Gestational Nutrition & Fetal Programming

Marbling is a lifetime event. So even within the uterus, a cow’s diet can impact the potential beef quality of her calf.

Cow nutrition in the months before calving can determine their progeny’s future production. Supplementation during this phase makes a defining difference: there’s a positive effect on fertility, weaning weight and quality grade.

University of Nebraska research found offspring of supplemented cows graded 86% Choice, compared to 71% in the non-supplemented group. However, the premium-Choice percentage dropped 18 points without the added protein, 39% vs. 21%. Yield grade was virtually the same. The increase in percent Choice, without an increase in yield grade, translated to a $47 advantage in carcass value.

Research demonstrates that the season and environmental conditions at conception will influence milk production, reproductive efficiency and herd longevity. More than 60% of the nutrients required for fetal development are needed during the last two months of gestation. As calving draws near, feed and forage intake typically declines because the placenta and fetus increasingly crowd the rumen. That’s why nutritional management has so much influence on the calf en utero and the cow’s odds for a next pregnancy.

A calf’s ability to gain, grade and achieve puberty can all be negatively influenced by shorting the dam on nutrition. Work with a nutritionist to ensure adequate protein and energy intake based on the base ration. Forage quality is the largest source of nutritional variation, so test it and set up a matching supplement program.

In situations such as drought, poor forage quality or lack of hay stores, it can be hard to keep up with energy needs. That’s because in the last 90 days of pregnancy, fetal growth takes about 30% of the total requirements.

Nutrients used to support fetal growth are also critical in colostrum development. Health is one of the largest factors in high-quality beef production, and passive immunity transfer at birth is the first critical point for success or intervention. Inadequate nutrients to the cow in those last 45 to 60 days can result in less or lower quality colostrum that will set her calf back for all of its life.

Cows, like anything else taking in food, allocate nutrients according to a hierarchy of needs. They must first support maintenance for essential functions such as breathing, digestion and locomotion, followed by supporting their own mass. After taking care of their own needs, those nutrients are used to maintain the cow’s pregnancy and grow the fetus.

Supplementing the cow prior to calving is also important to next year’s breeding success, especially in young cows that have not achieved mature size. Improve the odds of cycling and conceiving during a controlled breeding season with adequate condition prior to calving.

Ensuring cows have adequate nutrition during the last two months of gestation builds a foundation that will have positive and lasting effects on at least three generations: cow, calf and next calf.