Declining cattle numbers in some regions of the country are a door of opportunity for Nebraska’s producers. That’s what Jim MacDonald believes, and it was the focus of a field day earlier this year at the Eastern Nebraska Research and Extension Center, near Mead.
MacDonald, associate professor of animal science at the University of Nebraska, notes the cattle business is the single largest industry in the state. That’s one reason the Beef Systems Initiative was created in November 2016. It provides a central point for researchers, University of Nebraska Extension specialists and USDA to find ways to grow and improve the state’s beef-production systems, as well as uses of available forage resources from croplands and pasture.
“Failure is not an option here,” MacDonald says. “We have to figure out ways around barriers to adoption of these systems.”
FORAGE CHANGES. One of the premier programs the initiative focuses on is an alternative cow/calf production system using different types of forage. Zac Carlson, a University of Nebraska doctorate student, gave a presentation at the field day sharing research into cow/calf production using confinement (cow/calf pairs housed in a lot) and corn stover.
The system had a breakeven in line with more traditional cow/calf practices compared to straight year-round confinement. Breakeven through weaning in these more conventional enterprises came in around $1.75 per pound. In the study comparing a confinement system and corn stover, the breakeven was in the same range.
With pasture becoming more difficult to find, and rental rates rising in recent years, land is often a barrier for producers interested in establishing or expanding cow/calf operations. Carlson notes this research shows there are other ways to manage a cow/calf operation.
“What this shows you is partial confinement can compete when grass prices are higher,” he explains. The alternative system, however, is not perfect.
Research found the pregnancy rate for full-confinement cows was 83.1% compared to 97.5% for the confinement/corn stover model. Calf performance varied, as well. Calves in full confinement had an average daily gain (ADG) of 2.15 pounds; calves in the confinement/corn stover group had an ADG of 1.32 pounds.
This nonconventional system utilized double-crop annual forage, crop residues and confinement for part of the year, Carlson says. The system used corn and soybean fields as crop residues, and wheat stubble as the double-cropped annual forage.
To best match forage availability to the cropping-livestock system, producers could alter when calving, breeding and weaning times occur. Calving season could be pushed back to roughly July 25 to Sept. 23, breeding would occur from Oct. 16 to Dec. 15 and weaning around Oct. 10.
Research into this alternative cow/calf system is expected to continue, with 2017 marking the first year in a planned five-year study. Eighty cows are in both the traditional and alternative practices.
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