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Angus Journal
Copyright © 2015
Angus Journal

Implications of Fetal Programming

Evidence suggests supplementation of the pregnant cow affects heifer and bull progeny.

STAUNTON, Va. (Oct. 16, 2013) — While studying the impact of protein supplementation during winter grazing, University of Nebraska researchers observed how supplementation had little effect on beef cow reproductive performance as previously believed. However, evidence suggests supplementation of the pregnant cow does affect her calf.

Rick Funston

“Consequences of nutrient restriction must be considered not only for the dam, but for the calf she carries,” stated Rick Funston of the University of Nebraska’s West Central Research and Extension Center.

According to Rick Funston, a reproductive physiologist at Nebraska’s West Central Research and Extension Center, the research illustrates how the nutritional status of cows during pregnancy can have far-reaching consequences for their calves as a result of fetal programming. Funston spoke during the Applied Reproductive Strategies in Beef Cattle (ARSBC) symposium Oct. 15-16 in Staunton, Va., explaining the eventual impacts on steer calf performance and the reproductive performance of heifer calves saved as herd replacements.

Funston said data was collected on three consecutive calf crops born to cows that, prior to calving, had grazed winter range and received protein supplement. That was compared with data from calves born to cows that grazed winter range but received no supplement, as well as data from calves out of cows wintered on cornstalks, with and without supplemental protein. While subsequent cow reproduction was not hindered by protein restriction, steer calves born to protein-restricted cows exhibited lighter weaning weights and lighter finished weights. Evidence also suggests their potential for achieving quality grades of Choice or better was reduced.

Cow nutrition also appeared to have a fetal-programming effect on heifer fertility. Among heifer calves saved and developed as replacement females, those whose dams’ were protein-restricted exhibited lower reproductive performance. Supplemented cows produced daughters with higher pregnancy rates, and more of those heifers delivered their first calves early in the calving season.

“Consequences of nutrient restriction must be considered not only for the dam, but for the calf she carries,” stated Funston.

Funston said there is considerable evidence from studies of human health and nutrition that shows the effects of fetal programming. He cited evidence from human populations showing that malnutrition during times of war impacted the next generation. When humans were subjected to severely restricted diets and other stresses, their children were more likely to eventually develop metabolic disorders.

“There is gene-signaling or silencing that is triggered by nutrition factors experienced by parents — fathers, as well as mothers.”

Funston spoke during Wednesday’s ARSBC session focused on genetic and management tools to get the most from reproductive efforts. Visit the Newsroom at to listen to his presentation and to view his PowerPoint slides and proceedings paper. This comprehensive coverage of the symposium is compiled by the Angus Journal editorial team. The site is made possible through sponsorship by the Beef Reproduction Task Force.

Editor's Note: This article was written under contract or by staff of the Angus Journal. To request reprint permission and guidelines, contact Shauna Rose Hermel, editor, at 816-383-5270.