Five Tips to Lower Cow/Calf Producer Feed Costs

November 19, 2020

With Feed costs accounting for the majority of annual cow costs and potentially on the rise in 2021, use these tips to shave costs and remain profitable

Understand Animal Requirements

Sounds simple, right? But in all reality, this is where we have to start. Honestly, this is what you pay a consulting nutritionist to do, if you don’t want to learn it. It’s not that hard, but the nutrient requirements of your animals are pretty complex and variable, and are highly dependent on a number of factors that you must correctly identify to feed optimally in terms of performance and economics.

In a former position working for Extension, I’d frequently ask an audience of cow/calf producers to tell me the protein requirements of a beef cow. I’d get answers that would range from 7-13% crude protein, all of which were not necessarily incorrect, based on the vague question I presented. Sooner or later however, someone would answer with the famous “It Depends” phrase, which of course in this case is absolutely the correct reply to this question.

Nutrient requirements do depend on a number of factors including age/size, stage of production, body condition, milk production, environment/temperature, as well as production goals and targets to name a few. This means there’s significant differences in requirements for a mature second trimester dry cow, compared to an early lactation 3-year-old and everything in between. Thankfully, there’s information we can use as a guide for all these factors to help us meet the nutrient requirements for these various factors. These requirements are published as the “Nutrient Requirements of Beef Cattle” by the National Research Council. Below is a link to a summarized version that is a great reference document for nutrient requirements, published by Oklahoma State University.

Feeding the animal correctly does two things to reduce feed costs. There’s an old saying that “You can’t starve a profit from a cow” which basically illustrates that under-feeding, while perhaps saves costs in the short-term, ultimately costs you from decreases in fertility, milk production, and animal performance. Conversely, over-feeding can result in cows carrying too much condition and research shows this may be can be detrimental to both performance and profit for over-conditioned cows. So, feeding correctly optimizes performance without adding expense.

Forage Management

Ok, for a cow/calf producer this might actually be the #1 factor for profit. Another question I used to stimulate thoughts when visiting with producers about forage management is “What’s a pound of grass worth?” Commonly the answer I received was its “free”, to which I’d reply that I’ll have a load of cattle at your place tomorrow!

Jokes aside, the US beef cow/calf industry largely depends on cows grazing “cheap” grass to cover the requirements necessary for them to be productive and raise a calf. Every day a cow doesn’t “graze”, means you have to feed her more expensive “stored” feed, which equates to more expensive feed. When land was cheap and highly available, there was little economic incentive to actually manage pasture or range. Carrying capacity and stocking rates remained the same for generations. However, with land at near all-time high prices and scarcity, managing and utilizing this resource efficiently has become paramount to cow/calf profitability and reducing cow feed costs.

Management strategies around forages typically involve deployment of some type of grazing system or technique. In the past couple decades, there’s been a lot of different names used to describe forage management strategies. Some common one’s such as Rotational Grazing, Management Intensive Grazing, Mob or High-Density Grazing are just a few. However, regardless of name, these strategies all work to accomplish a couple of key benefits, uniform grazing, and plant rest.

Uniform grazing really means there’s little or no spot grazing that is witnessed using continuous grazing or allowing animals to graze a given area too long. Spot grazing is where you see some plants grazed to the ground (overgrazed), and 3 feet away, plants that are tall and mature (under grazed). This effect is explained by the fact that cows have a natural ability to select the highest quality plants from a pasture, and in a continuously grazed pasture, that means they select the least mature, lowest fiber/most digestible plants that re-grow after being previously grazed. An effective grazing management strategy will eliminate spot grazing, by deploying the proper number of animals in a given area such that there’s little or no ability for the animals to “re-graze” plants previously grazed. An additional benefit of uniform grazing is that it can also be used to manage the forage maturity level/quality. In essence, all plants are grazed uniformly, which benefits total forage production, forage utilization and quality, plant diversity, soil health, soil erosion, and ultimately stocking rate.

Plant rest is the critical component for forage management. Plant rest, means the plants are protected from grazing and have time to re-grow and use photosynthesis to their advantage to re-charge their root systems and remain resilient during times of stress such as drought, disease or pests. With overgrazed plants or plants not rested, root systems are weakened, and plant density can decrease which leads to lower forage production and lower stocking rates.

Yes, there are costs to forage management. Fence, water development, and labor to move cattle are the major costs. But what if these investments might lead to a 20% improvement in stocking rate and a 10% increase in the grazing season? Now think about that over a 10- or 20-year period. If you’re in this business for profit, as well as for sustainability for generations to come, forage management strategies will pay great dividends.

Inventory Your Resources

It’s cliché but astute business folks know the importance or being proactive vs. reactive. It’s unfortunate, but for most cow/calf producers, the day you realize you’re running low on feed is typically about the same day everyone else in your area draws the same conclusion. That leads to either high priced feed, or an oversupply of cattle at the market. Neither scenario is profitable. A wise, older cattlemen I worked with always reminded me that in the cattle business, you should run when everyone is walking, and walk when everyone else is running. Essentially, this means be in a position to sell when everyone’s buying, and buy when everyone is selling. Managing your feed inventory resources is critical towards helping you exploit these opportunities.

This doesn’t have to be complicated, and can start with some basic questions. How many tons or bales of hay do you have, and have you tested it to determine its quality and supplementation needs? If it quits raining today, how many days of grass will you have until you must start feeding hay? Based on your anticipated supplementation needs or forage deficits do you know what your anticipated feed costs will be? Is there an opportunity to contract feed prices at a seasonal low price?

Few businesses the size of an average cow/calf enterprise operate without a running inventory of resources. And the cattle business likely faces tighter margins. Spending some time on an inventory of resources really means you can have a plan to address future issues. So, do you know your hay’s protein and energy values? Do you know the growth and relative quality of the dominant forages in your pastures? Do you have enough hay for a longer than expected winter? How many cows do you have? Can you buy more cows or need to sell some? Can I wean and pre-condition my calves or do I need to sell at weaning, and take the seasonal low prices? Can I sell feed to my neighbor for some extra cash if needed? Determine the key ingredients needed for profit and start developing an inventory sheet to monitor these resources.

Effective Supplementation

These days there’s lots of technical and frankly high cost supplements available. Maybe some have merit, but I like to remind producers that the key driver for profit in cow/calf production is fertility, or getting cows bred and weaning a calf, and no other factor affects fertility as much as body condition score. Thus, for cowherds, it really boils down to determining if the animals require supplementation to maintain proper body condition and then identifying a supplemental feed that provides that nutrient in a cost effect manner.

Supplemental feeding is just that. A feed supplied to make up a nutrient deficiency in the animal’s base diet. Sometimes it’s not that the nutrient is deficient in the sense that the animals will lose weight or be unhealthy, but it’s deficient from the standpoint that the animals won’t perform or gain as desired. In other cases, supplements can be used to prevent future deficiencies, such as stretching forage resources if our inventory indicates we could face a shortage.

It’s really hard to supplement effectively if we don’t understand the limiting nutrient(s). The key drivers from a nutrient and body condition standpoint are protein and energy, so having a hay test as well as some base knowledge of forage and pasture quality are very important. Again, we must also know the animal’s nutrient requirements to accurately estimate deficiencies.

After we identify the limiting nutrient, it’s time to think about the cost/benefit ratio. If cows are thin going into winter this should be a pretty easy evaluation. What if we’re grazing mature or dormant forages? Likely a protein deficiency exists, which will be critical to correct for optimum rumen microbe performance. We typically say that forage protein values of 7% or less will require protein supplementation. What this really means is that we need some form of degradable protein in the rumen for the microbes to do their job. If the microbes are not working, passage rates slow and intake decreases, and cows enter into a negative energy balance and lose weight. In other forage species, such as fescue, many times protein can be adequate, but fiber levels are such that digestibility is limited, which reduces energy. In this case, supplemental protein is not only expensive, but ineffective.

Are You Efficient?

Efficiency is a broad term, but one that can be applied to virtually all aspects of livestock production. Efficiency, as it relates to animals and their genetic propensity to convert feed efficiently to gain is exceptionally important, but so are a lot of other components of the beef enterprise. Sometimes efficiency is more tangible when it involves your time and efforts. Want to spend more time growing your business or on marketing next year, or more time with family and friends? Where will you find that extra time? When it comes to cow herd nutrition here’s a few factors to consider:

  • Does your supplemental feeding system allow you to use least cost products such by-products feeds that are typically the cheapest sources of protein and energy?
  • Do you have an efficient supplement delivery system that requires minimal labor and time?
  • Does your supplemental feeding system actually deliver the correct nutrients to your animals?
    • When hand feeding or providing supplement on pasture are the animals that need it the most actually receiving it?
    • Many high cost supplements such as tubs/licks/liquids, are designed to limit intake, and in the face of large nutrient deficiencies may fall short of actually meeting animal’s needs.
  • Does your feeding system have minimal levels of feed waste?
  • Can you use your feeding system to efficiently utilize your forage resource base?

Putting it All Together - Feeding Optimally and Efficiently

As we think about feeding cattle optimally and efficiently, historically this has been a challenging task, especially on pasture/range. The paradigm with supplementing cattle is we either use low cost feeds that require significant labor to deliver effectively, or high-priced feeds that are easy to feed, but likely nominal in terms of results. Recommendations such as sorting and feeding cattle based on age, stage of pregnancy/lactation, body condition, etc. has been one strategy to supplement cattle correctly. The real challenge of sorting management/feeding groups is that it requires additional facilities for the multiple groups of animals, and added labor, typically at a time of year when these resources are already stretched to the max.

The use of limit fed supplements has been a strategy used to minimize labor costs. However, feed ingredients used to limit intake are either quite costly or variable in terms of individual animal intake, and many times both. Salt has been used extensively to limit intake, and while it may provide some ability to control intake, there’s great variability to salt tolerance within a herd of cattle. Much like people, some cattle love and have a high tolerance to salt, and thus will readily consume more than their programmed level of intake. Conversely, other animals may only want to consume a fraction of the desired levels of salt necessary to receive the proper amount of supplement. While there’s been some advances in feed intake limiting compounds, the products used come at significant costs and ultimately have little ability to precisely feed cattle on an individual basis.

So, what if there was a different option. What if you could place a feeder in your pasture that that had the technology to precisely feed each cow in the herd according to her requirements. Could it save time? Labor? Feed Costs? Keep cows in the proper body condition? Improve fertility and conception rates?

What if there was no need to sort 1st calf heifers from mature cows. No need sort based off calving date or season. How about the ability to creep feed calves from the same feeder you supplement cows from, and even creep feed the heifer calves differently from their steer mates.

This technology is available. Naturally, you wonder what it costs because technology is expensive, right? First, what does it cost you to hand feed your cattle with a pickup and cake feeder and how much time do you spend and feed do you waste? Do you use self-limited supplements such as tubs? What does that feed cost on a per ton basis, and are your cattle really receiving what they need?

SmartFeed systems from C-Lock Inc. are game changing technology for the livestock industry. These affordable systems that allow you to optimize supplemental feed intake on an individual animal basis from your phone. Additionally, these systems can help you manage and detect problems in your herd by automatically sending you messages if an animal doesn’t visit a feeder in a given time period.

Request a quote today and start reducing your feed costs.

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