It's not news that the most expensive part of any cattle business is feeding. A recent study noted this input accounts for 65% of total beef production costs, with the cow/calf segment using about 70% of feed calories. Hay and winter rations can add up fast, often being the difference between profit and loss.
Large-scale operations, whatever segment they fall in, have access to business tools many smaller producers don't. Staff nutritionists, the ability to buy in bulk and the use of markets to price ahead are all common ways they balance the scales in favor of a profit. But cow/calf operators willing to change a few practices can also maximize profit potential. There are variants on the scale-balancing techniques the big boys use that work for the small herd operator. It's often the simplest things that can turn a red year into a black one.
FEEDING METHODS MATTER
Large feeder operations continually invest in research to be sure they are physically feeding animals in the most economical way. One of their primary goals is to cut waste. Cow/calf producers can do the same thing, just on a smaller scale. In many cases, a few simple steps can cut 30% off of feed needs just by reducing waste.
1. BALE PROCESSORS. If you're in the market for equipment, bale processors are one way to waste less hay feeding cattle. The Noble Research Institute looked at this approach, both for feeding in windrows and bunks. Bale processors lightly chop hay, which improves utilization by the herd. The researchers reported less wastage when windrowing cows in the pasture with processed hay. Processing also improved use of hay by increasing accessibility of carbohydrates to the rumen, especially important where hay is low in quality. The challenge is labor, as this is a technique best used daily. On the plus side, it allows movement of feeding areas, distributing nutrients and manure evenly over pastures.
2. ADD FEEDERS. One of the simplest ways to reduce hay waste is by feeding it in smaller amounts. Granted, this is more labor-intensive, but it is a proven way to keep cattle from trampling and soiling feed.
Many producers get around the need to feed daily without increasing waste through the use of a rack, cone or hay ring. The key is to invest in enough feeders to give timid members of the herd a place at the table.
University of Missouri's Robert Kallenbach notes a 30-cow herd will consume a 900-pound round bale of hay each day when that is their primary available feed source. Most hay rings have space for just 10 cows at a time. Rather than using one ring filled daily, Kallenbach uses three rings filled every three days. This gives all the herd members a chance to eat, and it cuts labor costs.
Be sure hay is put down in well-drained areas. Consider pouring a concrete pad or installing a crushed gravel feeding pad. Both will help minimize spoilage.
What kind of savings will that hay feeder yield? When compared to spreading or unrolling hay in a pasture, Kallenbach says Extension studies at Missouri showed more than a 40% savings from using feeders. He notes they looked at a seven-day supply of large round bales and compared feeding it by spreading versus on a rack. With the rack, hay loss was 5.4%; without a rack, it was 43%. So, on the conservative side, this one change could mean saving about one-third on the annual hay bill.
3. HAY QUALITY. The better hay is nutritionally, the less of it a herd needs to maintain body condition. So, in addition to feeding hay a less wasteful way, it's always worthwhile to have a forage test. If you buy hay, ask the seller for sample numbers off of the year's crop you are purchasing.
If you cut your own hay, don't assume you know the nutritional numbers without a test. Several factors impact quality. For example, stage of maturity when hay is cut makes a big difference. The younger the plant, the higher the quality. Unfortunately, the weather doesn't always let producers cut hay at the optimum time, making testing key. Look specifically for protein (CP) and energy levels (TDN); and in the case of alfalfa hay, add relative feed value (RFV).
As a start, a 1,200-pound dry, pregnant beef cow requires about 1.9 pounds of CP and 12.6 pounds of TDN daily. This equals quality at 7.8% CP and 52.5% TDN with an intake of about 25 pounds each day. Her requirements go up after calving.
4. COVER IT UP. Lastly, don't discount the hay you may save with a good wrap and keeping it under cover. If you have to store some bales outside and some inside, feed those stored outside first, because they deteriorate more quickly.
GENETICS YOU USE
Genetics is on the cutting edge of feeding efficiently today. It's a tool accessible to anyone.
The National Program for Genetic Improvement of Feed Efficiency in Beef Cattle wrapped up a big project in 2018 that looked at more than 2,400 animals and compared feed intake, growth and carcass composition. The study included eight breeds and involved a consortium of scientists, industry leaders, breed associations and producers. One of the goals was to develop markers to help genetically identify the most feed efficient animals.
Dan Loy, director of Iowa Beef Center, explains the right genetics can shift a herd pretty quickly. He notes just a 1% improvement in feed efficiency is equal to a 3% increase in rate of gain economically.
Calves and yearlings selected for residual feed intake (RFI) have the same average daily gains but eat less in the feedlot, and save operators money. That makes these calves very desirable to buyers when they are identified. This same genetic benefit helps cow/calf producers build a more efficient cow herd, as well.
"Today, a lot of the actual measurements of feed intake that go into EPDs cow/calf producers can base bull selection decisions on and evaluate their herds came from the study we did as part of the National Beef Cattle Evaluation Consortium (NBCEC). The data was collected on feedlot cattle, but it applies to how efficient an animal is in the cow herd, as well," Loy explains.
For many producers, he notes the best way to start building more efficiency into a cow herd is through the use of breed association selection indices. These are balanced, allowing incorporation of more feed efficiency while maintaining maternal traits.
It doesn't take a lot of time to see positive benefits from the inclusion of more feed efficiency traits, he adds. "While it depends on where you start and how extreme your selection is, it's very possible to see results in the first generation. We, as an industry, have spent so much time selecting for growth, weaning weights and yearling weights that we've built an animal that eats more. If that's where you are, a bull in that upper quadrant for feed conversion will impact the first generation."
On the cutting edge now are producers able to identify and verify genetics in the areas of carcass quality and feed efficiency, and then market those cattle as such. "Feeders will pay for a more feed-efficient animal," Loy stresses. "That's how the cow/calf producer can see a real benefit here."
Often, it's important to be able to rely on alternative feeds to stretch available hay. Maybe drought closed the door on forages early, or hay shortages are making prices prohibitive.
Eric McPhail, a county director with Colorado State University Extension, says the goal of any feeding program for cow/calf producers is to keep cows in good body condition so they rebreed. Add to that the importance of pounds of calf produced and weaned per cow, and it's clear why alternative feeds should always be that option considered sooner rather than later.
Think locally. Whether it's cottonseed from the local gin or distillers grains from the ethanol plant down the road, many producers have options close to home. Balance any ration against the animal's changing needs. McPhail emphasizes the importance of talking to local Extension specialists to be sure feed alternatives are given in a way that doesn't create problems.
"Local Extension will often know of resources for feed, and they are familiar with potential pitfalls. You may be in an area where you can get cull potatoes or sudan or peanut tops. Whatever you have available, you need to know how to balance it and make it stretch. Alternative feed sources aren't free, so before you put money into something, be sure you know what is required to handle it and how much of it you can feed."
In substituting grain or another concentrate feed, McPhail says the rule of thumb is 1 pound for 3 pounds of grass hay (or 2 pounds of alfalfa hay). Don't exceed grain feeding by 0.4% of live body weight. It often takes seven to 10 days for cattle to adapt to high-grain diets, 14 to 21 days to adapt to a concentrate. In these situations, a minimal amount of roughage is needed to maintain rumen function—about 0.5% of body weight. A 1,200-pound cow, as an example, would need at least 6 pounds of roughage daily. Most importantly, producers have to shift feeding with the animal's needs.
"That's what the whole thing comes down to," McPhail stresses. "Know your animals' nutrient requirements, and then look at what is available to best meet those needs. Feeding heifers is a lot different from feeding heavy
Consider, for example, that a 1,050-pound dry cow requires 9.2 pounds of TDN, 1.3 pounds of protein, 16 grams of phosphorus, 16 grams of calcium and 25,000 IU of Vitamin A. One possible ration that would achieve this is corn at 10 pounds, hay at 3 pounds, soybean meal at 0.5 pounds and a free-choice mineral of the high calcium feedlot type with Vitamin A. This same-size cow, now lactating, needs TDN at 13 pounds, protein at 2.3 pounds, phosphorous at 24 grams, calcium at 32 grams and Vitamin A at 40,000 IU. Looking at the same ration, this computes to 13 pounds of corn, 4 pounds of hay, 2 pounds of soybean meal and free-choice mineral.
The most important consideration with alternative feedstuffs, McPhail concludes, is the nutritional analysis that should always include a test for nitrates in annual forages, which can be a serious problem if drought has been an issue.
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