on reproductive processes
and carry the added benefit of helping control and/or prevent coccidiosis when
fed at appropriate levels,” Dhuyvetter says. “Coccidiosis can be transmitted to
calves through infected fecal material or contaminated udders, so by addressing
this issue in the cows, we can potentially reduce exposure of newborn calves to
this costly disease.”

Dahlen says that components of estrous synchronization protocols also may help
improve fertility in a portion of noncycling cows. Exogenous progestin
(progesterone) sources such as melengestrol acetate (MGA) or controlled internal
drug release devices (CIDRs) that are used in synchronization protocols can
initiate estrus in some noncycling cows.

“It is important to recognize that these techniques are not a substitute for
adequate nutrition, and optimal pregnancy rates will be achieved with a body
condition score of 5 or better and an increasing plane of nutrition,” he says.
“At this time, MGA is only labeled for use in heifers; however, CIDRs may be
used in heifers and mature cows. Producers need to determine if these programs
are cost-effective and choose appropriate protocols for their individual

Kincheloe also has this advice: “Because nutritional status and body condition
score at calving are critical indicators of the ability of cows to achieve
reproductive success, producers may want to check with neighbors or Extension
personnel who have experience with condition scoring and ask for assistance in
evaluating their herd in an unbiased manner.”