Anyone who has had kids can attest to the dramatic increase in conversation pertaining to bowel movements compared to before having kids.  Frequency, consistency, odor, amount, the diaper's effectiveness at containment…there's a lot to discuss.

While it isn't a common source of discussion, as a cattleman I pay attention to poop as well.  Just as with little kids, I can make management decisions based on what's coming out the south end of the cows.

During the winter, our cows are often grazing corn stalks.  After the grain is harvested, there is still a lot of feed value out in the field.  There are always a few ears of corn that are missed by the combine.  That usually doesn't amount to much though.  It's the husks and leaves that make up the majority of the fodder.


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Cows trailing in for water while grazing cornstalks

The cows always eat the best stuff first.  To a cow, "best" means "most nutritious".  If my cows are in a pasture for a week, their diet from Sunday through Wednesday will be more nutritious than from Thursday through Saturday.  One way to judge the quality of the diet is by looking at their poop.  We'll call them "dung pats", which seems more adult-like.

Remember, cows have a four-chambered stomach, specially made to digest forage.  When a cow's diet is low in protein, they can't digest forage as well.  Protein actually doesn't feed the cow – it feeds the microbes in the cow's rumen (one of the four stomach chambers).  The microbes are what actually break down the carbohydrates in the forages so the cow can get energy out of it.  Too little protein means fewer microbes, which leads to poor digestion and therefore less energy.

Here's a picture of a dung pat from a cow that isn't getting enough protein:

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The "stacked cookie" look is a dead giveaway.  You can also see some plant fibers in the pat.  The lower the protein, the longer the fibers are.  Now, don't get too concerned.  This cow isn't starving or malnourished.  She is probably losing a little bit of weight though.  I wouldn't want to keep her on this level of nutrition for too long, especially if she is in her last trimester of pregnancy.

Having too much protien isn't great either.  Remember what the cows are eating?  Dry, mature plant material.  Not real high in protein.  Early in the winter, when the cow is in mid-gestation, her nutrient requirements aren't very high.  The corn husks and leaves will meet her energy and protein requirements without much, if any, added protein.  However, as winter wears on and her fetus keeps growing, her nutrient requirements ramp up.  Additionally, the plant material weathers and quality slowly declines.  The energy is still there, the cow (actually her rumen microbes) just needs a little more protein to capture it.  There are several ways to supplement protein.  Alfalfa hay, ethanol byproducts (aka distillers grains), and commercial feeds are common in our area.  Whatever it is, it costs money.  Feeding more protein than is necessary increases costs without any real benefits.

The dung pat below came from a cow who has more than enough dietary protein.

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Notice the "splat" effect.  "Splat" isn't what we're going for.  It's the cow-equivalent of a blowout diaper.  This dung pat was dropped two days after being turned onto fresh cornstalks.  I'm not too worried about it though, since it was early in the graze period and there weren't very many that looked like this.  If there was a high incidence of "splat" in the herd, I'd back off the protein supplement until they started looking more like the next photo.

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This cow is getting about the right amount of protein.  No cookies, no splat.  More of a soft "plop" effect.  You can still see some fibers, but they are shorter than in the first photo.  A few corn kernels in the mix tells me she's finding some dropped ears under the snow, which provides a little extra energy.  Too much corn isn't good though, as the starches in corn change the pH in the rumen, which kills off the microbes that digest the forages.  Too much energy for too long also can lead to excessive hoof growth, which makes the cow lame.  I don't have a numerical threshold of kernels-per-poop-pile, but this looks about right. 

All three of these pictures were taken in the same field.  How is that, you say?  All three cows have access to the same forage, so why the difference?  Grazing is a skill.  Some cows are better at finding the good stuff than others.  Maybe the first cow just doesn't have as good a digestive system as the others.  Maybe the second one went on a late-night protein supplement binge.  I just go on the average of the field when I'm poop-checking.

We're about 60 days from calving season, so these girls are needing higher levels of nutrition as the days go by.  I'm paying close attention to their dung pats to make sure they are maintaining or gaining weight from here until the grass greens up.  I do that by supplementing protein as necessary, but also by moving them to fresh cornstalks sooner.  What I used to graze in 7 days, I might now only graze for 4 or 5 days before moving on.

I guess sometimes BS is something that needs to be taken seriously.


Phone Photo Roundup – December 2013

It's been a busy fall/early winter for me.  When it gets busy, the website is usually the first thing to suffer.  A couple days ago I was thinking how best to recap the last couple months, and I had the idea to look thorugh the pictures on my phone and use them to tell about what's been going on.  Naomi always tells me that photos are what people want to see, so here we go.

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I did not really mean for this photo to be a "selfie" but I guess that is how it turned out.  Isaac and I spent one December day on the road.  Our mission was to look at tractors and cows and decide which one the ranch needed to buy.  After doing chores, we gassed up the pickup (because you certainly can NOT go look at cows and tractors in a van) and drove about 100 miles to Isabel, SD, to look at a tractor.  Turned out we could have seen the same one in Mobridge (60 miles closer).  All was not lost, however, as Isaac charmed a toy tractor and a cookie out of the salesman and I left with a small bag of Black Hills Coffee.  (I brewed it up later in the week, and it was quite good, in my unrefined opinion.)  After checking out the tractors, we moseyed down the road to rural Firesteel.  If you know where Firesteel is, you understand how redundant "rural Firesteel" is.  We stopped to look at some cows that were for sale.  The rancher who owned them is supposed to have heart surgery in a couple months and made the difficult decision to sell the herd.  We were considering buying some of them to re-stock our herd; we sold about 15% of our cows last spring due to drought concerns. 

At the end of the day, we didn't get anything bought except gas and supper at Dairy Queen, but that's just fine.  I have good memories of similar trips with my dad as a kid, so it's fun for me to do the same now that I'm a dad.

Yes, those are gray hairs in my beard.  They are warmer than the brown hairs so I don't mind.  That's what I tell myself.  I swear they grow faster than the brown ones.

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The cows are fat and happy these days.  We've had some really nice grazing opportunities this fall.  In this picture, the cows are munching on sorhum.  Sorghum is sort of like corn, except it does not produce an ear and the stalk is not as thick.  We cut this field for hay in July and it had regrown quite a little before freeze up.  The cows really liked it and did quite well on it.  From here, some of them went to a cover crop field.  There, we had planted turnips, rapeseed, sorghum, and hunter brassica for grazing purposes.  They like that stuff as well, and are actually getting fat on it.  But man do they stink!  I don't know what it is about those brassicas, but there is definitely an odor about those cows.  The rest of the cows went back to native range for a couple weeks until the corn harvest is complete; they will graze cornstalks until late February, weather permitting.


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The cows that are on native range are doing well also.  One of the reasons they are doing well is found in this picture.  The woody plants you see sticking up through the snow are aptly named western snowberry – buckbrush to the lay person.  We have a lot of it in our pastures, as you can see.  The cows eat very little of it during the growing season, but when winter comes, the cows love to strip the berries off the stems.  When I go out to check the cows these days, I typically see half of the the cows eating snowberry and the other half digging though the snow for some grass.  I collected a handful of the berries to be sent off for nutrient analysis, but I've been told they are a very good source of protien.  For a cow (and other ruminants), adequate protein is very important for them to digest forages (grass).  Typically, winter grazing is deficient in protien and must be supplemented somehow – alfalfa hay, range cubes, molasses tubs – so if the snowberries are in fact high in protein, that would be a big plus.

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As evidenced by the first picture, it has been a good winter to grow a beard.  This was the coldest we've had so far, but the weatherman seems to think we'll beat it this weekend.  The cold isn't so bad, but when it comes with a 30+ mph wind, it gets sort of chilly.  We're supposed to have windchills in the -50 F range on Sunday night.  The hard part about that kind of weather is the increased likelyhood of equipment problems.  Water tank valves freeze, tractors have fuel problems, metal things break easier due to brittleness caused by the cold, vehicles won't start.  Yet, the cows need to be fed – and fed more than normal, since they are burning much more energy to stay warm.  I can't complain though.  I'm really thankful for a tractor with a cab and four wheel drive, as well as a heated shop to park it in.  Things could be worse.

There you have it. Now I can finally start deleting some of these photos off my camera to make room for more podcasts!