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Nutrition - Its Not Just for People!

“Nutrition” is a hot topic today – between labels, nutrition information and diets nutrition is always at the forefront of our minds.  But did you know that nutrition for livestock is just as important?  I had the opportunity to attend a conference held by Purina, an animal nutrition company, in July, and am very glad I was able to make the trip.  Most animal science majors have to take at least a basic nutrition class during their college career, and every cattle person has to have at least a basic knowledge of cattle nutrition to feed their livestock, so I have had at least some exposure to the topic.  However I will freely admit it has never been my favorite topic, and like most other fields of livestock production, the field of nutrition is ever changing and expanding.

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One of the topics that I found most interesting at the conference was the concept of all seasons nutrition.  For years it has been assumed that a cow’s body condition score (BSC) (how fat or thin she is), can fluctuate during the year – that it was okay for a cow to become thin while she is nursing and during early pregnancy as long as she “catches up” and is a BSC of 6 – 6.5 (which is considered ideal – not too thin and not too fat) when she calves.  However, studies have shown that cow and calf performance is much improved if her nutrition is maintained – meaning that she does not have to catch up. 

There are several reasons for this.  First, a cow who has maintained a steady plane of nutrition generally will have a better conception weight, and her calf has a better chance of having a higher weaning weight.  Why?  Because of a concept known as fetal programming.  It is well known that what a human mom does while she is pregnant will affect her baby at birth, but that concept has not been transferred over to cattle until more recently.  However it holds true for all mammals – lifetime performance for livestock, as well as humans, can be influenced by what happens to the fetus during pregnancy.  The maternal environment can have an impact on the expression of genes – it doesn’t change the animal’s actual genes, but it can change how they are expressed – both positively and negatively.  This impact varies based on the trimester, and the environmental conditions will impact not only mother and baby, but also the offspring that the baby will eventually have; in other words, the effect is generational.

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Traditionally for livestock, including cattle, the focus has been on the third trimester as it is when 75% of fetal growth occurs.  However, research has shown that the first and second trimesters are also important to fetal development and lifetime performance.  During the first trimester the placenta develops and limbs and organs are formed – a nutritional deficiency during this time could lead to loss of pregnancy or to deformities or a weak calf at birth.  During the second trimester, muscle tissue develops and organs grow – a lack of nutrition during this time frame could impact the overall health of the calf due to poor organ growth and could also have an impact on future weight gain and carcass traits.  Finally, in the third trimester the final development of the lungs occurs along with the majority of the fetal growth.  A lack of nutrition during this timeframe could cause respiratory health problems later in life and well as a smaller animal.

All of this taken together means that a cattle producer needs to be focused on the nutrition and body condition score of his cattle all year round.  The key is feeding the right feed at the right time to help the cow to maintain her nutrition while still being economically feasible for the farmer.  This is something that takes time and effort, but the long term effects on the cow herd can be significant.
 
Monday, August 08, 2016
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