Monitoring Nutrient Status of Cows

Managing cows through the winter provides different challenges compared to managing those same cows during the growing season. With snow cover across most of South Dakota, cows should oftentimes receive supplemental feed to meet their nutrient requirements during late gestation and into calving season because forage available for grazing is limited. Supplemental feeds can range from hay, to cake, to distillers grains, or lick barrels. However, how can one be sure their needs are being met?
There are two simple tools producers should use on a regular basis to ensure the cow’s nutrient requirements are being met. The first is to monitor body condition score and the second is to monitor manure consistency.
Monitoring Body Condition
By monitoring body condition scores (BCS) on a regular basis you are evaluating trends in nutritional status through time, and can make appropriate management decisions. The most important question to ask is, “What condition are my cows in, and are they gaining, maintaining or losing condition?” The goal is to have cows in a BCS of 5 at calving on a 1-9 scale. A cow with a BCS of 5 is described as one whose “overall appearance is generally good”. Fat cover over the ribs feels spongy. Palpable fat cover is present on either side of the tail head. Supplemental feeds need to be added to the nutrition program if cows are losing condition and will drop below a BCS of 5 before calving. For more information on BCS, see Basics of Body Condition Scoring. If the cows are in adequate condition (BCS 5) and maintaining, no immediate changes are likely needed. However, if cows are in poor condition (BCS less than 5) or losing condition, management changes need to be made immediately. If the cows are in BCS greater than 5, the nutrition program is more than adequate, but one may need to evaluate the feed costs associated with this excess condition.
Manure Consitency
Manure consistency can serve as an indicator of forage quality and animal performance. The primary question this indicator can help answer is, “Do the cows need a protein supplement? If they are receiving a protein supplement, is it enough?” The pictures below show manure from animals that have excess protein (Figure 1), sufficient protein (Figure 2), and deficient in protein (Figure 3) in their diet.
Excess Protein
Manure patties similar to Figure 1 indicate a diet with crude protein greater than 10%. The center of the patty has a crater-like appearance. If there are small folds present around the edges of the patty, the crude protein content will be in the 10-13% range. No additional supplementation is needed for mature cows with manure of this consistency.
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