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Don’t Feed Them to Breed Them

By   /  September 14, 2015  /  2 Comments

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A cow and calf in an ARS feed-restriction study on the Upper Lignite pasture at Miles City, Montana. Feed restriction may lower the costs of developing replacement heifers and extend their lifespan. Photo by Stephen Ausmus.

A cow and calf in an ARS feed-restriction study on the Upper Lignite pasture at Miles City, Montana. Feed restriction may lower the costs of developing replacement heifers and extend their lifespan. Photo by Stephen Ausmus.

Researchers at the USDA’s Agriculture Research Station are learning that feeding heifers more in their first year may not be the best way to get the best pregnancy rates or cattle performance.  According to scientist Andy Roberts, “For the last 3 to 4 decades, the mantra has been ‘feed them to breed them,’ which means providing enough feed during the first year to ensure that young heifers reach puberty to start reproducing. But our studies indicate this doesn’t seem to be optimal in the long run. Our research shows that by feeding to get all the animals bred, you are also propping up the inefficient animals—those that won’t consistently produce calves when put in nutrient-limited environments later in life.”

The researchers looked at two groups of heifers (50 percent Red Angus, 25 percent Charolais, and 25 percent Tarentaise) in two lifetime treatment groups. The control group was fed according to industry guidelines. The restricted group was fed  80% of the amount of feed consumed by animals in the control group (on a body weight basis) for 140 days, ending when they were a year old. From breeding through late fall, the heifers were managed as one group, and then during the winter they were separated back into their groups: control and restricted. Every winter, the heifers in the restricted group were fed 20% less supplemental feed than the control group.

At Miles City, Montana, animal scientist Andy Roberts identifies a calf in a study to reduce beef production cost prior to weaning. Photo by Stephen Ausmus

At Miles City, Montana, animal scientist Andy Roberts identifies a calf in a study to reduce beef production cost prior to weaning. Photo by Stephen Ausmus

The feed restricted heifers grew more slowly and weighed less, and their pregnancy rates were lower: 87 % compared to 91% for the controls. But feeding the restricted heifers cost less, and also improved their efficiency throughout the rest of their lives and the lives of their offspring. “An interesting thing occurred,” says Roberts. “The feed restriction seems to have made the second generation able to withstand restriction [of feed] with greater efficiency.” By the third generation of the project, calves from restricted-feed cows were lighter at birth and at weaning than calves from control cows. But their mothers themselves were slightly heavier when the calves were weaned.

“Physiologically, the second-generation restricted cow is conserving some of the nutrients taken in for body reserves, which may result in more efficient reproduction and better survivability in the herd,” explains Roberts. Cows maximum production peaks at age 5 (as measured by calf weaning weight). In this study, the proportion of cows that became pregnant, and thus stayed in the herd until age 5 was greatest for restricted cows out of restricted dams. In comparison, restricted cows from control-fed dams had the lowest rate of survival to age 5.

What Does This Mean For You?

Farm supervisor Benny Bryan (left) and geneticist Mike MacNeil load feed bins used to measure feed consumption for studies evaluating efficiency of weight gain in steers. Photo by Stephen Ausmus

Farm supervisor Benny Bryan (left) and geneticist Mike MacNeil load feed bins used to measure feed consumption for studies evaluating efficiency of weight gain in steers. Photo by Stephen Ausmus

This is good news for folks ranching and farming in areas where drought and other weather changes mean that forage for livestock isn’t always as dependable or plentiful as we’d like. By feeding less, you can save money and create a cow herd that is resilient and successful even when forage is limited. It also means that you can identify cows early that aren’t going to be successful in your operation. As Andrew Roberts says, “Early elimination of inefficient breeders allows them to be harvested for the high-quality meat market.”

This article was drawn from “Improving Production Efficiency” in the Agriculture Research Magazine.

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About the author

editor and contributor

Kathy worked with the Bureau of Land Management for 12 years before founding Livestock for Landscapes in 2004. Her twelve years at the agency allowed her to pursue her goal of helping communities find ways to live profitably AND sustainably in their environment. She has been researching and working with livestock as a land management tool for over a decade. When she's not helping farmers, ranchers and land managers on-site, she writes articles, and books, and edits videos to help others turn their livestock into landscape managers.

2 Comments

  1. Shar says:

    Any similar studies with breeding ewe lambs?

  2. Chip Hines says:

    Finally researchers are catching up with what astute ranchers have known for 20 years.

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