Healthy Fats for Healthy Cattle

Essential fatty acids can provide support to the immune system and improve acclimation to stress associated with weaning and relocation. ( John Maday )

As the cattle industry works to improve animal health and production efficiency while optimizing antibiotic use, interest in natural dietary supplements continues to grow.

Scientists have long known that an animal’s digestive system plays a key role in supporting innate and acquired immunity. In a recent webinar, Shelby Roberts, PhD, a post-doctoral fellow with Alltech. Said the bovine GI tract contains the body’s highest concentration of immune cells, with additional support from beneficial microbes such as Lactobacillus species. Those beneficial bacteria help prevent pathogens such as E. coli, Salmonella and others involved in calf scours from attaching to the gut wall and causing inflammation. When the immune system and beneficial microbes work together, pathogens are held at bay and the animal utilizes more energy for growth. Antibiotic use can disrupt that balance, damaging beneficial bacteria and leaving the immune system as the last line of defense.

Research shows though, that dietary supplements such as probiotics, prebiotics, specific fats, proteins and minerals can promote gut health, boost immunity and/or enhance performance, particularly during periods of stress among cattle.

A previous article, titled Supplementing “Feeder Cattle for Health and Performance,” outlined how some yeast-based products can benefit preconditioning and receiving programs. This article focuses on essential fatty acids (EFAs), which can benefit reproductive efficiency in cows, calf health, and also marbling and carcass quality in feeder cattle.

Neil Michael, PhD, a Technical services specialist with Arm & Hammer Animal Nutrition, says research shows EfAs such as Omega 3 and Omega 6 and Linoleic Acid improve immunity, post-calving metabolism and reproduction. Most of the research and application has been in dairy cattle, but beef producers are increasingly adopting the concept. Arm & Hammer markets Essentiom, a rumen-inert fat with Omega-3 and Omega-6 EFAs.

Multiple trials, Michael says, have shown that including EFA supplements in cow and heifer diets can increase heifer weights at first breeding, reduce embryonic loss and improve overall reproduction efficiency. In a trial at the Rollins Ranch, pregnancy rate for treated cows was 89% compared with 70% for controls.

“We recommend supplementing cows prior to calving for improving colostrum quantity and quality, body condition and milk production,” Michael says. “Improving cow body condition at breeding improves fertility, tissue health in the uterus, ovarian function and pregnancy recognition. We also suggest feeding at weaning for 45 days and continuing through finishing to improve marbling.”

Texas A&M University Animal Scientist Reinaldo Cooke, PhD, says research in human medicine has shown health benefits of dietary ESAs, particularly Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids. He has conducted several studies on their benefits in cattle diets, particularly with Omega 6 fatty acids in Essentiom.

“We’ve seen the best results when feeding ESA beginning around 30 days prior to weaning, and continuing into the feeding period, Cooke says. Beginning the supplement upon arrival in the feedyard provides some benefit, but supplementing at least three weeks prior to shipping allows time for the ESA to accumulate in the animal’s tissues, providing support to the immune system and better acclimation to stress associated with weaning and relocation.

Supplements such as ESAs, probiotics, prebiotics and others fit well with preconditioning programs such as a VAC-45 system, Cooke says. They help support vaccines and overall health management, while helping calves endure stressful events and begin gaining weight immediately following arrival.

Currently, Cooke says, value-added calf-marketing programs focus on vaccines and weaning protocols, and do not include specifications for nutritional supplements. He notes though, that cow-calf producers who retain ownership through finishing could see significant benefits by using these natural supplements during that transition period. Feedyard buyers, he adds, have begun to recognize the value of supplements for enhancing performance and reducing disease risk. Documenting a supplement program, along with traditional preconditioning protocols such as vaccines, parasite control and 45-day weaning could further enhance calf values.

The Alltech webinar on gut-health management is available for viewing online.

Watch for a more detailed article on preconditioning, and the role of dietary supplements, in the July issue of Drovers.