Fetal Programming: The Mainstay of any Cattleman Creating Profits & Quality Livestock

Regardless of your intentions of your beef herd, nutrition is the mainstay of a successful & profitable operation. Cattle producers that have been in the business long enough grasp the importance of a cow’s nutritional requirements pre-breeding and post-partum. What many don’t realize is the gap of time during mid to late pregnancy nutrient restrictions have long terms effects on progeny.

What is Fetal Programming?

Fetal programming is a term producers have heard of in years past but may not understand the entire concept. It is a phenomenon that has the potential to be a game-changer in the practice of cowherd management. Fetal programming is a nutritional stimuli during critical periods of pregnancy that have an effect on lifetime performance of offspring, such as post-natal health, weaning weight, carcass characteristics, and reproductive efficiency.

Critical Periods of Fetal Development

When it comes to feeding the cow during pregnancy, there are a few stages where different things are developing within the fetus and we are providing nutrients for different processes.

In the first three months of gestation a cow is likely still lactating a calf. The cow’s nutritional requirement for the developing fetus are not especially high compared to her nutritional requirements when it comes to lactation and maintenance. This is a period when we are developing placental tissues, which are very importance for providing the calf’s blood supply when growing rapidly in the third trimester. We are also developing vital organs in early months of pregnancy.

Now in the second trimester, months 3-6, we are specifically looking are development of muscle tissue fibers. This is the number of muscle fibers going to be established, which are critically important when we are thinking about a carcass a steer will producer later on capture1down the road. Making sure we have proper nutritional requirements at this time will reflect on the carcass size and quality that a steer or calf progeny will have at harvest.

Here in later stages of gestation, months 6-9, this is where 75% of fetal growth occurs, and this is when a cow’s nutrient requirements to feed that fetus significantly growing. And this is a period where those muscle fiber tissues are growing and developing, staring to become larger, but we are also starting to establish those fat cells. Those fat cells are especially important to carcass quality or marbling to have an increased value on a carcass later on down the road. So being sure that we have enough nutrients to establish these different tissues there during pregnancy will have a huge impact later in the progeny’s life.

Pre-weaning Calf Health

Fetal programming has a positive effect on calving ease and parturition. The overall health of the calf is improved due to proper nutritional requirements of the cow through gestation.  The colostrum quality is increase because the cow is heaimageslthy and has that ability. This is the calf first milk that is pretty important the getting that calf up and off to the right start. Not only being able to produce that, our cows nutrition has an impact on how well that calf is able to absorb those key nutrients and proteins from the early colostrum and milk. We all want a healthy calf, and offspring that has a good start that received proper nutrients in pregnancy and ea
rly life will have a healthy and good performance all the way through weaning.

Post-weaning Calf Performance

Now taking this concept on a longer term and scope post weaning, fetal programming has shown positive effects on both steers and heifers long term. Cows that have had better nutrition during pregnancy produce calves that have done better prior to weaning and resulted in a higher weaning weight. And there is a tendency for those calves to have an increased gain per day of age as well as a better feed efficiency when compared to those females that were lacking key nutrients during gestation.


Now as we take those heifer progeny and develop them and replace them in the herd. It has been found that they have better reproductive performance and efficiency in their first calving season. Those heifers were reaching puberty earlier which is really important, because we want a few natural heat cycles in before time of breeding that heifer so that she is more fertile and more likely to conceive. And those same females that had better nutritional requirement from their mothers, more of them were pregnant in the first breeding season and more of them calved earlier. And this is pretty important, because we want to give those first calf heifers, as two year olds, more time to breed back when they are nursing their first calf.


When we take a look at the steers produce from those dams with a better nutrition program, we see similar performance of their weaning and growth traits. We also see a tendency of an increased performance throughout the feeding phase. The elevated nutrition of their dams really improved their ability to turn pounds of feed into gain. When it comes to their carcass characteristics, those cattle with mothers that have had those supplemented nutrients during pregnancy have a tendency to hang a heavier carcass with a better quality grade.

This right here, no matter what kind of operation a cattleman runs, shows that it could be extra dollars and revenue in your hand. Just by taking better care of your cow herd, meeting those nutrient requirements, and feeding that growing fetus during pregnancy.
rtMy name is RT Pickering, I am currently a senior at Western Illinois University studying Ag Sciences with a focus on Animal Science. I am from Arcadia, IN and grew up on a small show cattle operation. I was very active in 4-H and FFA. I have a passion for cattle production and plan to pursue and career in agriculture. Thank you for your time to read my blog!


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