Vet Visit: Fetal programming for future profits

Kristin Engebretson, DVM
Midwest Veterinary Service

Are you thinking about calving yet? I’m going to assume that for most, the answer to that question is a resounding “No.” With calves to wean, crops to harvest, and continuing wet conditions to deal with, including the dreaded s-word, snow, calving is nowhere on your mind.

I’d like to share with you a few reasons why you may want to change that perspective.

Fetal programming has become a hot topic in recent years, and with good reason.

If you have not yet heard of fetal programming, it is how the environment of the calf from the time of conception to birth can affect that calf’s life long health and productivity, and its ability to reach its genetic potential.

Calves that develop in an ideal environment, that is, in a healthy, non-stressed cow, will be healthier and grow faster on less feed. Heifers saved for replacements have a higher chance of breeding on the first cycle, produce more milk for their calves, and stay in the herd longer. All of that adds up to more profit! Some of that programming has already taken place, but we still have the ability to help or hurt next year’s calf crop by how we manage the cow herd now and over the winter.

Body condition score, or BCS, of cows is a good indicator of general nutrition status. Now is a great time to get an average BCS of your cows. If scoring 5 or less, look at increasing energy and/or protein in their diets to get those scores up before the cold weather and growing calf start to increase demands on your cows. Talk with your nutritionist to make sure you have a balanced mineral program and enough protein supplementation, especially if grazing cornstalks or residue, to feed those rumen bugs and maintain the cow’s condition.

A good deworming program coming off pasture is also critical to maintaining cow health and BCS.

Minimize any disease challenges to your herd by visiting with your veterinarian on cow vaccination protocols. Wind breaks and reducing cold stress also help with maintaining BCS and cow comfort.

It’s certain that we can’t control the weather or conditions we will be dealing with next spring for calving. However, we can affect how well the calves born in those conditions will handle the challenge with our management practices today.