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Building herd resilience: Role of nutrition in herd resilience to disease and disaster explained

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Cooler temperatures and expected precipitation during weaning, shipping and pregnancy checking is a yearly reminder for producers of the quickly approaching winter months. Nutrition during these months has the ability to impact herd health in terms of calving, passive transfer for immunity and total productivity of calves.  

This fall, Ward Laboratories is hosting a four-part webinar series for producers called Producing Robust Livestock Through Nutrition, Genetic and Soil Health Management. 

The first webinar features Veterinary Epidemiologist Dr. Brian Vander Ley from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Great Plains Veterinary Education Center. Vander Ley has focused his career on improving cattle health and performance by understanding and eliminating disease through nutrition. 

Vander Ley says the need for building resilience in cow/calf systems is evident, as cow/calf producers generally operate “close to the edge” with slim margins. Operating close to the edge means a slip up could leave management open to catastrophic losses.  

“My definition of resilience is being able to take a hit and stay in business,” says Vander Ley. “Sometimes producers try to cut their operating costs in different places, which nutrition often falls into. Strategic feeding has the ability to add some insurance.” 

Consequences of thin cows

The consequences of cows with a body condition score (BCS) of four or less have the ability to affect the herd in the long run. Vander Ley explains producers can expect issues with cow fertility and in the long run, producers could expect changes in the function of the herd in totality. 

In the short term, thin cows tend to have two problems, according to Vander Ley.  

“First, thin cows tend to have more trouble calving and more instances of dystocia,” he notes. “Secondly, phase two of labor tends to be longer in cows with a BCS of four or less, and prolonged calving results in weak calves.” 

Vander Ley explains calves spending too much time in the calving process tend to build up lactic acid from spending too much time with low oxygen levels. When calves are born weak, they have a very high likelihood of not getting up to get good colostrum. 

“The outcome of calves not consuming colostrum for passive transfer increases calf illness and calf death in the short term,” shares Vander Ley. “We have also seen decreased lifetime productivity in calves that did not receive adequate colostrum.” 

The mid-term consequence of cow condition loss prior to calving is hard to make up, says Vander Ley. 

“Thin cows tend to experience a delayed return to estrus,” he notes. “Instead of 30 to 60 days, cows could wait to return to estrus until they have achieved a higher body condition.” 

Vander Ley says this could result in more open cows and a potential shift in breeding distribution, which overtime worsens in the long run. As cows struggle to return to estrus, the breeding season is pushed back and herd fertility decreases. 

“There is research showing heifers born in the first 21 days of the breeding season are more likely to remain in the herd as productive cows,” he shares. “Winter nutrition plays a role in shifting the cowherd to a less fertile state by not giving cows the time they need to return to estrus.” 

Vicious cycles

“A vicious cycle that often plays a role in the Northern Great Plains where we have severe winters is having too little body cover on our cows,” Vander Ley states. “As cows lose insulating fat, they shiver and their maintenance requirements increase, which makes their already inadequate diet even more inadequate.” 

It doesn’t take much in winter months to get an animal from a BCS of four to a three when forage quality is low and weather is cold, as it does to get them to gain from a BCS of four to a five or six, he explains. 

“Another vicious cycle is as cows lose condition and go through prolonged calving, calves will be more likely to succumb to hypothermia,” says Vander Ley. “Colostrum is really important to help maintain thermal status.” 

Financial pressure

“The perspective I’ve seen is as producers start to feel financial pressure, they increase efforts to control costs,” Vander Ley notes. “Several notable cases where people get into significant trouble with thin cows is when nutrition was used as the place to control costs. Overtime, the herd experiences a gradual erosion of resilience.” 

Vander Ley explains the ability of the cowherd or of individual cows to cope with extra cold winters, wet spells and other adverse weather conditions add to producer financial pressure. 

“This too is a vicious cycle where every effort to control costs makes it more and more difficult to maintain the market,” he shares. 

Contingency planning

The first level of Vander Ley’s advice for building resiliency in a cow/calf operation is to form a contingency plan. 

“It only costs time to think about possibilities if our first plan doesn’t go accordingly,” he notes. “Building a contingency plan allows for resilience to be built into the system because we have already thought about a plan B.” 

The second level is to build reserves, which Vander Ley explains as leaving grass in the pasture and money in the bank. The last and most difficult level is to enhance diversity. Although cow/calf producers specialize in order to become efficient at one thing, diversity is a safety net. 

Vander Ley’s contingency planning comes into play when producers are facing questions such as the costs of a sick calf or an open cow. 

“The short-term fix of buying insurance by feeding to a body condition score can get us into trouble if we pay more attention to that rather than on the long-term fix, which is to get rid of the risk,” he explains. “It is better to not be at risk than it is to cover it.” 

Building resiliency

Vander Ley recommends body condition scoring and weighing individual cows if possible. BCS is preferred, because a BCS gives producers an idea of how prepared cows are to handle adverse conditions. He also recommends selecting cows to fit environments, knowing quality of feed and knowing how to match contingency plans to production plans. 

“Select for cows that put on an adequate BCS, and fit them to the environment they are asked to be productive in,” he states. “If we feed a lot, it can give cows that can’t handle the environment a crutch, and overtime, we continue to select for cows that are good at using feed resources. This is how we get really high input agriculture that doesn’t pay back.” 

Feeding from a position of knowledge provides producers relatively inexpensive information on nutritional value and where feed might come up inadequate. 

“It is important to know our feed and dangerous to assume forage quality,” Vander Ley notes. “Sometimes it is not a lack of feed getting cows in trouble, but the lack of nutrients in the feed.” 

“There are a lot of best management practice mentalities, but my experience is each operation has a different system,” he continues. “Often, expense comes from overfeeding something that doesn’t meet the system or fails to meet the needs of the system, which is an even greater expense.” 

Vander Ley explains building resiliency in agricultural systems with contingency plans can help producers avoid issues with cow fertility, calf health and cowherd function. 

“My entire point is summed up with the idea that while we need to maintain margins to stay in business, we need to be thinking about how the unintended consequences of where we as producers might choose to make cuts and how those impact the health and productivity of our cowherd in the long haul,” Vander Ley concludes. 

Averi Hales is the editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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