Making high-quality beef from forages requires an active and healthy rumen to break down those tough fibres, and you can foster these microbes that are the key to herd efficiency.
One of the most important things to realize is that as you feed your cattle, you’re also feeding the rumen bacteria. Keeping the feed steady keeps them ready to spring into action, according to Greg Penner, an associate professor with the University of Saskatchewan’s faculty of animal science.
“If we are looking to promote rumen health, one of the first things that we need to make sure we are doing is providing the cattle a consistent supply of dry matter and adequate nutrients so that they have the tools required for them to do their job,” Penner said.
Penner has been working on a number of research projects that focus on developing nutritional strategies to enhance the health and productivity of cattle. He’s found rumen health is an important component and their health depends heavily on how cattle are fed.
“There is no way we can talk about rumen health or rumen function without the importance of cattle actually consuming feed,” Penner said.
Minimizing variation of feed and nutrient intake across dates is vital in providing consistency within the rumen as it allows for an active but regulated rumen microbial population.
With more consistent feeding systems, rumen microbes see less variation in fermentation characteristics.
The fermentation process within the rumen is important because as the rumen digests feed, microbes within the rumen ferment and grow, which in turn produce valuable protein.
“When those microbes are fermenting that feed, it is giving them energy and essential nutrients so that those microbes are able to grow. As they grow they are producing byproducts, short chain fatty acids, the most valuable source of protein for cattle,” Penner said.
Roadblocks in achieving a consistent supply of dry matter and nutrient intake occur mainly during exposure to adverse weather, calving, transportation events or extreme temperatures.
“In terms of preventing or trying to remedy intake variation, if you can identify a potential problem and focus on management strategies that minimize the impact on intake, that will achieve the greatest rewards for your operation,” Penner said. “If we have a situation where we know those cattle were not housed under ideal situations, we need to focus on how to transition them to get back on feed as fast as we can so that we can maintain rumen health and ensure adequate productivity.”
Penner says current data suggests it takes cattle up to three weeks to return to regular rumen patterns following a feed disruption.
In recent years Penner has worked in partnership with the Beef Development Centre to study ruminally cannulated cattle on extensive winter feeding systems to see what really happens in the rumen.
Three different groups of cattle were looked at, a herd grazing on barley, grazing on corn and swath grazing on barley.
The cattle were all given the industry-standard distribution allotment of three days and researchers monitored rumen pH levels.
Penner says they saw rumen variation in all of the grazing systems, with consistently dropping pH levels that caused substantial variation in nutrient supply across days.
“In both corn- and swath-grazing approaches we can see huge variation in rumen pH levels among days in the same groups of animals,” Penner said. “Emphasizing, that even though we are following industry standard recommendations, we are feeding our cattle in a system that allows for substantial variation in nutrient supply across days.”
According to Penner, producers in the cow-calf and backgrounding sectors may be more dependent on achieving an effective rumen, in comparison to other cattle sectors, because cattle in these sectors rely on the protein rumen microbes produce as their main source of protein.
“If you are in the cow-calf side or the backgrounding side adequate rumen capacity will be an issue. Especially, under western Canadian conditions or conditions where you are feeding low-quality forage residues or cereal grain residues,” Penner said.
Besides providing stability at feeding time, he says producers can look at other management areas to provide further stability that will support rumen health, such as, good husbandry and bunk management, promotion of nutrient absorption, monitoring grain processing and restricting access to extensive feeding systems to ensure cattle don’t overindulge.