The Nutritional Philosophy of Beef Cows

Did the Great Philosophers Learn from Beef Cows?

Sometimes nutritionists disagree. Most of the time when producers observe such a disagreement they ask, "How can that possibly be?". In a discipline filled with tables such as those produced by the National research Council (NRC) and good peer-reviewed research, this seems crazy. But it's not! Recently, I have been trying to identify the philosophies that have guided my perspective on all things nutritional. I feel my thinking has been influenced by my repeated circling back to the concepts of simplification, reducing over-formulation, strategic over-formulation, ration grouping strategies, and the fact that the beef cow is a great biological buffer. And I also believe discussing a nutritionist's guiding perspectives alone can be helpful, and tell you as much about nutrition as about the nutritionist.


Image of a standing cow with gears replacing internal organs.

Figure 1. The beef cow is not a machine, she is a biologic organism with a large capacity to buffer environmental impacts.

Five Powerful Perspectives

Simplify, simplify, simplify! - Dr. Joe Rook served for many years as the Extension Ruminant Veterinarian at Michigan State University (MSU). His consistent advice to producers was to "simplify". It is often pointed out that feed represents a large part of the beef cost of production (COP). However, in an industry that rarely talks about return to labour or return on management, labour costs are actually huge too. 'Simplifying' means to critically evaluate management practices to reduce unnecessary busyness and complexity on a farm. Dr. Rook's approach struck a chord with me. Some examples I have advocated:

  • Rather than using routine selenium injections at birth, just make sure the routine mineral program is high enough in selenium (and other minerals). Minerals are being fed in one way or another, and doing this supplementation right reduces the need for this other job at a stressful time.
  • Group animals by nutritional need rather than other descriptors such as age, breed, species, stage of production etc., in order to reduce animal management groups. (More on ration grouping later.)

Reduce over-formulation - As mentioned previously, we nutritionists hold many tables and data 'near and dear' whether on paper or electronically in ration software. The goal of nutrition is to match nutrients offered (and consumed) to the animal's requirements. A key detail often overlooked is that nutrition is applied to a biological system, and is a dose-response relationship, rather than one defined by rigid requirements!

An approach that was long used and still used by some is intentional over-formulation to ensure all nutrients were exceeded; "the more, the better" or a saturation approach. In fact, much of this mentality is enshrined in federal regulations. This approach however, comes with financial (nutrient cost) and environmental downsides (nitrogen and phosphorus output in particular); even if performance improves, it will on a curve of diminishing return. For these reasons I have spent much of my career working on initiatives to help better balance nutrient intake and requirements to avoid excess nutrient intake, especially excess protein and phosphorus.

Strategic over-formulation - It has been pointed out that if you have 2 nutritionists in a room, you have 3 differing opinions; so here's a contribution! I am promptly going to disagree with my last section, or so it may seem. There will be times where a ration can be over-formulated for reasons that have nothing to do with requirements, or the diminishing (flattened) part of the curve - but this needs to be strategic!

Here are a few examples:

  • When a particular ingredient is so inexpensive relative to other feeds we embrace the issues of oversupply of a particular nutrient for the greater good. Good pastures may fall into this category, as did dry distillers grain (DDGS) a few years ago. With DDGS we just managed the downside of excess protein, phosphorus and sometimes sulphur to harness the economic value. But, when that ingredient price changes, we need to move back into balance, which so often does not happen when people achieve a 'recipe' for performance success.
  • In an attempt to simplify, we may use the same ration (and pasture counts as a ration) for two management groups. The ration may indeed be over-formulated for one group, but the net value of simplifying outweighs the downside of over-formulating for the other group

Grouping rations - this philosophy relates to the three presented so far, but especially to simplify. The approach can be used on pasture or for TMR rations with success. Again, the point here is to avoid unnecessary management groups on pasture, or unnecessary trips with the mixer (or other stored feeds) in confinement. The dairy industry did a great job of this a decade or so ago after it first embraced TMR feeding. One often heard discussions about 'high' and 'low' and 'dry' group rations. Many have likely gone too far from this and have now simplified too much to the detriment of the cows. The key in this type of grouping is identifying groups with similar needs on paper and managing by body condition score (BCS) and rates of gain, versus the ration specifications per se . In other words, this is based on animal husbandry, not blind adherence to tables and formulations, and the willingness to re-group as needed.

For example:

  • Thin mature cows and growing heifers (first and second calvers) might form a group, and mature cows in BCS 3.0 or higher another one for winter feeding
  • Grazing together May-calved lactating cows, their calves and growing heifers (everything but the bulls) in late spring and early summer.
  • Keeping in mind I am a beef and sheep nutritionist, I have advocated on several combined beef and sheep operations that rams and bulls can be fed/grazed together. Breeding females of both species too. Imagine that, big and little ruminants getting along! Don't allow species to limit your thinking.

Herd of standing beef cows on pasture.

Figure 2. Pasture is an excellent example of simplicity in beef production .

Beef Cow = Buffer - Likely one of the most profound assets the beef industry has going for it is the ability of the mature cow to withstand a wide variety of conditions, feeds, climates, production systems and managers. She is the finest buffer in agriculture! This buffering capacity can be used to mitigate not only climate and management, but also nutrition. That way the nutrition program can be stair-stepped, rather than needing to match an infinitely complicated curve. She can use body reserves to address short-term challenges in each energy, protein and minerals which are reflected in BCS, muscling and bone/tissue/plasma mineral fluxes respectively. Provided she is healthy, the beef cow never needs a perfect ration. She will build and use body fat, protein and minerals as needed.

Philosophy and Beef Cow Nutrition

The concepts of simplifying, reducing over-formulation, strategic over-formulation, ration grouping and the buffering ability of the beef cow have shaped all my technical thinking on ruminant nutrition. They guide me in the projects I take on, the advice I give and why I see the beef cow and beef industry as special. Used in combination and with good judgment, the idea is that these 5 philosophies can improve the life and profitability of the farmer, and enhance the well-being of the beef herd. It's okay to let farming and philosophy mix and allow differing perspectives to mingle in finding the best solution for you!

1 lively but meaningless activity

2 in itself

3 to lessen in force or intensity; to make less severe

4 William of Ockham (1287-1347, an English Franciscan friar, scholastic philosopher and theologian) stated in his principle of economy "Frustra fit per plura quod potest fieri per paucior" or "It is futile to do with more things that which can be done with fewer". Pasture is an excellent example of this in beef production, and it meets the 'simplify' test when done correctly.


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