As a beef producer goes about his or her daily routine, probably no question in his mind is as important as whether his cattle have had enough to eat. On the one hand are health issues, of course, but also important is the grower's assessment that cattle are gaining weight at the optimum level to return maximum profits.
The right balance is important from a number of angles says North Carolina State University animal science professor Matt Poore.
"From a cow/calf perspective it is not so much about them gaining weight rapidly but just about cows maintaining weight after they have a calf," he says. "When cows begin milking they have a higher nutritional requirement. And, if they are underfed they will lose a lot of body condition and that will impact their ability to breed back."
Poore says well fed animals will generally appear "full," and they should not be allowed to become gaunt looking. He adds weaned calves and replacement heifers should never become empty, although dry cows will sometimes appear "a little gaunt before moving is necessary."
In addition to cattle appearance, producers can also use behavior as a cue to nutritional status. It is not a good sign if your animals begin to get excited when they see you because they recognize they are about to get fed. Also, when the animals are difficult to move out of a paddock that is a good sign they probably don't need to be moved.
Examination of fecal matter is also useful. Poore notes low quality nutrition leaves fecal matter in tall stacks, medium quality leave cow pies and high quality leaves grass scours.
Scoring body condition is a useful determinant: Poore notes growing animals should score 6 in body condition most of the time. Cows should score 4-7 in body condition throughout the year; replacement heifers should never score below a 5 in body condition.
Poore suggests that in most situations bulls should have their own pasture with about 2 acres per bull, with hay as necessary. Some will need grain supplementation 60 days before the breeding season. When you put them with the cows they should score a body condition of 6.0.
Consider mineral supplements and alternative supplements like cottonseed and soybean hulls, as well as the use of creep grazing and other grazing techniques.
For a guide on determining cattle body scores visit here.
Poore also has a complete guide on this and other cattle issues on the Internet called Managing Beef Cattle on Forage.