With a replacement heifer enterprise, a freezer locker business, two cow herds and a couple of loads of stockers at times, Phillip Crawford knows how to keep a close eye on ration costs. And, it sure hasn't been easy lately.
"Feed has gone up at least 30% since the spring of 2020," the Rebecca, Georgia, cattleman says. Fortunately, he and his family had already implemented money-saving strategies well before feed prices skyrocketed. In 2018, they switched from growing corn for grain to chopping it for silage. With help from a custom harvester, Crawford estimates it goes in the bag for $40 a ton.
Silage has become the base for the most-fed ration on the operation today. With corn hominy and whole cottonseed added, as well as a mineral pack, the mix was running around $130 a ton at press time.
It averaged 14% crude protein and 75% total digestible nutrients (TDN), or energy, and is used to supplement the 200 head of replacement heifers the Crawfords raise and/or buy to develop, breed and sell in July. The mismanaged bull calves they usually buy in the fall also ease onto the silage mix after processing. And, if winter grazing isn't available, it is used to supplement part of the cow herd.
A byproduct of the dry corn milling process, hominy is high fat (5 to 8%), high protein (11.5%) and high energy (90%). Whole cottonseed is another superfeed with 18% fat, 28% crude protein and 90% TDN. The Crawfords estimate they save around $50 a ton on this quality byproduct because they raise cotton and get their own seed back from the gin. That means they don't have to buy it on the open market. The remaining ingredient they rely on is dried distillers grains, which also get high marks for quality at 18% fat, 28% crude protein and 90% TDN.
The operation does buy cracked corn for the same price or cheaper than they can grow, store and process it themselves. It makes up one-third of the ration for the 25 head or so of freezer-locker cattle they finish yearly. All together, this ration is their priciest at $300 a ton.
DISTILLERS BOOSTS GRAZING
The Crawfords use distillers grains in their feedlot, but University of Georgia Extension animal scientist Lawton Stewart notes the byproduct also works well as a supplement for grazing cattle.
"Since the starch is removed, the energy derived from distillers grain is primarily digestible fiber and fat. The digestible fiber complements the fiber in forages, unlike corn or other starch-based energy feeds that can depress fiber digestion," Stewart says.
Scott Sell, animal scientist at the Clemson University Edisto Research Station, gives the Crawfords two thumbs up for making use of distillers grains, as well as other byproducts, as they work to keep feed costs down. "The biggest thing is to think outside the box," he says. "A lot of producers use whole grains like oats and corn as their go-to ingredients. Forget that and go to a byproduct mindset."
In addition to the byproducts the Crawfords use, Sell points out ingredients like corn gluten and soy hulls also work well in many operations. And, he adds, sometimes the craziest stuff can be valuable.
"Microbreweries that make craft beer throw away tons of brewers grain," he says. "It is a great product that is working beautifully for some producers."
HAY TESTING COUNTS
Another money-saving tip Sell recommends is testing hay before trying to formulate a ration. "If it is 11 to 12% crude protein, and 58 to 60% TDN, an 1,100-pound lactating cow can make do on that. There are producers who have that quality of hay."
The Crawfords' bermudagrass hay, which they feed free-choice along with both silage and feedlot rations, runs almost 16% crude protein and 50% TDN. They also have limited amounts of sorghum sudan, millet or oat baleage that they feed to their cows.
When possible, they depend on top-quality winter grazing of ryegrass or oats, which can run around 18 to 20% crude protein and 80% energy, rather than supplementing the cows. Winter grazing is a mainstay here for both replacement heifers and stockers.
Crawford also works hard to minimize waste of all these high-priced feeds with careful management. "When the tractor cranks up in the morning, we want them to start toward the trough and act a little hungry. If we see some leftover feed, we back off."
THERE'S AN APP FOR THAT
While it can be a challenge to get your hands on lower-cost feed ingredients, putting them to work in a balanced ration has its own frustrations. Scott Sell, animal scientist at the Clemson University Edisto Research Station, knows that all too well.
"When I was a county agent, and later when I had a feed mill, one of the most often asked questions was, 'How do I balance a ration?' For years, I did it on paper then on spreadsheets I developed myself."
He also evaluated a number of commercial feed-balancing programs; but none met his needs.
"Either they were expensive, they were geared toward dairy or they weren't intuitive. I needed something simple."
Enter Kendall Kirk, a precision ag engineer, also at the Clemson Edisto station. The two rolled out the Clemson University livestock Feed Ration Calculator.
Sell says all you have to do is tell the calculator what ingredients you have on hand and the batch weight you want to use. Unlike most ration-balancing programs, it doesn't make you use a batch weight of a ton.
"If you have an old vertical mixer that mixes 3,000 pounds, it will figure the ration in batches of 3,000 pounds," he says.
While the app has a drop-down list of common grains, forages and byproducts, it will use what you have on hand as long as you have a nutrient analysis.
"We've heard from people all over the country wanting us to add custom ingredients. One fella had scraps of legal marijuana. He had a nutrient analysis on it, so it would balance it for him," Sell laughs.
"The cool thing that is a little different is a lot of the commercial programs balance for what they want based on National Research Council (NRC) tables," he continues. "If you try to use what you have, it will tell you that you can't do that. If a producer has fed his cows for years, and they've done alright, he doesn't need the NRC or a university to tell him what he can't do."
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Clemson University Feed Ration Calculator: https://precisionag.sites.clemson.edu/…
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