Backgrounding calves on standing corn
December 30, 2014
Traditions can be comfortable, automatic, even sentimental. But sometimes, perhaps, there is an even better way.
Lucas Hoff, Richardton, N.D., recently faced this issue. He wondered, which is more economically and environmentally sound: for a farmer/rancher to haul manure or for a weaned calf to deposit used animal nutrients directly onto a cornfield where it is considered a valuable byproduct?
"I didn't want to push manure around any more," Hoff recalls. Consequently, he contacted North Dakota Stockmen's Association Environmental Services Director Scott Ressler in 2007.
Hoff, who ranches with his wife, Jolene, traditionally wintered cows on pasture or cropland, calved in a corral and moved pairs onto pasture when the calves were a few days old. In the late fall/early winter Hoff also had a conventional animal feeding operation (AFO) where he backgrounded calves on rented land near "waters of the state." Ressler assures, "He had some real management decisions to make."
Hoff weighed his options. "I spent a lot of time on the hill," he says, noting that he was looking over his operation, seeking a good piece of clean ground without existing, natural water issues and with fresh, available water. He began developing a partial system in 2009. Thanks to his decisions, his pocketbook and the NDSA Stewardship Support Program, he is currently in his third year of backgrounding calves grazing corn.
Ressler explains that a partial system is an unconventional way to background calves, unlike a conventional feedlot situation. In Hoff's case, a partial system included cost-shared perimeter barbed-wire fence, water lines and a water tank on 30 acres of planted corn.
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With the partial system Hoff continues his traditional winter feeding, calving and weaning strategies, but backgrounding has changed drastically.
He weans in weaning corrals, feeding stress barrels and whole corn for 10 days to allow calves to recover from weaning. Then he moves the calves into a 30-acre cornfield.
"The calves are on the field from 10 days post-weaning until the day we sell them," Hoff says. About 200 calves typically graze 30 acres of corn for 30 to 37 days. Then Hoff mixes up a ration to carry them through the remainder of the 90-day backgrounding period. "But I have to back off the ration 30 percent or better because they will continue to forage," he says. "They lap that field every day."
After the calves are sold, the cows go onto the same cornfield as a pre-calving holding area. This assures that 100 percent of the cornfield is utilized.
Figuring averages over the past two years, the calves have gone into the cornfield in mid- to late-October weighing 509 pounds and have gained more than 56 pounds in the first 38 days with a two-year average daily gain of 1.46 pounds. Those are satisfactory numbers, but it's when Hoff figures the gains and the cost per hundred-weight (cwt.) that his face breaks into a grin. Figuring expenses of corn, stress barrels and hay, he penciled out a gain of 8,652 pounds in 2012 at $1.55/cwt for $13,411 or 14,086 pounds in 2013 at $1.78/cwt. for $25,073.
On a gross return per acre he figures $447 earned in 2012 and $836 in 2013. Assuming the same overall 14,000-pound gain in 2014 at $2.55/cwt., Hoff figures $35,919 for an estimated gross return of $1,197 per acre this year. "I keep going back to per acre because if I wouldn't be feeding on it I'd be raising a crop on it," he explains.
Using North Dakota Farm Management Education records for corn farms in the area as a basis, he figured an overall net return per acre of beef versus corn at $449 in 2012, $570 in 2013 and an estimated projection of $959 in 2014. Referencing 2013 he paints a picture stating, "We netted $570 over taking a combine out there and harvesting it…Looking back, I should have done this sooner."
Hoff believes Southwest Water Authority water is a valuable commodity. "People would tell me 'You're gonna go broke buying water.' He states, "Last year it cost me a mere $800 to water about 200 head with good quality, available water for six months."
Hoff moves feed bunks around the field to spread manure and prevent compaction. He notes that his operation has limited windbreak protection, which is not ideal and a lack of available electrical power can create water tank concerns in certain weather conditions.
Ressler notes, "It's not rocket science and it's not that expensive." The law only requires that producers come into compliance. "You can build a structural operation or like Hoffs, you can change management by implementing a partial system to comply."
Hoff concludes, "It's a system that's worked really well for us. We didn't want to move a bunch of dirt and put in cement feed bunks. And we didn't want to be trapped into a payment system. If we don't want to feed next year we don't have to feed next year." F