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Balancing Cattle Nutrition With Genetics Key To Ranch Success

Cow herds can excel with strong genetic selection and an excellent nutrition program.

June 1, 2013

6 Min Read
Balancing Cattle Nutrition With Genetics Key To Ranch Success

It’s been seen time and again. Cattle with the same genetics—the same strong EPDs (expected progeny differences)—performing well for one ranch, while performing off the charts for another.

What’s the difference?

The answer could lie in a combination of factors, primarily the joining of strong genetics with the nutrition of the herd. Yes, each is important. But the combination of both can help your clients increase returns, benefiting you both in the long run.

What can you, as a beef practitioner, do to help educate your clients on the importance of strong genetic selection and proper nutrition? It all comes down to an understanding and appreciation of each aspect in the equation.

N.T. Cosby, PhD, Purina Animal Nutrition Beef Cattle Nutritionist, says a strong nutrition program can drive performance in any cow herd.

“In herds that are attempting to optimize performance, nutrition is key,” he says. “It’s key to being able to achieve their performance goals and to continue to measure improvements in their genetic selections.”

Matt Spangler, PhD, University of Nebraska Associate Professor and Extension Beef Genetics Specialist, agrees that a strong nutrition program can increase the potential of any cow herd.

“Adequate nutrition allows animals to display their greatest potential,” he says. “Genetic potential and nutrition are additive, in the sense that if we’re able to provide nutritional benefits above and beyond what’s required for maintenance, and if the animals have the genetic potential to perform, we’ll be able to see the differences in phenotypic performance.”

Choosing genetics based on their environment can also help a producer get the most return for their investment.

Consider The Environment

We can’t predict the weather. But during years of drought, like last year, or in naturally dry locations with poorer grasses, a strong, well-thought-out nutrition program is even more essential for the brood cow.

“It’s important to keep the brood cow herd on a consistent plane of nutrition,” Cosby says. “If it’s a bred cow, she’s taking care of two calves. One by her side, and one gestating. We’ve found out that how we treat those cows during gestation can affect the progeny’s potential, both positively or negatively.”


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When this well planned nutrition program allows the cow herd to maintain a consistent body score between 5 and 6, and when this program is combined with strong genetic selection, performance increases manifest into increased profit.

“We can see dramatic, positive effects on progeny in this situation,” Cosby says. “With high performance genetics in place and excellent treatment of the dams before calving, a producer will see great results.”

But what exactly are those high performance genetics? And what should a cattleman focus on the most?

Embracing EPDs

When selecting cattle for ranches in less-than-ideal environments, Spangler says, several factors are of importance. The first factor to consider, he says, is mature size (weight).

“Several breeds have mature size EPDs, through which a producer can select for optimal mature size,” he says. “As you might expect, reducing mature size can reduce the maintenance energy requirements.”

Another possibly unexpected EPD to consider is maternal milk.

“Every breed has a published maternal milk EPD, which is the maternal component of weaning weight,” Spangler says. “We know when cows are in production or lactating, they are requiring more nutrients. While it may not be well understood by producers, if cows have the genetic propensity to milk heavily, they require more nutrition, even when they’re dry. This is due to larger visceral organ size.”

Therefore, Spangler says, it’s important for a producer to match the genetics to the environment.

“If a producer is in an environment with limited resources, it’s important for them to select for more moderate mature size and milk potential,” he says. “These two traits are key. Because when feed is limited, stress is high.”

Depending on the breed, additional EPDs and indexes may be available to assist producers in genetic selection, Spangler says.

“The Red Angus breed offers a maintenance energy EPD, which is measured in terms of mega calories per month of energy required for maintenance,” he says. “People who use Red Angus bulls can select for lower maintenance energy EPDs if feed costs in their cowherd are a concern. The Angus breed offers a suite of economic indexes, one of which is the Cow Energy Value, measured in savings per cow per year.”

Once the proper genetics for a location are chosen, it’s essential to focus on the nutrition of the whole herd, both on the ground and in the womb.

Knowing Nutrition

Cosby says sometimes producers and their practitioners focus on short-term economics of a nutrition program, overlooking the impacts of nutrition to gestating calves. Therefore, it’s critical for veterinarians to develop an understanding and work to educate their clients on the benefits.

“The cow carrying the calf can have an effect on the calf before it’s born,” he says. “If you’re fall calving in the Central Plains or Upper Midwest, you can see a tough body condition score of 4 or below in February or March. Their calf is probably being creep fed. In the period when the cow drops weight and before she gains rapidly when the grass comes on, next fall’s calf could be affected, which is part of the gestational nutrition theory.”

However, maintaining a 5 to 6 body condition score throughout the year can lead to greater reproductive performance.

“Calf production increases and feed supplement usage may be reduced because it takes more feed to get a cow back in shape than it does to maintain her,” he says.

A client’s success can often be tied back to one overlying theory: cooperation.

Working Together

Cosby says a nutritionist and veterinarian should develop a working relationship for their clients’ benefit, as well as their own.

“Nutritionists and veterinarians are interested in the long-term success of their clients,” Cosby says. “Having a working relationship could benefit all parties involved so the nutritionist can make a sound recommendation to help the health program, and so that the veterinarian is aware of the nutritional requirements that affect health.”

Spangler says a strong understanding of genetics is also important for a beef practitioner.

“The fact is, veterinarians become the on-site professional that deals with a wide array of questions regarding nutrition, genetics and management,” he says. “It’s important to have a strong, fundamental understanding of genetics. And it’s also important to realize when to turn to another source of information to fully and completely answer a client’s questions.”

He recommends the National Beef Cattle Education Consortium; the National Program for Genetic Improvement of Feed Efficiency in Beef Cattle; the University of Nebraska Beef Cattle Production; and other university experts for additional genetic advice and resources. 

“There is a lot of information to be gleaned,” Spangler says. “If your questions are more difficult than what can be found through these resources, you need to turn to someone who spends all of their time in that area.”

Often, Spangler says, problems within a herd are attributed to genetics. And sometimes, genetics isn’t the culprit.

“I think it’s important to take a systems approach to evaluating problems and to developing a true understanding of the situation,” he says. “Study the nutrition. Study the genetics. And put all of the pieces together.”

By understanding the equation and developing a mind-set of cooperation and mutual understanding, everyone benefits. It’s truly a winning equation.


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