There is no doubt that nutrition is one of the keys to health. A pregnant cow that receives proper nutrition mounts a stronger immune response in the face of disease challenge, gives birth to a stronger calf, produces a higher volume of quality colostrum, and rebreeds sooner compared to cows with poorer precalving nutrition.
A precalving ration adequate in energy, protein, vitamins and minerals – and that allows cows to calve in a body condition score  (BCS) of 5.5-6.0, and heifers in BCS 6.5-7.0 – gives you the best opportunity for such success.
With nutrition accounting for more than half the cost of keeping a cow, excellent nutrition must be balanced with low ration cost. Some feed costs have doubled over the last year; in areas of severe drought, the prices are even higher.
So, how do we provide that quality nutrition at a low price? The first step is to always maximize grazing.
If you have grass, that’s likely one of your most economical choices. Crop aftermath, such as corn residue, can be a tremendous source of low-cost nutrition.
Thirty years of research proves that soil compaction is negligible and subsequent yield is no different than on non-grazed fields. Any time a cow can graze and return nutrients to that same soil, that's a very low-cost ration, too.
The next step is to research by-product feeds close to your farm. In the Midwest, distillers grains, corn gluten and soy hulls are common. One year ago, these products were among the most cost-effective you could find. This year, they are significantly higher in price.
Low- to medium-quality hay is currently the lowest-cost source of energy behind corn residue in our area of the Midwest. To compare the costs of feedstuffs on an energy and protein basis, download my nutrient calculator at www.mwbeefcattle.com . Click on “spreadsheets.”
Even if hay is your most cost-effective feedstuff, never feed it free-choice. Purdue animal scientists recently measured the volume of hay a cow would eat in a given amount of time (Figure 1).
This intake data is important to know if you are feeding a by-product, because limiting the amount of hay is the key. If you have a total-mixed-ration (TMR) wagon, adding an exact amount of hay is no problem, but most herds don’t have a that. But, placing the hay in feeders on a hay pad with a hot wire around it works perfectly (See: j.mp/rCRaWU ). An intake of 10 lbs./day/cow means the cows get an hour access/day.
If only hay is fed, then the timing method can still be utilized. The same Purdue research chronicled hay disappearance (Figure 2).
The researchers concluded that cows with only 4-6 hours/day of access to hay will perform as well as cows with 24-hour access, while saving 20-37% on hay cost.
Providing excellent nutrition will make your cows productive; providing it at a low cost will make them profitable.
W. Mark Hilton, DVM, is a clinical associate professor of beef production medicine at Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN.