Through the action of a diverse microbial community in the rumen, cattle have a digestive system that allows them to digest roughage, like hay and grass, and concentrates such as barley grain or dry distillers’ grains. Feed costs, including both grazed and conserved feed, are the greatest expense associated with beef cattle operations. Since nutrition is often the most important factor influencing reproductive performance, managing feed resources at a reasonable cost to consistently achieve high reproductive rates will help ensure profitability for beef cattle operations.
Key Nutrients Required by Cattle
Cattle require energy, protein, water, vitamins and minerals in suitable amounts to provide adequate nutrition. Young, actively growing forages and legume blends can often meet the nutritional requirements for normal growth and maintenance of cattle herds. Mature pastures, crop residues, or other low-quality forages may have reduced nutritive value, requiring supplementation of protein, energy or additional vitamins and minerals to maintain optimal health. Certain nutrients are required in the daily ration, while others can be manufactured and stored in the body.
Cattle require five key nutrients:
Forage is an economical source of nutrients; however, feed quality and mineral content can vary widely, so feed testing and appropriate supplementation may be necessary to meet nutritional requirements. Forage quality directly impacts animal performance, growth, reproduction and profitability. Most forage species have the highest quality at the vegetative stage, when leaves are lush and green, and stems are young and supple. At this stage, these forages may be able to supply most of the nutrition that the cattle require. Harvesting and feeding high quality hay can reduce the amount of supplemental minerals and vitamins that may be required.
Factors Affecting Nutrient Requirements
Nutritional requirements of beef cattle are influenced by the stage of production. This production cycle, which is based upon a well-managed, healthy cow in good condition (Body Condition Score = 3) maximizes profitability by producing a calf every 365 days. The annual production cycle, based upon ideal length of time for each phase, includes:
- Calving, postpartum, early lactation (day 0 to day 82)
- Conception, early gestation, late lactation (day 83 to day 199)
- Mid gestation (day 200 to day 274)
- Late gestation, pre-partum (day 275 to day 365).
Producers often modify their feeding strategies during the annual production cycle of the beef cow to align with her energy and protein needs as she moves through the cycle. For example, lower quality feeds such as straw reduce costs during mid gestation, when the cow’s nutritional requirements are at her lowest. However, feeding a ration containing very low quality forages or straw during cold temperatures in winter, may result in over-consumption of low quality feed, as they attempt to derive enough energy from the feed.
Each operation is unique; work with a nutritionist to identify and correct nutritional deficiencies early, before herd health and profitability is compromised. Identify groups of cattle that may require additional or customized feeding strategies. Feeding only low-quality feedstuffs to save feed costs will generally increase reproductive losses, unless offset by what is likely to be a more expensive supplementation program. A properly balanced ration will improve cattle performance, productivity and ultimately profitability.
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