Protect Your Investments

This article written by Dr. Reynold Bergen, BCRC Science Director, originally appeared in the January 2022 issue of Canadian Cattlemen magazine and is reprinted on the BCRC Blog with permission of the publisher.

beef cow cleaning newborn calf in winter snow
Producer surveys suggest that 5 to 8% of calves typically die before weaning. High winter feed costs mean you’ve already invested a lot in the 2022 calf crop. That investment is lost when calves die before weaning. Scours and respiratory disease are two leading causes of preventable disease and death in young calves.

Calves rely on antibodies from the cow’s colostrum to fight off common pathogens. If the cow herd is well-vaccinated and well-fed, and if calves consume adequate amounts of high-quality colostrum within the first few hours of life, maternal antibody levels can remain high for several months.

The downside is that maternal antibodies can interfere with injectable vaccines. Vaccines help the immune system practice, like a fire drill. The first attempt may be awkward, slow and uncoordinated, but repeated practice improves performance next time. Similarly, the immune system responds better each time it’s exposed to a pathogen. The second (booster) vaccination produces a stronger and longer-lasting response than the initial (priming) vaccination. If the calf is given a vaccine injection while high levels of maternal antibody are circulating in the calf’s blood, those antibodies will block the vaccine before the calf’s own immune system gets a chance to practice. That defeats the purpose.

“Mucosal” vaccines given in the nose (intranasal) or mouth (oral) avoid this problem. These vaccines work differently than injectable vaccines so maternal antibodies do not interfere with them. Nathan Erickson and colleagues at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine demonstrated this in a recent study funded by your Canadian Beef Cattle Check-off (Evaluation of bovine respiratory syncital virus (BRSV) and bovine herpesvirus (BHV) specific antibody responses between heterologous and homologous prime-boost vaccinated western Canadian beef calves; PMID: 33390597). Continue reading

Feeding Decisions Are Important Breeding Decisions

This article written by Dr. Reynold Bergen, BCRC Science Director, originally appeared in the December 2021 issue of Canadian Cattlemen magazine and is reprinted on the BCRC Blog with permission of the publisher.

When life gets really stressful it can be hard to remember what you already know. This column probably won’t tell you anything new, but it might remind you of some important principles that can get overlooked in the scramble to buy feed and make important financial decisions.
Black Angus cattle eating hay as winter feed
Winter feed costs are a key financial make-or-break factor for cow-calf producers, especially this winter. Weaned calf sales bear most of the responsibility for offsetting those winter feed costs, so reproductive performance is another financial make-or-break factor. The most profitable cows are those that wean a calf every year for the greatest number of years.

The big challenge is that feed costs and reproductive performance are inseparable. Drastic measures to minimize per head feed costs usually have a negative impact on reproductive performance. Maximizing reproductive performance can increase feed costs significantly. But there can be some room to move in the middle. Maintaining or even improving reproductive performance can often be achieved by carefully managing the feed you have to maintain optimal body condition scores. This may mean spending money differently, not necessarily more of it, and will help maintain or improve reproductive performance. Continue reading

Always Look a Gift Cow in the Mouth

This article written by Dr. Reynold Bergen, BCRC Science Director, originally appeared in the November 2021 issue of Canadian Cattlemen magazine and is reprinted on the BCRC Blog with permission of the publisher.
beef cattle in sale barn
This year’s feed situation is forcing many cow-calf producers to make very difficult decisions. Those who are short of feed may cull their herds harder than usual or look for alternative feeding arrangements to winter some or all their cows. Others with feed carryover from previous years may be tempted to custom feed other people’s cows, or to expand their own herds. Those who are selling cows this year may rebuild their herds in a year or two when the weather is more promising. In short, there are potentially a lot of cows changing hands, either permanently or temporarily.

Regardless of whether you’re buying now, buying later or considering custom feeding, remember that there’s more to the decision than price alone. Some apparent opportunities can bring significant hidden costs. This lesson was illustrated recently in a project led by John Campbell and Cheryl Waldner, with co-workers from the Universities of Saskatchewan and Calgary (Biosecurity Practices in Western Canadian Cow-Calf Herds and Their Association with Animal Health; Canadian Veterinary Journal 62:712-718). Continue reading

Growth Promotants and the Environment

This article written by Dr. Reynold Bergen, BCRC Science Director, originally appeared in the October 2021 issue of Canadian Cattlemen magazine and is reprinted on the BCRC Blog with permission of the publisher.
growth promotants improve feed efficiency of beef cattle and also have environmental benefits
Growth promotants dramatically improve the growth rates and feed efficiency of beef cattle. Trenbolone acetate (TBA) behaves like testosterone and is used in several feedlot implants (Component, Revalor, and Synovex). Melengestrol acetate (MGA) behaves like progesterone, a pregnancy hormone. Some feedlots feed MGA to suppress estrous cycles and riding activity in heifers until a few days before slaughter. Ractopamine (Actogain, Optaflexx) is a feed additive that improves weight gain, feed efficiency and leanness in the last 28-42 days before slaughter.

Growth promotants also have environmental benefits; reducing the number of days (and amount of feed) needed to finish cattle means fewer days producing greenhouse gases and manure, and less water, feed and fossil fuel inputs per pound of beef.

Animals metabolize and excrete these growth promotants over time – that’s why growth promotant residues in beef are too low to pose any risk to consumers. But do these excreted residues and metabolites pose a risk to the environment? How long do they persist in soil and manure, and is there a risk they could enter surface or groundwater?

A Beef Cluster study led by Frank Larney and co-workers at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Lethbridge Research & Development Centre and the University of Saskatchewan’s Toxicology Centre is examining these questions. Their first study was published earlier this year (Ractopamine and Other Growth-Promoting Compounds in Beef Cattle Operations: Fate and Transport in Feedlot Pens and Adjacent Environments; Environmental Science & Technology. DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.0c06450). Continue reading

Is This a Good Investment?

This article written by Dr. Reynold Bergen, BCRC Science Director, originally appeared in a September 2021 issue of Canadian Cattlemen magazine and is reprinted on the BCRC Blog with permission of the publisher.

The Beef Cattle Research Council (BCRC) projects featured in this column are funded by the Canadian Beef Cattle Check-Off. When the checkoff increased a few years ago, the BCRC’s budget rose from around 15 cents to 67 cents per head marketed. This allowed us to start some new research programs. Now that we’re a few years in I can update you on how they’re going.

One is our “Proof of Concept” program. Research is complicated and costly, so we have independent scientists review each research proposal to make sure it is scientifically sound and likely to achieve its goal before investing your dollars into it. Sometimes the reviewers say, “This is an interesting project, but it’s really costly, and it all hinges on an untested idea. It’d be better if they had some preliminary evidence that this new idea is worth pursuing, before funding a costly, full-scale project.”

In 2018 the BCRC started funding Proof of Concept projects to gather these preliminary results and help decide whether these new ideas are worth scaling up into full-scale research trials. Here’s what two of the first Proof of Concept projects told us.
intercropping corn and high-protein forages for better beef cattle nutrition
Exploring corn intercropping strategies to increase protein and profitability of beef cattle grazing:
Corn’s high yields and energy content make it a popular wintering grazing crop for some Western Canadian producers. However, it’s low protein content may make it unsuitable for younger, growing cattle. Seeding corn together with high protein forages may be a way around this challenge.

Continue reading

Today’s Research Provides Tomorrow’s Solutions

This article written by Dr. Reynold Bergen, BCRC Science Director, originally appeared in the September 2021 issue of Canadian Cattlemen magazine and is reprinted on the BCRC Blog with permission of the publisher.

Today’s research won’t help you weather this year’s drought, but the practical information and advice you’ll read elsewhere in this issue (and at www.beefresearch.ca) will. Those pasture management, early weaning, creep-feeding, feed and water testing, alternative feeds and ration balancing tips all originate from past research done by scientists and refined by producers. But producer-funded research underway today will help us cope with future droughts.
beef cattle kicking up dust in dry pasture
Crops, pastures and haylands throughout Western and Central Canada are parched. In a lot of places, the only green and thriving forage plants are forage legumes like alfalfa, vetches, trefoil, sweet clover and sainfoin. Legumes have specialized roots that allow them to capture nitrogen from the air and convert it into plant protein. This improves soil fertility and forage and animal productivity. Their root systems can also extend very deep into the soil and allow them to access subsoil moisture that shallow-rooted plants can’t reach during times of drought. Canada’s forage researchers are working hard today to develop tomorrow’s forage varieties and management practices that will improve productivity, nutritional quality and resilience under challenging environmental conditions. Continue reading

Survey Says…?

This article written by Dr. Reynold Bergen, BCRC Science Director, originally appeared in the August 2021 issue of Canadian Cattlemen magazine and is reprinted on the BCRC Blog with permission of the publisher.
Canadian beef producer standing in pasture taking BCRC's online beef industry survey
In February’s column I encouraged you to fill out our online beef research survey to help the Beef Cattle Research Council and other industry and government funders develop a clear set of priorities to guide our funding decisions over the next five years. Thanks for responding – we had nearly twice as many responses this time as we got five years ago. The more responses we get, the more confidence we have in the feedback that comes in. Here are some of the highlights of what you told us.

What We Did:

The survey was open between January 5 and March 5, 2021. It asked you to rate a variety of research issues as Extremely, Very, Moderately, Slightly or Not Important in the areas of feed efficiency and utilization, forage and grassland productivity, environmental sustainability, animal health and welfare, beef quality and food safety. We also asked how often producers used different communication channels for production information and how influential they were in their decision making.

A total of 878 Canadians responded to the survey. This article focuses on the responses provided by the 65 seedstock, 497 cow-calf and 33 feedlot producers, as well as the 39 veterinarians (for the animal health and welfare section) and 26 non-governmental organization (NGO) representatives (for the environmental sustainability section). We paid particular attention to issues that were rated as Extremely or Very Important by 75% or more of respondents, as well as issues that were rated as Slightly or Not Important by 25% or more of respondents.

What We Learned:

Feed efficiency and utilization: Cow-calf and seedstock respondents prioritized differences in wintering costs between efficient and inefficient cows, while feedlot operators prioritized the impacts of feed quality and feedlot management practices on feed efficiency. Not surprisingly, feedlot operators rated barley and corn yields more highly than cow-calf or seedstock producers.

Continue reading

Underground Herbicides

This article written by Dr. Reynold Bergen, BCRC Science Director, originally appeared in the June 2021 issue of Canadian Cattlemen magazine and is reprinted on the BCRC Blog with permission of the publisher.

When I was a kid, my dad found Russian knapweed in a pasture along an irrigation canal. He explained that it was important to catch this weed quickly, because it can spread very aggressively. Russian knapweed reproduces using seeds as well as by buds growing from its roots (somewhat similar to the sod-forming grasses in last month’s column). But Russian knapweed roots also release a chemical that weakens other plants, like an underground herbicide. This superpower is called “allelopathy”, and helps knapweed establish itself and spread. His explanation was much more interesting than pulling out all the plants later that day.


Western wheatgrass

Weeds aren’t the only plants that can do this. While collecting field data for a project aimed at developing new tame and native varieties and mixtures, researchers at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Swift Current Research Station and the University of Saskatchewan noticed that there seemed to be fewer weeds in plots that contained western wheatgrass (on its own or in mixtures). This led them to conduct a greenhouse study to learn whether forage plants can also make their own herbicides. These results were published in 2017 (The potential of seven native North American forage species to suppress weeds through allelopathy; Canadian Journal of Plant Science https://cdnsciencepub.com/doi/10.1139/cjps-2016-0354).

What They Did: They seeded five native grasses (western wheatgrass, bluebunch wheatgrass, nodding brome, little bluestem and sideoats grama) and two native legumes (purple and white prairie clover) in individual pots. Each pot contained only one forage species. Continue reading

How Mother Nature Hedges Her Bets

This article written by Dr. Reynold Bergen, BCRC Science Director, originally appeared in the May 2021 issue of Canadian Cattlemen magazine and is reprinted on the BCRC Blog with permission of the publisher.

Pasture plants are generally classified as decreasers, increasers and invaders. Decreaser species are the plants you want to see and your cattle prefer to eat, so they face the most grazing pressure. Increaser plants tend to thrive when the decreaser species are challenged by overgrazing, drought or other sub-optimal conditions. Invaders (weeds) proliferate when increasers and the remaining decreasers are so weakened by overgrazing or environmental extremes that they have a hard time competing for nutrients, water and sunlight. 
cattle grazing on healthy, green pastures
Healthy, productive pastures are dominated by decreasers. The composition of the decreaser community in healthy native rangelands was shaped by thousands of years of natural selection and environmental pressures. In tame pastures, humans take the wheel from Mother Nature as we seek to establish and maintain a stand of tame decreaser species that can be productive and long-lived in our particular soil and climate conditions. In both native and tame pastures, good grazing managers adjust stocking densities, grazing intensities, grazing and rest period length and frequency, etc. based on annual and seasonal variations in growing conditions to maintain pasture health and optimize long-term forage and animal productivity. Continue reading

Waste Not Want Not

This article written by Dr. Reynold Bergen, BCRC Science Director, originally appeared in the April 2021 issue of Canadian Cattlemen magazine and is reprinted on the BCRC Blog with permission of the publisher.

When I was a kid, “no dessert if you don’t finish your supper” encouraged us to eat everything on our plates. Others grew up with the guilt-based “children are starving in the third world” approach. There are more than twice as many people on earth today as there were 40 years ago, so issues like food security and “food loss and waste” are gaining attention. Every year in Canada nearly a tonne of food is lost or wasted per person. The federal Food Waste Challenge is part of Canada’s commitment to the United Nations (UN) goal to reduce global food loss and waste by 50% by 2030.  Food waste is more than just the unidentifiable and vaguely menacing leftovers in the back of your fridge. In fact, food loss and waste are defined as any crop or livestock product that doesn’t directly reach a human mouth.

But some of this food loss and waste does reach human mouths indirectly, through livestock. As part of a Beef Cluster project, Dr. Kim Ominski and collaborators from the Universities of Manitoba and Lethbridge and Agriculture Canada are examining how livestock help reduce food loss and waste. Their first report “Utilization of by-products and food waste in livestock production systems: A Canadian Perspective” will be published in Animal Frontiers. Here are some of their key findings so far. Continue reading