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In a 1935 effort to help ranchers hit hard by the Dust Bowl, the U.S. government bought 547 head of Hereford cattle in Arizona and New Mexico, and shipped them to the Seminole reservation in Florida. While the purchase may have helped the ranchers, it didn't do the cattle any favors. Most couldn't survive on the poor-quality flatwoods forages.
Today, while death loss is minimal on the Seminole Tribe's cow/calf operation, it's still a struggle to keep cows productive on South Florida forages. Alex Johns, natural resource director for the tribe, said: "Six years ago, we noticed we were having fertility issues. Our conception rates were in the high 60s [percent] on a 120-day breeding season."
Johns turned to Terry Weaver at Westway Feed Products for answers. Weaver took samples from growing bahia and hemarthria grasses, as well as hay. He combined that data with the results of liver biopsies done by the ranch's veterinarians. Those biopsies showed a deficiency in selenium, zinc, copper and manganese.
Weaver explained that at certain times of the year, the forages here weren't as high in protein as they had assumed. In August, September and October, for example, when grass matured, protein content could be as low as it was in January and February (5% to 8%). In June or July, protein levels could be as high as 12%.
"There is a lot of forage, but it isn't good quality," Weaver said of the late-summer pastures. That drop in protein content was tending to occur just as cows were in a late gestation phase.
A CUSTOMIZED SOLUTION
To correct the deficiencies, Weaver started supplying the ranch with a custom-mixed molasses supplement fortified with energy, protein, vitamins and minerals. Molasses makes a palatable carrier, the intake of which is regulated by adding sodium. Weaver recommended the supplement be fed year-round, with a feed-through for flies, Altosid-IGR Fly Control, added June to October.
The protein content of the supplement ranges from 8% to 36%, depending on time of year and need. In October, for example, it may be 32% protein; in March, around 8% protein. The supplement's composition varies with forage quantity, quality and production cycle of the cows. When forages are poorer quality, it's the protein supplement that helps cows glean more energy from what is available.
Johns said consumption of the molasses mix varies greatly. It can be a half-pound per head per day when grass is rapidly growing; up to 5 or 6 pounds per head per day in the winter. Year-round, it averages around 1,000 pounds consumed per cow per year. Johns said it's difficult to calculate an exact cost on the molasses mix, but he said it pays for itself. He's seen a 15% increase in conception rates on the 11,000-cow operation, to 82%. In addition, Johns noted cows stay in better body condition all year long. Before he started supplementing, cows scored in the low 4s during the winter months, but since then, the herd has moved up to 5s and higher.
"We go into the breeding season at a high 5 or 6 now," he said. "They are still in the low- to mid-5s when they have a 3- or 4-month-old calf pulling on them. But without the syrup we wouldn't get near the breedback."
The increase in conception rates and Body Condition Scores (BCS) is even more impressive considering Johns is gradually shortening the breeding season. The operation is down to 100 days, with 90 days as the goal.
BODY CONDITION ADVANTAGE