Ranchers Look To Data To Lower Feed Costs

March 07, 2022

RAPID CITY, FEBRUARY 2022 - Curt Wieczorek knows profitability in the cattle business isn't just about how much money you make; it's also about how much you spend.

The seedstock Limousin breeder from a diversified farming and ranching operation near Mount Vernon, South Dakota, is the fourth generation of his family to take advantage of opportunities to improve efficiency.

The Wieczorek family has always been eager to adopt new technology that will move their business forward, from the early days of autotracking and precision farming, to using artificial insemination in their cowherd starting in the late 1960s. They've also used EPDs, including genomically enhanced EPDs, allowing their customers to be able to make data- based decisions about the future of their cowherds.

"We've always been very intentional about providing everything we know about our cattle to them from an EPD standpoint," Curt said. "We've been providing genomics on all the cattle for probably four years now as well, just to make the EPDs more accurate and to give a better picture of what they can expect from the product they're getting from us."

Curt has a drive for progress both within his own herd, and within the Limousin breed. He served as the 2020 president of the North American Limousin Association, and now serves on the board of directors in an ex officio capacity. "We need to each one be evaluating our strengths and weaknesses and be making efforts to improve those areas that are subpar while maintaining the areas that are at or above acceptable levels," Curt said.
It's that commitment to both excellence and progress that prompted Curt to
start investigating one more data set for his cattle--feed efficiency.

"Ultimately, I'm really excited about finding the bloodlines that are superior for converting pounds of feed into gain. Not necessarily which ones are the little eaters or the big eaters, but the ones that are the efficient users. If we can identify those, or the ones that aren't, and
either correctively breed them, or eliminate them, and start to move everybody in a positive direction in regard to feed efficiency, that will affect your bottom line."

In a year like 2021, when drought spread across the Great Plains, hay prices topped $200 a ton, corn was $6-7 a bushel, and cattle prices were sluggish for much of the year, improving feed efficiency by 5 to 10 percent could be the difference between red and black ink on the balance sheet at the end of the year. Curt says he's heard estimates that as much as 70
percent of the cost of raising cattle is feed costs.

"Whether it's a cow out in your pasture eating grass or in the wintertime eating hay, if you can be 5 to 10 percent more efficient, you can extend your stocking rates, or have more profit at the end of the day," Curt said. "We have to grab those efficiencies wherever we can in this environment."


Measuring Feed Efficiency

That's why Curt added a system that measures feed efficiency to his data collection and feeding setup. The SmartFeed system, developed and manufactured by C-Lock Inc. In Rapid City SD. works with RFID tags to identify cattle as they approach the feed bunk, and measures individual feed intake. Additionally, a cow will go off feed as much as two days before showing clinical signs of illness, so when the SmartFeed system recognizes a cow hasn't been to the bunk, and sends an alert to the manager, it can save money by allowing early treatment and isolation of sick cattle.

The system records how much each animal eats and how often they visit the bunk, sending that information to a cloud-based app that is available for both mobile and desktop use. The raw data is put into pre-programmed algorithms, and reviewed by actual people at C-Lock, who turn that data into something the producer can use. The producer can draw conclusions between rate of gain and certain genetics, as well as behavior and weather factors like heat, humidity and cold. The user then has that data to communicate to potential buyers, and can use it to make decisions in their own breeding and management programs. The producer can customize what data they want, the alerts they receive and who gets them.

"I know that working with this company has just been a joy," Curt said. "Everyone I've dealt with has been easy to work with and has the producer's best interest in mind, and do everything they can to work with you and get you going down the right road."

That road started with a single pen of steers for Curt. About half the calves in the pen were sired by bulls he owns. "I'm looking for sire data to see if one bloodline is superior to another in terms of efficiency. Finding those bloodlines and propagating those bloodlines, from a seedstock perspective, all the way through the chain, to my commercial customers who buy the bulls, to feedlots who purchase the cattle from them, to the packer--everyone will be able to benefit from more feed-efficient genetics."

Jeff Clark, a sales consultant for C-Lock products including SmartFeed, has a degree in animal science and comes from a cow-calf background. "Before I took this job, I was a commercial producer, and we had a strong focus on feed-efficient genetics in our herd," Clark said. "I wouldn't buy a bull that didn't have feed intake data. We were focusing on feed efficiency from both the feeder side, and to increase feed efficiency in the females we kept back in our herd." Clark estimates that making those data-based decisions resulted in an 15 percent improvement in feed efficiency in five years, and the feeder calves that were advertised to be out of feed-efficient genetics generally brought around $15 more per hundredweight than similar cattle.

Clark said, "We want to overcome the perceived hurdle that this is going to add work and take time and cost too much. Because it's not. Seedstock producers and their customers will be better off in the long run. You can start with one bunk if you want to. There's no costly infrastructure and no minimum purchase. We can tailor the system to the individual needs of the ranch. SmartFeed units can be easily moved or added as producer need change.

The Wieczorek family hosted their 42nd annual production sale on Friday, February 25th. This was the first real test of their SmartFeed data. "We've been very pleased with the acceptance of our product," Curt says. "I really feel like that acceptance has the potential to grow by offering additional data. This will take us even another step and give our customers that much more of a sure picture of what they're purchasing and how it will impact their operations."

Sales totaled $314,750 with 47 bulls being sold averaging $6,691 per head a $632 increase over last year's sale average.Feed efficiency data was listed on the supplement sheet to help customers make better buying decisions. Those more efficient bulls that had less than 6 pounds of feed to 1 pound of gain averaged $1,196 more than their less efficient counterparts. Solidifying the advantage of identifying feed efficient genetics using SmartFeed systems.