Vital Signs: Split-Second Animal Performance Monitoring for Cows
by Meg Grzeskiewicz
Before I launch into my first SFQ article, I’d like to introduce myself. I am the owner of Rhinestone Cattle Co, a grassfed beef and grazing consulting operation in Western New York. After I graduated from West Virginia University in 2012, I worked as an intern for expert grazier Greg Judy in Missouri. My specialty is beef cattle and mob grazing, but the concepts I explain below apply to all types of cattle and all management programs.
Here are three easy observations you can make every day to see how your animals are performing. Use them to constantly adjust your management, instead of “flying blind” until sale day or weighing. They can help you optimize your grazing plan or change a total mixed ration (TMR) composition. These three indicators are valuable no matter what kind of cattle you raise, or how big a role grazing plays in their diet.
1. CHECK RUMEN FILL
Stand facing a cow’s left side (with her head to your left and tail to your right). You need to be on the left side, because that’s where the rumen is. Look for a triangular indentation behind her ribcage and before her hook (hip) bone, high on her side, just beneath her loin muscle. If you can’t see any depression, her rumen is full. Her forage intake has not been limited, and she has eaten to her heart’s content. However, if you can see a sunken triangle, she is hungry. You need to provide her with more feed mass. If you’re high-density grazing, allocate larger paddocks. In a low-density rotation, it’s time to move to the next pasture. If moving your herd faster or using up more pasture isn’t feasible, put out some hay. You can do this with any age of bovine, from calf to adult.
2. READ MANURE PILE CONSISTENCY
Every manure pile is a gold mine of not just fertilizer, but animal performance information too. You can tell so much about how a cow’s digestive tract is processing ingested nutrients, just by looking down.
The ideal manure pile is one to two inches tall. It has circular ripples like a target, and a small pond-like depression in the middle. Spread it open with your boot. It should have the consistency of “pumpkin pie”, as my mentor Greg Judy always said. The animal that left this gift has a well-functioning digestive tract, and is utilizing all available nutrients in the grass it eats. It is gaining, growing or milking to its maximum ability.
The lumpy manure pile looks more like horse poop. It is tall with well-defined shapes. When spread with your boot it is thick, more like cement than pumpkin pie. If your herd’s manure piles look like this, they are eating too much fiber (cellulose) and not enough energy and protein. This translates to a loss of productivity. Piles like this often occur when cattle are eating dry drought forage or hay. The easiest way to fix it is to provide lick tubs to supplement energy and protein. If weather and season allow, move cattle to green, actively-growing pasture. There are more expensive ways to add protein and energy to your herd’s diet, but I’m not particularly experienced or interested in them.
The runny manure pile indicates just as serious a production problem as a lumpy pile. It is common to see cattle on lush spring or fall pastures passing runny, greenish manure. These deposits are more like puddles than pies, and are too watery to hold any ripples. Many farmers accept it as normal for the season, but in reality, these cattle are not reaching their performance potential. Do you feel good when you have diarrhea? Of course not! Often, you lose a few pounds while you’re sick. Growing stock with uncorrected runny manure may fall short of maximum gain by a half-pound or more per day!
The problem stems from the high protein content in fast-growing spring grasses. Not only can excess protein stifle gain, but it can cause a bunch of other health problems. Oxygen uptake in the lungs may become impaired, rumen chemistry is disrupted, and in extreme cases, females will not conceive. If you see runny manure in puddles on the ground or soiling the tails of your cattle, you need to change your grazing management to limit their protein intake. Give your cattle a larger paddock so they don’t eat as far down on each grass plant. Energy is concentrated in the tips of the grass plants, and protein is concentrated farther down (according to nutrition expert Mark Bader). Energy balances out excess protein.
Another easy fix is providing a small amount of hay or straw (in square bales) to pastured cattle. When I worked for Greg in 2012, his herd had this runny manure problem briefly. We threw out three square bales of straw each day for 200 head during the fall period of rapid grass growth. Within a week the manure had firmed up and become ideal piles again. The hay or straw does not need to have any nutritional quality. It simply acts as dry matter to counteract the nutrient-dense but protein-heavy pasture.
The first time I visited Greg’s farm, I thought he was crazy when he purposely stuck his boot in a manure pile and raved about its resemblance to pumpkin pie. In reality, it’s producers like him who succeed because of their attention to detail. They analyze every clue their cattle give about how well they’re producing. I’m sure glad Greg shared this one with me!
3. OBSERVE DRINKING BEHAVIOR
Clean water is absolutely imperative to the health of your herd. It can affect stocker gains by a half-pound or more per day. This is another thing I learned from Mark Bader: watch your animals drink. They should put their noses right in the water and drink without hesitation. If they sniff or lick at the water, play with it or hesitate, you have a water quality problem. If you wouldn’t drink it, don’t make your livestock!
If your cattle drink from a pond, put up a single-strand electric fence (hi-tensile on fiberglass posts or temporary polywire on plastic posts) two to three feet out into the pond. This gives the animals the perimeter of the pond from which to drink, but keeps them from standing in the middle. The water will become less muddy and won’t be contaminated with urine and manure. Installing a pond circulator does wonders for water quality too, by aerating the water. Solar, wind and electric models are available. But don’t install a circulator unless you’ve put up the electric wire to keep you animals away from it! Circulators also help keep ice off in winter, but again, put up that electric wire to keep your animals from walking out onto the ice!
If your herd drinks from tanks, adding a chlorine tablet will keep algae and bacteria at bay. This is especially important if your tanks are filled from ponds or wells. Punch holes in a plastic Gatorade bottle, and place a few stones in it for weight to keep it underwater. Add a small piece of a swimming pool hypochlorite tablet, which you can get at a hardware or pool store. Check the bottle every few days and add more chlorine when it’s gone. I did this with a tank so full of algae I couldn’t even see the float, and after three days the water was clear. The chlorine doesn’t bother the cattle; they actually drink more because of the improvement in water quality. This translates to better gains.
Meg Grzeskiewicz is owner of Rhinestone Cattle Co., LLC, in Colden, NY. She can be reached at 716-517-6415. Her website is www.rhinestonecattleco.com.