Feeding unborn calf affects carcass grade
Producing high-quality choice and prime beef carcasses starts earlier than most producers realize. The days in a feedlot at the end of finishing are important; however, the number of muscle cells and fat cells are determined before the calf is born.
Poor cow nutrition during pregnancy affects profit premiums on the finished calf.
“Most producers are surprised when they hear this,” says Justin Sexten, University of Missouri beef nutritionist. Sexten wants cow-calf producers to know the importance of winter feeding for the spring-calving cow herd. Poor nutrition for the mother cow, especially in the last trimester of pregnancy, cuts the number of cells that turn into marbling late in the calf’s life.
• Studies prove that poor cow nutrition affects the beef quality of a calf.
• MU beef nutritionist explains the importance of fetal feeding.
• Spring-calving cows should be kept on a good winter feed ration.
It’s not just feeding for 150 days, but for 500 days that counts, Sexten says. During the feedlot phase, pouring on the corn can only fill the available fat cells dispersed in the muscle tissue. Feeding doesn’t increase the number of cells, fat or muscle.
Cow nutritionists now apply what was learned long ago in human nutrition. The mother’s diet during pregnancy causes long-term impact on the offspring’s development. The study of children born to women during famine found lifelong health problems. Starved mothers produced babies that had diabetes, heart, lung and many other problems.
Recent studies in Nebraska, Ohio and North Dakota show how calf performance through life, particularly in the feedlot, can be traced back to cow nutrition.
We’ve long known the bad management in the old farmer’s myth that you can starve birth weight out of calves to improve calving ease. Withholding feed for cows before calving also starves out marbling. Science shows that the number of potential fat cells to create marbling is laid down in months seven to nine of gestation. Marbling helps set the quality grade of a calf at harvest. Without marbling fat, the carcass won’t grade Choice or Prime, the grades bringing premiums on the market grid.
Quality feed for quality calves
Increasingly, the Missouri niche of producing high-quality beef depends on good winter feeding of cows, as well as genetics. “This changes the idea that we can get by with just any least-cost rations for cows,” Sexten says. Cows carrying calves need quality feed in December and January — up to calving time. That means high-quality hay with an energy supplement.
Now we know that a hard winter for cows can affect calf feedlot performance, Sexten says. “We’ve seen years when calves do very well in the feedlot. They next year, calves with the same genetics from the same herd don’t grade well. That can be traced back to the cow’s winter feed.”
Winter cow care becomes more important as more Missouri farmers retain ownership through the feedlot stage. That is where the grid premiums are paid on better-quality grades.
We can do something about that, Sexten says. Fetal feeding is one area we can control, and potentially make a difference.
This article published in the November, 2010 edition of MISSOURI RURALIST.