Nutritional Management: Purebred vs. Commercial Cattle

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In the beef cattle industry, there has been discussion in many shapes and forms concerning feeding and nutrition of purebred cattle. Often the perception by purebred breeders is that purebred cattle (PB) have somewhat different nutrient requirements than commercial (COM) cattle. This may be true in some respects but possibly not for the reasons producers suspect. This article will discuss some of these perceptions.

 

Points to Consider – Similarities/Differences

Let’s start this discussion by reviewing some facts, beliefs and perceptions that are common in the industry.

1) In general, individual purebred cattle operations are smaller than commercial operations. This is not hard to understand since purebred animals command a higher price in the market as related to their genetic background and the perceived value of the animal. But remember, just because an animal has a pedigree and a piece of paper to show for it this does not mean it is truly more valuable in the marketplace.

2) Overall, a significant difference exists in the marketing objectives between PB and COM operations. Purebred operations are in business to sell genetics – sales of breeding animals, male and female. In most PB operations a certain number of PB animals may be sold in to the commercial market but these may be cows and heifers that don’t make the grade to remain in the purebred herd. Commercial operations are in business to produce lbs. of beef. This is not completely true since there is a significant business in the commercial industry for producing commercial replacement females and thus there are some similarities to the PB sector.

3) Much of how we manage (including nutritional management) is related to the overall marketing of the herd or the individual animal. Again, in general, operations producing purebred animals keep many if not all of the herd in better body condition (fatter), than animals in a commercial herd purely for perception or cosmetic purposes (remember, regardless of what we talk about in the industry – fat sells). Sometimes this is true to their detriment. Overly fat cattle have been shown repeatedly to not breed as efficiently, to not milk as well. It is also very expensive to feed and maintain cattle to these levels of body condition. We normally assume the typical cow will breed best at a body condition score (BCS) of 5 to 6. On many purebred operations you will find a BCS of 7-8 (often higher), especially if cattle are in an artificial insemination (AI) or embryo transfer (ET) program. Remember that, depending on the frame size of the cow, there is about 100 lbs difference between condition scores. This means that a cow with a BCS of 7 is ~ 100 lbs heavier than a BCS of 6. It costs significantly more to get that cow to 7 and keep her there.

4) As mentioned, in many cases, ET and AI cows (especially donors) are maintained at a higher than optimal BCS. The thought here is that the breeder wants to be absolutely sure that the cow is not shorted on any nutrient that might potentially hold back ovulation or breeding. The problem with this is that in many cases, as mentioned, the female is overly fat and the reproductive system does not perform well in this condition. Additionally, by essentially overfeeding many/most nutrients the ratio of one nutrient to another is thrown off. This can be true in terms of protein to energy ratios or more commonly, between the various minerals. This can be particularly detrimental to reproductive performance. It ALWAYS makes sense to provide a BALANCED nutrition program from a performance and economic standpoint.

5) Purebred operations, and again, more commonly those operations utilizing AI or ET seem to be a little more susceptible to the sales and marketing of “additives” that are sold with the intent of improving or enhancing performance (generally reproductive). ALL operations should give very careful to consideration to inputs of this nature in an effort to keep all costs in check. Specialty inputs should only be used when there is sound science backing up their use or appropriate evaluations have been performed to insure efficacy.

6) Creep feeding is a management tool that can be used effectively in both PB or COM programs, especially now with markets being what they are. Creep feeding has historically been used more commonly in PB operations in an effort to maximize genetic expression. This can affect individual EPD numbers (i.e. weaning weight) as well which is beneficial to the PB operation. In COM operations, creep feeding also results in heavier weaning weights which is of economic benefit to the COM producer who is looking for more lbs. to sell at weaning (if this is his marketing program). This is also dependent on feed and grain costs and cattle markets (excessively fat cattle sold into grazing or feedyard operations are often discounted).

There are any number of other differences and similarities that exist between COM and PB operations but from here let’s focus on some basics.

 

Forage Based Programs

With few if any exceptions both PB and COM cattle breeding operations are based on the forage production of the farm/ranch. This means that the majority of the nutrients the animal needs are derived from the grass, hay or silage they will receive. Only under unique circumstances will forages not make up the bulk of the cow’s diet. These might include drought circumstances when forage is in very short supply, bought forage is expensive as are grains and supplements.

As such it is very important to know the nutrient levels of the forages the cattle are currently consuming. This includes basic nutrients like protein, energy, fiber components and minerals. This means planned, strategic forage sampling of pastures, hays and any other roughage component that makes up a significant part of the animal’s diet.
By knowing what the nutrient levels in the base forages, supplementation can be appropriately planned. In either a PB or COM operation this is critically important. Under supplementing means cattle will not be receiving the necessary levels of nutrients and will thus be shorting one or more of their physiological systems. One key point for all breeding operations to remember when it comes to nutrition: Nutrient use is prioritized, meaning that nutrients, especially if they are in short supply, will be directed to critical systems (necessary for survival) in the animal’s body first. Less critical systems such as reproduction, milk production growth will be shorted first, even shut down completely.

The other side of the coin is over-supplementing. This can be a problem physiologically since overfeeding can create excessive body condition (fat) or nutrient imbalances as discussed previously. Probably the more obvious problem is economic. Provision of excessive supplemental nutrients is expensive and eats away profits. All this said the forage base and supplements must be properly matched.

The most challenging time frame for monitoring forage nutrients is in spring and summer when forages are growing and nutrient levels change. A sample of forage taken in a given pasture in April would be significantly different by June. This is especially true if rainfall is short. This illustrates the importance of regularly scheduled forage testing.
As hay is being put up, this problem is actually simplified since hay can be sampled in batches as it comes off given fields/meadows, stored in such a manner that the producer knows the general analysis of a given lot of hay and which hay should be fed to which groups of cattle (i.e. better quality hay fed to heifers, 3rd trimester cows and newly calved cows. If hays are sampled as they are harvested, the producer can subsequently plan his supplementation for the coming months based on what hay he will feed when and to which groups of cows, thus keeping his supplementation at appropriate levels and giving him time to make good buying decisions.


Supplements

When balancing the forage program to a specific operation type a number of factors have to be considered. For the PB operation, one is breed or breed type. Based on years of research we know that Simmental, Charolais, Limousin, etc. (European breeds) have a higher general nutrient demand than the English breeds (Angus, Hereford, Shorthorn). Much of this was thought to be related to frame size. Typically, the European breeds have been believed to posses a larger frame and overall body size than the English breeds. This may not be as true as it once was, many English breeds have been selected for larger and larger frame sizes until they rival some of the European breeds. While some nutrient requirement differences may still exist between the breed types, this may be more related to the genetic base than simply to frame/body size.
Commercial herds utilizing well planned cross breeding systems can take advantage of the hybrid vigor this affords and the resulting improvement in overall efficiency. This may be particularly true in programs producing or utilizing F-1 crosses (i.e. Brahman X Hereford, etc.) where the benefit produced by the breed cross can be of significant value economically related to the improved efficiency. More specifically, in some herds nutrient demands may not be as high.

Again, in both COM and PB operations, supplementation can be critical especially if nutrient levels in forages are inadequate to meet requirements. It is feasible, depending on the forage management program to never need to supplement protein since the protein requirements of a mature cow are reasonably low. If protein is necessary, a variety of sources are available in a variety of forms which should meet the logistical needs of the producer. This is generally related to labor availability, equipment resources and so on. There is also a fairly wide range in cost of different sources so again regardless of operation type this must be closely evaluated.
Generally, at some point in the production year, energy will need to be supplemented; this is especially true with growing heifers, newly calved heifers, newly calved cows. Depending on production cycle (spring calving, fall calving, year-round calving) energy may also be required for cows nursing large calves. In these situations however, use of a creep feeding program might be warranted to reduce the demand on the cow by her large calf. A final option is a combination of creep feeding and added supplementation for the cow. Again, the options have to be carefully evaluated to determine which is most cost and performance effective.
Mineral supplements can be the most critical component of the nutrition program and are the most commonly miss-developed of all the various nutrient classes. One reason for this is that even after all these years, mineral supplementation is still somewhat poorly understood – especially trace minerals.
Again, knowing forage mineral levels is very important. Also, if other supplements are fed, knowing the mineral component of these is also important. Many operations, again, these are generally PB, will provide mineral levels from their protein and/or energy supplement as well as their mineral supplement. The intention is for the redundancy to “cover the bases.”
Unfortunately, in many cases this double or even triple feeding can create significant problems with one or more minerals which can show up as breeding problems, herd health issues or even specific disease conditions related to mineral deficiency (caused by an antagonism) or excess. Every operation can benefit from a “mineral audit” that accounts for all sources of mineral on the farm or ranch – including water.
One important factor to consider when evaluating the mineral component of the nutrition program is to recognize that digestibility and absorption are variable and in the cases of several of the trace minerals, very low. This is why the producer has to consider what the mineral needs of the animal or herd are, what sources are available (mineral availability from fresh forage is higher than from dormant forages, especially those that may have been harvested at an overly mature stage.
Finally, there are numerous sources of minerals available to be used in a supplementation program. It is a good idea to consult a nutritionist for help in designing a mineral until the producer becomes more accustomed and experienced with this “exercise.”

 

Conclusions

In the big picture of things, very few differences exist between purebred and commercial cattle operations. However, the differences that are there, whether related to true animal physiology or to the perceptions and goals of the breeder, are important to recognize and implement properly. Forage testing should become a standard for ALL operations as well as ongoing evaluations of current nutrition programs and the components. Probably the one big hazard many PB producers face is the tendency to overfeed. Remember this is expensive and can be detrimental to performance. As stated before – a well balanced program is ALWAYS to your advantage. And whether producing genetics or lbs of beef, properly balancing your program will improve the performance and economics of both.

 

This article was originally published in the Brahman Journal.

 
Author/s
Steve Blezinger, Ph.D., PAS is a management and nutritional consultant with an office in Sulphur Springs, TX.
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