Is biological resilience taking a hit from producers becoming more efficient |

Is biological resilience taking a hit from producers becoming more efficient

After weather events the last two years, many cows came off belly-deep grass too thin in the fall.
Photo by Teresa Clark

There is no doubt about it, Nebraska cattle producers faced some tough issues and learned some hard lessons in 2019 — thanks to Mother Nature.

The lessons learned from the last 18 months of weather events makes Dr. Brian Vander Ley, who is a veterinarian at the University of Nebraska Great Plains Veterinary Educational Center, think about how producers could build up resilience in their cattle. “I think the weather events have emphasized how fragile some of our systems really are,” Vander Ley said. “We work hard to manage cost risk, sale risk, and price risk when we are marketing cattle, but the one place we are waving out there in the wind is biological risk and how weather can affect the biology in our cattle.”

In 2018, abundant precipitation during the summer caused forages to mature too early, resulting in cows coming in thin that fall, off belly-deep grass. With bitter cold temperatures for more than 60 days in the winter of 2018-2019, the pregnant cows were in a situation where they were already thin, didn’t have access to the best feed, and were hit with maintaining themselves through really cold weather, he said.

Then the spring of 2019 brought snow, rain, cold and mud, followed by abundant precipitation that summer. Vander Ley said the forages were once again low quality because of early maturity, and hay supplies were short and not of the best quality. “The abundant precipitation produced September quality in July. Because there was so much precipitation, hay harvest was delayed, and in some areas, it was difficult to get hay put up dry, which resulted in low hay inventories,” he said.

All of these accumulating weather issues have caused cows to lose body condition to the point some are nearly malnourished. “They are behind — chronically behind,” Vander Ley said. “No one is making the decision to deliberately short the cows, but in most cases, the hay quality is not known. It is short on protein, short on energy and probably short on other key nutrients, minerals and vitamins.”

Producers around the state have expressed their concern about how thin their cows have become, he said. Last fall, when the calves were weaned, a lot of producers had poor breed up and a lot of open cows. Like the year before, it results in some challenging health issues in the calves through the summer.


Vander Ley is looking for ways to build some positive momentum amongst the state’s beef producers. “With resilience goes momentum. There are two kinds of momentum. There is positive, where you get to rolling along and things work. Despite a few setbacks, momentum carries you through. Then there is negative momentum where no matter how hard you work, you can never quite dig out of that hole. I feel like that is what is happening with some of our cows. We need to find a way to switch that around, and build some positive momentum,” he said.

With a push toward becoming more efficient, Vander Ley wondered if focusing in on resources and labor is really the answer. “When one person is taking care of a lot of cows, especially hundreds calving during a snowstorm, that efficiency is going to take its toll on the cattle,” he said. “The questions is, when we lose that resilience, do we have the resources, or does our system have the resources, to withstand that environmental challenge? If it doesn’t, the consequence of that unintended outcome of cost control is facing increasing financial pressure.”

The weather effects were attributed to cows that were a little thin, but producers were optimistic they could make it through. Instead, the weather continued to work against them. Weaning weights were less than expected, and more cows were late or open. “It is a very painful outcome, but it is also a situation where we will go back and try and control costs, and set ourselves up to go through it all again. Unintended consequences force us into a pattern,” he said.

The veterinarian offered some ideas he took from the food processing industry that cattle producers could use to manage biological risks.

• Identify hazards first — where do the wheels come off of the wagon?

• Develop control points — look for pieces of data to see if the wheels are coming off the wagon.

• Develop a monitoring plan for those control points.

• Plan an intervention for when the system is out of control.

• Write it all down.

Biological systems can maintain function under extreme conditions. “A pregnant cow will keep that calf alive at tremendous cost to herself up to and including basically delivering all the nutrients in her body to that calf to maintain it. But, when resilience is lost, they can fail quickly and catastrophically,” he said.

Body condition scoring cows is a critical control point where producers can intervene and prevent cows from becoming too thin. “The best time to make a difference is right after weaning,” he said. “The best time to evaluate body condition is after calving.” Producers should plan on providing better nutrition for any cows that are below a body condition score five at breeding. The cows need to be at least a five at calving. “At post-weaning, if a cow isn’t going into a forage production system where the diet is adequate to build her back up and be able to take a hit later, you need to be doing something different,” he said. ❖

— Clark is a freelance livestock journalist from western Nebraska. She can be reached by email at

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