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Match cow herd to available forage by rolling back calving season

By Doug Rich

When most people think about animal welfare, they do not picture cows and calves grazing contentedly on a lush green pasture. But animal welfare is an issue for the cow-calf segment of the beef industry, also.

"Green grass and beautiful weather is not what we deal with most of the year," said K.C. Olson, Kansas State University. Olson made a presentation at the International Symposium on Beef Cattle Welfare held May 19 to 21 in Manhattan, Kan.

Welfare challenges for cow-calf producers revolve around making the cow fit her nutritional environment. Olson said producers do this by the way they arrange their production cycle, by the way they manage forage, and by the way they make cattle be successful in a nutrient-limited environment. Malnutrition can occur when stocking rates are too heavy or too light, when the production cycle is poorly conceived, and when a beef cow has the genetic wherewithal to exceed what the range environment is capable of delivering.

One way to match nutritional needs of the cow with nutrient availability is to reduce cow size. Olson said for every 200 pounds that are added to mature cow weight, producers add about 20 percent to a cow's maintenance requirements.

"We have done a great job since the 1960s of improving cow size and milk production all in the name of larger weaning weights," Olson said.

Research shows now that bigger cows do not equal bigger calves. After comparing records from a popular commercial cow database, Olson said they found that cows that weight 1,200 pounds or less wean a bigger percentage of their body weight and wean calves that are 115 pounds heavier at the 205-day weight than cows that weighed 1,600 pounds and above.

"Those bigger cows were put into an environment that is inherently nutrient limited," Olson said.

Another perhaps more controversial way to match nutritional needs of the cow and nutrient availability would be to roll back calving to a more seasonally appropriate time, Olson said. Typically, Kansas producers calve early in the year, February or March, so that seven months later they will have a big heavy calf to sell.

"There is a big disconnect between nutrition availability and nutritional needs with the traditional system," Olson said. "There is a great big hole early in the calendar year that we fill with harvested forages and a great deal of supplemental nutrients."

When there is economic stress, producers might be tempted to cut back on the supplemental feed for the cow. Cow performance suffers and animal welfare suffers as a result.

Olson said rolling back the calving season is not very popular with many cow-calf producers, because if they calve in April or May instead of February or March, they will sell a lighter calf in the fall. But from a cow nutrition standpoint, they are matching nutrient needs to nutrient availability without any human intervention.

One of the benefits of a seasonally appropriate calving season is that the nutritional needs of the cow are minimal when the forage quality is poor.

"We don't have to ask the cow to meet its peak nutritional needs for calving and lactation with a poor forage quality base," Olson said. "We are not in a race every fall at weaning time trying to restore those cows to adequate body condition for breeding."

Another benefit is that calving will occur when the risk of severe winter weather events are not likely. Economically, rolling the calving season back should result in significant feed cost savings. Olson said these savings should be more than enough to offset lost weaning weights.

"This kind of change to management will result in a lighter calf at weaning time, but it will also result in an opportunity to have this cow in better body condition heading into the winter months," Olson said.

Doug Rich can be reached by phone at 785-749-5304 or by e-mail at richhpj@aol.com.

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