Drought option: Limit feeding beef cattle
As drought moves north, a large percentage of beef cows don’t have access to good grass. Karla Jenkins, cow-calf and range management specialist with the University of Nebraska, says it is possible for ranchers to raise beef cattle without depending on grass.
During a recent University of Nebraska webinar, “Using byproducts and crop residues to maintain beef cows in confinement,” Jenkins discussed how to manage cows in a drylot situation. According to her, it is possible to efficiently maintain cows in a drylot, but it requires homework. Ranchers need to determine what feed is available, cost of that feed, how much it will cost to transport, and whether they have equipment available to mix and feed it.
Several studies demonstrate cows can be maintained adequately in a drylot, no matter what stage of production they are in.
In an University of Nebraska study, non-pregnant, non-lactating cows were fed 1.3 percent of their body weight per day. Some were limit fed a 41:59 bunkered wet distillers grain (WDGS) cornstalk ration. Another group was limit fed 41:59 distillers solubles and cornstalks. A third group was not limit fed, and ate a ration of 43 percent bromegrass, 34 percent cornstalks, and 23 percent alfalfa haylage.
All three groups in the study gained weight, but the average daily gain on the WDGS ration was 0.82 pounds per day, compared to 0.68 pounds per day on distillers solubles and cornstalks, and 0.44 pounds per day for the non-limit fed group.
In another UNL study, Jenkins said late gestation cows were limit-fed ground alfalfa at 1.8 percent of their body weight (20 pounds dry matter) or a ration of 30:70 WDGS and wheat straw at 1.7 percent of their body weight (18.3 pounds dry matter). Limestone was also added to the latter ration at 0.3 pounds per day to offset phosphorus.
“The target was 11 Mcal/d or 60 percent TDN, which is the NRC recommendation for these cows in late gestation,” Jenkins explained. “Under both systems, the initial body weight and body condition score was the same.” In fact, their final body condition score was 5.8, which was an increase from 5.5 and 5.4 the groups started at. The cows gained weight, with a 144-pound gain for the group fed a hay ration, and 167 pounds for the WDGS group.
“The change in weight was not due to gut fill because the cows were limit-fed alfalfa five days before the trial started, and they were weighed for two days and those weights averaged,” Jenkins said. “The same thing was done at the end of the trial. Either way, our study found the cows maintained acceptable body weight with some added body condition.”
Jenkins said many ranchers wonder if their cows will eat various byproducts and residues. Jenkins cited many examples of cows consuming different combinations of these products, which fit well into their diet. “They do not leave feed in the bunk,” she said of the cows.
Cost to drylot
Jenkins calculated a ration of wet distillers grain and straw could be fed for $1.35 per cow, per day, plus some equipment for feeding. She figured a cost of $252 for WDGS per ton, including $10 per ton for trucking, and wheat straw at $85 a ton including trucking and grinding. The cost breakdown for this ration, considering 5.7 pounds of WDGS fed per day at $0.126 for a total of $0.718 per day, and 13.3 pounds of straw fed per day at $0.048 for a total of $0.635 per day.
Comparatively, Jenkins calculated feeding 20 pounds of alfalfa at $185 a ton would cost a producer $2.08 per cow, per day.
This cost may need to be adjusted depending upon cow size and stage of production.
A new study being conducted by UNL will determine how cows perform calving, lactating and breeding back in confinement situations. Although the study is only at the beginning stages, Jenkins is already seeing positive results. Forty-two cows in the study, divided between Mead and Scottsbluff, started calving June 15, and are being limit-fed solubles and cornstalks in Mead, and WDGS and wheat straw in Scottsbluff.
“The cows will calve and be bred in confinement,” Jenkins said. “We will also be early weaning some of the calves and comparing that to traditional weaning to see how they perform.”
So far, cows in the study are in a body condition score 5-6, don’t seem hungry, and the calves have been born healthy. “We haven’t pulled any calves,” she said.
As cows began lactating, their nutritional requirements increased, and thus their feed also increased. They are still being limit fed, Jenkins explained. “We want the cows to be on an increasing, not decreasing, plane of nutrition going into breeding so they will cycle and breed back.”
Editor’s Note: For more information about confinement feeding, Jenkins can be reached at 308-632-1245.