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UNL staff address the importance of nutrients during breeding season

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Dry conditions in many Western states are resulting in decreased forage quality, which can be detrimental to reproductive rates, especially in young females. It’s crucial these cows are provided with adequate nutrition, especially prior to and throughout the breeding season when the cows are under added stress and demand.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) BeefWatch podcast welcomed UNL Cow/Calf Specialist Kacie McCarthy and UNL Beef Cattle Nutritionist Travis Mulliniks on July 1 to discuss how producers can strategically manage their herd in order to supply nutrients needed during breeding season.

forage dynamics

Mulliniks advises producers to consider the quality of their forage and feed, which he says many producers often struggle with. 

“Sometimes it fools producers pretty good and they think their forage is much higher quality than it truly is,” he says. “These producers are ultimately feeding a low quality version which will drive a negative response in performances.”

Mulliniks says the period around rebreeding and calving season is a critical timeframe for producers to provide the highest quality forage.

“Think about the critical time point of increasing requirements for lactation and supporting the calf growth,” he says.

After identifying the quality of forage the cows are consuming, producers must build off of this information and develop a management plan, he adds. He says the vast majority of forages are headed downhill quickly in terms of quality after July 1.

“Understanding where we are going from here is important,” Mulliniks says. “We know where our quality forages will be headed from then on.” 

Monitoring body condition

It is not only important for producers to consider forage quality, they should also measure and record the cow’s body condition score (BCS), notes Mulliniks.

“Understand, BCS can have a positive or negative impact on performance,” he says. “This is especially true if  cows are over conditioned going into these seasons where they are starting to consume a lot of low quality forage and they’re losing more body weight to offset the lack of nutrients or lack of energy in the diet. This can have a negative response on reproductive performance.”

It is important producers ensure their cows are gaining body weight throughout the breeding season, Mulliniks says.

“No matter what a producer’s plan is, the big deal is gaining, or at least maintaining, body weight as soon as possible after calving and through the breeding season,” he says.

He notes it’s common for cows in good condition to hit a drought period where forage quality plummets and cows start losing a lot of body weight. 

“Cows may lose pregnancies because they’re losing body weight,” he says. “The brain sends signals to the body saying there isn’t enough nutrients, so reproductive processes are shut off.” 

Managing high risk cows

McCarthy says producers have an opportunity to strategically manage the diet of younger cows or older cows which may require extra nutrients throughout the breeding season. 

Producers should be “strategic in placing those cows in a different pasture, or an area where producers can be strategic with targeted supplementation,” she says. “Think about the management of different groups of females to be really specific and targeted for body growth, and ultimately trying to target increases in reproductive performance.”

Identifying high risk female groups – females not meeting their protein requirements – is crucial. Mulliniks says the higher risk cows will often be the two- and three-year-old cows. 

“Those are cows still growing,” he says. “They’re lactating for the first or second time, and that’s a huge challenge for them.”

Mulliniks says it’s difficult for these cows to recover after calving and start cycling again in a timely fashion to get pregnant within a defined breeding season. This is especially difficult during a drought where forage quality is lower than usual.

“Make sure producers are managing those cows differently than the rest of the cowherd,” he says. “I always recommend, even in a good year, producers manage two- and three-year-old cows separately from mature cows if possible.”

“Managed together, there will be lower pregnancy rates in the group than if they were managed separately,” he continues. “This is important especially in years where nutrient quality is lower.”

Early weaning

Early weaning often offers positive benefits when managing the two- and three-year-old cows, notes McCarthy. With early weaning, producers reduce lactational demand while also reducing some of the forage consumption as well. 

“Producers are changing the forage intake, and ultimately this is an offset because they are reducing those lactational demands,” she says. “Producers can really gain in terms of forage conserved when they start removing the calf from lactational demands and weaning the calf early.”

She notes, early weaning allows the two- and three-year-old cows to focus on getting pregnant instead of focusing on the additional lactation demands. 

Producers run into scenarios where there’s limited forage and it brings on a huge challenge from a production standpoint, says Mulliniks. Early weaning can help producers cut back on the amount of forage being consumed.

“If producers get the calf off the cow and decrease lactation requirements, that’s about 10 pounds of forage saved per day result,” he says. 

Kaitlyn Root is an editor for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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