Supplementing protein over the summer

by Alexis DeCorby
Ministry of Environment

Dry conditions in much of the province are raising concerns with pasture supply. It’s not too late to put a plan in place. Although supplementing is an additional cost and may require extra labour, it can benefit your operation in the long run.

Supplementing protein is necessary when grass becomes dry and dormant or when there is a lack of moisture that prevents pasture growth. Adequate protein levels allow cattle to efficiently digest the available forage and may also increase dry matter intake.

Internally, cattle have a hierarchy of nutrition requirements. This means that when there are not enough nutrients in feed, cattle will first prioritize maintaining weight followed by lactation and then rebreeding. Cattle that do not receive adequate nutrients from the pasture provided will not reach maximum productivity. A common result of underfeeding protein and energy is open cows in the fall and reduced weaning weights in calves due to reduced milk quality. The potential of lost income may outweigh the additional costs of a supplement.

In some cases, there is a fine line between supplementing and over supplementing. The best way to determine if supplementing is necessary is to monitor body condition. Cows at a healthy condition should be a three on a five-point body condition scale. If cows begin to fall below this condition, it’s time to consider providing a supplement.

Supplements do not always have to be provided daily. If you turn out in early spring, you may be able to put enough bales out for three or four days. If feeding hay isn’t an option, protein lick tubs, pellets or grain are alternative options. Depending on how protein-deficient the pasture is, feeding may only be required every other day. Research has shown that providing more than the daily requirement of protein will allow for stockpiling, meaning the cow will use it later. This saves time and can reduce labour costs. As always, if cattle are not used to consuming concentrates, provide them gradually over time to avoid digestive upsets.
When feeding a protein supplement, do not forget to add mineral and salt. Minerals are vital for rebreeding, milk production and overall maintenance. Mineral and salt should always be available and placed near common loafing areas for maximum consumption.

An additional summer supplementation option is creep feeding calves. If milk production is reduced due to forage production, creep feeding can help alleviate some of the nutritional demands on the cow. Milk production peaks two months after calving, so nutrient demands also peak. At this point, the cows are typically in a net energy deficient state. Ensuring that nutrients are available to the cow and calf during this time is extremely important to maximize calf growth and maintain cow condition.

While creep feeding all summer is an option, it is most valuable when supply and quality are low. Calves will substitute creep feed for forage, which can reduce pasture demand. Reducing pasture demand from calves can help maintain pasture condition.

Creep feeding rations for calves should be formulated based on the situation. If forage quantity is the concern, a 13 per cent protein supplement would be appropriate. If quality is the concern, a 16 per cent protein supplement would be recommended. Keep in mind that calves will also require 65 to 70 per cent total digestible nutrients and an appropriate mineral program to meet their nutritional requirements.

In addition, creep feeding also gets calves accustomed to dry feed, which can also allow for early weaning to take pressure off the cow and the pasture. Calves should gain 0.8 to 1.2 kg per day (1.75 to 2.75 lbs) from birth to weaning. Once adjusted to dry feed, calves can be switched to a ration that will maintain this growth after weaning.

Supplementing cows and calves can help cattle maintain condition, prepare your calves for early weaning and stretch your forage supplies. For more information on this topic or any other livestock-related questions, please contact your local livestock and feed extension specialist or call the Agriculture Knowledge Centre at 1-866-457-2377.