De-Coding the Code, Chapter 2 Feed and Water

The new Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Beef Cattle was released in the fall of 2013. This is the industry's statement on how it collectively thinks cattle should be raised and handled. So if you are part of the industry, this is YOUR document and you should know what is in it. Get over the fact that it is 60 pages long. Only the first half is the actual code, and that is laid out with a lot of space to make it easy to read. The second half contains references, a glossary, contacts and extension information.

When we break the Code down chapter by chapter, and work through it that way, it gets much easier to understand and put it into practice. It is not prescriptive about HOW we get to an outcome, but that we DO get there.

Requirements that producers need to provide are highlighted in a yellow box for quick and easy reading. This is followed by some recommendations that almost always would be part of a Best Management Practices system (BMP's) for raising beef.

Chapter 1 has been reviewed in a previous edition of OMAFRA Virtual Beef

Chapter 2 is about Feed and Water.
The desired outcome is that cattle are in optimum health and body condition. So in the case of feed, the producer requirements are…


Monitor cattle behaviour, performance, body condition score and health on an ongoing basis and adjust the feeding program accordingly.

Ensure cattle have access to feed of adequate quality and quantities to fulfill their nutritional needs at all times, and maintain proper body condition, taking into account factors such as: age, frame size, reproductive status, health status, level of production, competition and weather.

Take prompt corrective action to improve the body condition score of cattle with a score of 2 or less (out of 5).

Take steps to prevent exposure of cattle to toxins (such as lead batteries, fertilizer, treated seed, antifreeze, nitrates) and to avoid feed with adverse physical qualities that could cause injury or limit intake.

So that is easy to understand, and makes sense if our goal is to have productive cattle that we are hoping to make a profit from. It goes back to the old adage "you can't starve profit out of a cattle beast".

Portable blue water tank.

Figure 1. "Access to palatable water of adequate quantity and quality …"
Water pumped from a natural water source to a large tank - this keeps the water clean and the cattle out of the mud.

The only new requirement in there, is really to take a look at the body condition score (BCS) of your cattle and act if it is less than 2. If you are not familiar with BCS, then in the back of the code on pages 42-44 there are examples with good instructions and illustrations. This is working from the Canadian BCS system which runs from a score of 1-5. In this system 1 would be a bone rack and the 5 would be a blimp. Producers can all get barn-blind or herd-blind so it might be a good option to have a couple of people score the cattle and take an average, or get an outside opinion.
In an ideal world the cattle would all run about a 3, however we know cows will vary through the year depending on their pregnancy state and production level. It is probably desirable to have her gain weight after weaning and then milk some of it off her back in early lactation. If asked or challenged the trick would be for many producers to prove that they do Body Condition Scoring and take action based on the results. Many producers make a mental note, but the problem is getting it to flow down your arm and out your fingers in a notation in a book, or typed into a smart phone. The solution to that is to create a record a few times a year. Include the date, cow #'s and their condition, and if you regrouped the herd or changed the ration make sure that is recorded too. Most producers would do scoring at 2-3 months pre-calving, then 1 month pre-breeding and again after weaning.

Beef cows on pasture in winter.

Figure 2. Winter conditions where beef cows have lots of hay rolled out to reduce competition for smaller cattle.

Stopping the exposure to toxins also makes total sense. No one sets out to get cattle poisoned. Exposure is usually the result of an accident -the cattle got out or are at a new pasture. Although it takes time, the cure for that is still checking fences, latches on gates and walking new or unfamiliar pastures.
The recommended practices also touch on feed testing, using a nutritionist, good feed storage, regional mineral deficiencies, no quick ration changes and extra bunk space for less competitive cattle. These all fit into Best Management Practices (BMP's) for cattle if the producer is looking for profit.

Water is the other half of this chapter. Requirements for producers are…

Ensure that cattle have access to palatable water of adequate quality and quantity to fulfill
their physiological needs. Monitor water sources, feeding habits, behaviour, performance
and health on an ongoing basis and be prepared to adjust the watering program accordingly.

Snow may only be used as a sole winter water source providing it is of sufficient quantity
and quality to meet the animals' physiological requirements.
Snow must not be used as a sole water source for the following cattle:

  • lactating, or
  • newly-weaned, or
  • that have a body condition score of less than 2.5 out of 5, or
  • that don't have access to optimal feed resources.

Only adequate quantities of clean, loose snow may serve as the sole water source. Monitor
snow conditions on an ongoing basis.
Have a back-up water source in the event of insufficient loose snow or an interruption in
water supply.

The code is not prescribing how your cattle are watered or by what source, but it is simply stating that you need to be aware of your cattle's drinking behaviour and provide "good" water in adequate amounts for all.
Using snow for a water source actually is referring to western operations, but can also be common in Northern Ontario and other regions with consistent snow fall and cover. It does require them to have lots of loose fluffy snow and can't be used if the cattle have any extra demands on them. Even then producers will need to have a back-up plan in case something goes wrong. This could mean a portable tank and trough, access to a natural water course, or moving the cattle to a facility where there is running water. Again the Code is looking for the result or outcome, not how you accomplish it.

As in all the sections, the recommended practices listed below the water requirements are not set in stone but certainly would be included in most BMP's. Is the water easy for cattle to find? This is especially important if you are moving calves into a feedlot. After all, if they don't drink, they don't eat, and they don't then have the energy to mount a good immune response when challenged by disease. If the water system is automated, then check every day that it stays automated. Try for cleanliness-if you wouldn't want to drink it would your cattle? Make sure the water lines and troughs are big enough for your herd's size and don't create competition among the cattle. If natural water sources can be pumped to troughs or tanks it may keep the water cleaner and the animal healthier. In winter situations try to restrict the cattle from thin ice areas. If consumption is low consider testing the water or check for stray voltage signs.

If, as a beef producer, these Requirements and Recommendations seem new or extreme to you, then you need to be having a conversation with your Veterinarian, Provincial Beef Association or local Beef Extension staff. That conversation needs to focus on how you can change the operation around, to provide what is asked for in the Code. Both your farm and the whole industry will be judged by your compliance.

So that concludes chapter 2 of the Beef Code of Practice, and nothing in it is too extreme. Most beef producers in Ontario and Canada are already implementing these practices. The challenge for most will be to have a paper trail, or to create one, that can prove to our consuming public that we are providing quality care to our cattle.

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