When considering protein and energy supplements, there's often more to consider than price alone. One question ranchers often have is how well older, “broken-mouth” cows utilize protein blocks.

They have their limits, and many cattlemen expect more out of a range block than they are capable of providing.

“Standing dry forage and protein blocks won't sustain an old cow, especially if she's nursing a calf,” says Jon Griggs, manager of Maggie Creek Ranches, Elko, NV.

Dan Drake, Yreka, CA, farm advisor, says a major reason these old cows decline in production is due to their reduced ability to break down feedstuffs.

“Of course, this is primarily due to the loss of the mechanical tools — the teeth,” he says. The digestive system is dependent on small particle sizes for proper digestion.

“Because the particle size consumed by these old cows is increased, passage rate is slowed. Thus, consumption is reduced,” Drake points out. “Nutrient requirements of these old cows haven't increased, but consumption and feed efficiency have both decreased.”

Many producers feel blocks are hard on a cow's teeth, particularly broken-mouth cows.

“They feel blocks accelerate the aging process,” says Ron Torell, Elko, NV, area Extension livestock specialist. “Others say the blocks don't wear teeth faster. I've never found any research to substantiate either.”

Nevertheless, once a cow's teeth can't do the job, she needs to be placed on a nutrient-dense ration with smaller particle size and softer feed.

“At that point, we need to do more of the feed breakdown process for the cow,” says Drake.

Glenn Nader, Yuba County, CA, farm advisor, agrees but also feels many of these old cows have lost some of the villa in the lining of the digestive tract. This adds to the lowered feed efficiency and digestion.

“These old cows need to be pampered if they're kept for the last calf, says Nader. “They can no longer produce with the same feed and under the same conditions as the main cowherd.”

Rancher Brad Dalton, Wells, NV, feeds his short-term cows chopped hay with a concentrate. “If you don't provide that extra feed and care, all you'll get is a dink calf and a canner cow.”

Everything considered, Torell questions if blocks are the supplement of choice for these old, broken-mouth cows.

“Consensus is to sort these old cows off and place them on a better diet, which might include a micro-mineral package,” he advises. “Standing dry forage and blocks are just not enough.”

But, Griggs offers a dose of reality given current hay and cull cow prices.

“Look closely at the costs involved in keeping these short-term cows,” he says. “If it doesn't pencil out, the only option is to sell her.”