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Herd health can be improved

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Herd health is important for maintaining healthy, productive cattle on an operation. Avoiding conception issues, poisonous plants and weight loss from parasites or poor pasture quality are all concerns in a forage program. 

 In the April 9 Ranchers Roundtable webinar, University of Kentucky Professor Emeritus Dr. Garry Lacefield, Southern Cross Farm’s Dr. Nancy Jackson and Corteva Agriscience’s Biology Leader for Pasture and Land Byron Sleugh explored the impacts of forage and pasture quality on beef herd health. 

Forage quality

When asked to describe quality forage, Lacefield, a forage Extension specialist, explains it’s not as simple as it sounds. The definition of quality forage depends on the production goals of the operation. 

Lacefield refers to quality forage as the factors of forages that permit a desired animal response.

Jackson, who has been a practicing large animal veterinarian for 28 years, adds that stage of production is also critical in determining what quality forage for a herd looks like. 

The protein and energy requirements change as livestock transition through different stages of life and production.

“The protein of the dam can impact the embryo’s ability to reproduce,” Jackson continues. “Forage quality is critical through the cow’s pregnancy, all the way through to when she is nursing and the calf is on the ground.”

“Palatability is just as important,” Sleugh includes. “Offering good quality forage in terms of an analysis that might come back from the lab is one thing.”

He continues, “Choice of forage sometimes can make a difference.” 

Herd health concerns

Poisonous plants are a detriment in pastures that can be avoided when greater forage choice is provided. 

“Cattle will eat a lot of things that are out there, that if they had a choice they probably would not,” says Sleugh.            

“It is really important to know what is in our pastures,” he notes. “Poisonous plants present cattle an opportunity to go graze, but have anti-quality effect that could be outright poisoning, or it might cause reduced intake.”

One of the other great concerns discussed during the webinar concerning pasture health and herd health was parasites. Managing the distribution of grazing and the distribution of manure in the pasture can reduce incidence of internal parasites, notes Sleugh.  

“If we are overgrazing a pasture, cows are forced to eat closer to their dung,” Jackson explains. “It’s an additive effect. The cows don’t have enough to eat, we’re forcing them to eat closer, then they are picking up a heavier parasite load.”

Weight loss and compromised immune systems are some consequences of parasites, Jackson describes. 

“Calves may get sick easier, they may get respiratory infections after we wean them,” she adds. “Grazing patterns will certainly help reduce parasite problems.”

Grazing alternatives

While Lacefield explains grazed pasture is usually the cheapest source of nutrients for ruminant animals, there are some years weather influences production and management decisions. 

As an example, Jackson recalls her personal operation didn’t see any precipitation from Aug. 11 until Oct. 6. 

Lacefield says his first choice when he runs out of pasture is hay. 

“Hopefully I’ve got a surplus production of hay,” he adds.  

“Poor-quality hay could potentially add more health problems,” Jackson explains. “The cows will be sticking their head to the center of the bale trying to find something that’s any good, and they will have irritation in their eyes from that.”

“Cows should act like we’re pouring out feed when we put hay out for them,” says Jackson. 

Grazing management includes planning. 

“We’re limited, so that’s where producers need to have a plan to either get into the hay earlier or stockpile feed,” Jackson says.

Lacefield shares, “People who have a good grazing management program don’t start suffering as early as those who are continually grazing.”

Improving grazing management

Lacefield believes most farmers and ranchers can make improvements in their grazing management. 

When asked for advice for producers, he shares, “If producers can utilize more of what they produce, use it in a higher-quality stage and use it over more days of the year, they can be more successful.” 

“If they can do all three of those it’s great. If they can do one of them, it’s usually a money making proposition,” he includes. 

“What we take home at the end of the day is based on management decisions we made along the way,” Sleugh notes. 

Jackson adds, “Manage the grass. Manage the farm. We will have less problems and more productive animals.”

            Averi Reynolds is the editor for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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