Last month I stated I wanted to share some good news and not dwell on the drought so I shared some great accomplishments as a result of check-off dollars. I was hoping moisture would come and we wouldn’t need to concentrate on dealing with the drought and lack of forage and the high price of corn. My plan didn’t work so will write about the drought and maybe moisture will come. I attended a recent Nebraska Feedlot Roundtable where dry lotting of cows was discussed by Dr. Karla Jenkins, beef and forage specialist at the University of Nebraska Panhandle Research and Extension Center. She and Dr. Terry Klopenstein, Professor Emeritus, UNL had coauthored the presentation based on their research and I found it very informative.
It seems as if every beef nutrition presentation starts with a drought monitor map, followed with a map projecting moisture and temperature for the next growing season. Most all of the weather predictors use ocean temperatures and the status of el nino and la nina. Even though pacific ocean temperatures seem to be fairly good indicators they are frustrating as the temperatures can change different than predicted. However according to the weather professionals, at this point, much of the intermountain high plains area can experience extreme drought conditions this spring and summer. I hate to think of it but if moisture does not come, which there is still plenty of time for that to occur, it will mean very little forage will be grown on our dryland ranges. This is coupled with the fact that most of last years’ forage production was taken last summer, fall, and winter. Two things can be in front of us – in many cases range grass will not be present or if available it will be very valuable. Last year in a good forage year there were reports of rental rates up to $55 per pair per month or $1.83 per day. If transportation is in the picture and if they are trucked 200 miles it could $9.00 per pair per month if grazed five months then costs would be $2.13 getting close to the cost of putting cows in a lot and hauling feed to them.
The animal scientists in Nebraska are conducting research on drylotting cows, thanks to a huge contribution by Dr. Ken Eng, nutrition consultant who wanted to study the feasibility of dry lotting beef cows year round, regardless of rainfall. Dr. Eng and his wife (who was lost in a tragic auto accident) has had this vision for many years and it is great to see this work being carried out.
Drylotting of cows is certainly not a new concept as most in the Northern Plains provide the majority of feed as harvested feed to the cow usually shortly before and after calving up to turn out time. Most dairy cows are held in drylot year around. Dr. Dave Lalman beef extension specialist at Oklahoma State University summarized data on drylotting beef cows in the late ‘90s – early 2000 and presented in an OSU fact sheet and that information has been used by many in the drought area from 2002-07, especially 2002. The major difference compared to today is that in 2002 corn was $2.00 per bushel and hay was $50-60 per ton and many cows were drylotted in 2002 with very satisfactory results.
Currently many operations are utilizing low quality forages such as ground corn stalks, wheat straw, CRP hay and mixing with wet distillers products. This has worked extremely well, however wet distillers are limited to most cow-calf operations.
The research done by UNL utilizes cows that calve in June and July. They feel this is important as the pens have a much better chance of being dry, especially in a drought, minimizing the risk of scours. They did not have any health problems with the calves last summer and weaned a very high percentage of calves. They are looking at the economics of weaning 90 days versus 205 days. They found the daily cost was about equal in both weaning systems. The added costs of feeding the early weaned calf was offset by the decrease in feed costs to the dry cow.
They fed a mixture of either ground corn stalks or wheat straw mixed with either wet distillers or wet beet pulp (Scottsbluff). The mixture for the dry cows is 30-40 percent wet distillers or beet pulp and 70-60 percent ground stalks or straw (dry matter basis). They limit feed the dry cows significantly to 17-18 pounds of dry matter daily providing approximately 11.5 pounds of TDN (total digestible nutrients). The cows maintained a 5+ body condition score on this diet. During lactation they were fed approximately 22 pounds of dry matter of a mixture of 60 percent distillers and 40 percent crop residue (% DM) providing 15.6 pounds of TDN for the pair. Of course as the calves matured they ate some of the ration from the bunk however it was only available for a short time after feeding. When utilizing feeds based off $7.50 per bushel of corn and crop residues at $115 per ton their daily feed cost was $3.12 for the pair and $1.80 for the dry cows. That does not cover the cost of feeding.
Obviously pasture will still most likely be the cheapest for pairs – if it can be found. In some cases producers may have an economical source of forage which could make drylotting more feasible. The bottom line is drylotting cows is expensive however research and experience has shown it can be done satisfactory and if one wants to keep the herd intact it may offer an alternative.