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Winter and late pregnancy livestock nutrition

The Crookwell district’s cold and wet winter weather frequently leads to multiple visits by CVH vets to heavily pregnant downer cows and heifers. Most do not respond well to treatment.

Why not?

In late pregnancy, the energy demands of the developing foetus and the maintenance requirements of the cow increase significantly. If the energy and protein content of available feed do not meet the requirements of the pregnant female, her remaining fat deposits are depleted and her muscle mass catabolised (broken down) to help maintain the blood glucose levels so critical to life.

Dry matter intake (DMI) in late pregnancy is reduced, largely due to the growing foetus occupying much of the volume of the abdomen. This is the time when the metabolisable energy (ME) and the crude protein (CP) content of the available feed become critical. Added to these demands of late pregnancy is the additional energy required to keep the cow warm in cold Tablelands weather.

The inadequate pasture available for cattle in late winter is usually supplemented with hay, silage or grain. In the case of hay in particular, the metabolisable energy and crude protein is frequently inadequate, leading to loss of fat and muscle in the pregnant cow as described above.

What are the symptoms?

Surprisingly, most of these cows remain bright, alert and continue to eat. This means most producers attribute the cow’s weakness and weight loss to an infection or mineral deficiency – rather than recognising the cause is the inadequacy of their supplementary feed.

Vitamin and mineral supplements are of little use in these situations.

What steps can you take?

It is important to find out and understand the accurate ME and CP composition of the feed supplements in use. If the energy component is not adequate, then grain must be fed at a level able to maintain body weight through this demanding period until the cow calves.

CVH vets can assist with feed analysis to determine the quality of supplementary hay, grain and silage. Bring in 1kg of hay, grain or silage and CVH can organise analysis through the Department of Agriculture feed quality service.

It is also important to determine accurately the reason a cow or heifer may go down in late pregnancy. If it is found to be due to protein/energy malnutrition, it’s critical to assess the remainder of the herd. CVH vets often see lower condition animals that should be separated from the stronger individuals in the herd and treated with feed supplements under a less competitive feeding environment. This is the most effective way to prevent these poorer cows from losing more weight and going down.

The response to treatment of the late pregnant female cow down due to inadequate dietary protein and energy is often poor and disappointing. To achieve a successful outcome, the producer needs to make the decision to undertake a high level of care. This includes placing the downer cow under cover (severe weather stress and poor nutrition is a fatal combination), lifting her at least once daily, and keeping concentrate and water available at all times. Medications that can make a difference include propylene glycol (for example, Ceton) and anti-inflammatory injections. Effort also needs to be focused on the remaining animals still standing to keep them well fed and strong through to calving.

If you have cows down or anticipate this may happen to some cows in the herd, please contact us at CVH. Early intervention is critical and can often prevent losses. Winter in this district can be cold and prolonged and calvings continue for months.