Ivan Rush: Making cowherd decisions during drought
Drought continues its tight grip, leaving many ranchers with difficult decisions.
The first drought recommendation I give is to wean calves early. Calves born in January, February and early March weigh 300 pounds and go on feed very easily. By removing the calf, the cow’s nutrient needs decrease 20 percent, as does her intake. A calf may consume 0.2-0.3 AUMs, and by removing it could extend grazing another 30-40 percent, or approximately another 2 months.
One of the biggest advantages of early weaning is that dry cows maintain or gain body condition compared cows still nursing calves. The alternative is heavy supplementation to offset weight loss, which is costly.
Another advantage to early weaning is that if properly fed, the calf may gain even more than if left on the cow.
The other major advantage of feeding a young and light calf is that they are very efficient in the feedlot, often producing feed to gain ratios in the low fives. This is especially important now with high feed costs. Most light calves can be fed high-concentrate diets with limited amount of roughage, which is currently about 40 percent more expensive per unit of energy than grain.
Some ranches do an excellent job weaning their calves at home; others lack facilities and high-quality feeds. Most commercial feedyards are willing to take light calves and do an excellent job feeding and caring for them.
Contrary to what was often believed, early-weaned calves start on feed very well with minimum sickness. Even though they may be weaned in hot, dry, dusty conditions, there isn’t much sickness at weaning time. This may be because the cow’s colostral antibodies in the calf supporting higher immunity.
The decision to sell, drylot or ship cows to where grass is available is a tough one. Fortunately, the cow market is still fairly strong, even though it has dropped some the past 2-3 weeks. Selling productive cows means selling the factory. The question becomes, “Can cows can be bought back at an economical level?” when it comes time to rebuild the herd. Disease or biosecurity is also a concern when introducing new stock in a normally closed herd.
Many cows have been and will be drylotted successfully – but this can be very costly. If cows are maintained in drylot, it is important to find economical feed sources. This typically includes lower quality aftermath feeds such as wheat straw, corn stalks or older lower-quality hay. These lower-quality feeds need to be supplemented with higher energy and protein feeds. Wet products from the ethanol industry is often an excellent choice, but can be difficult to purchase in a reasonable distance and at an economical price.
Often it is more economical to limit-feed higher quality diets, which will require least 2-feet of bunk space (preferably more). Cows will not be full, and some ranchers will not be satisfied with their appearance.
If drylotting cows is considered, consult with a person that can assist with an economical ration. At the University of Nebraska Panhandle Research and Extension Center, they are drylotting cows on a diet of wheat straw and wet distillers grains. A 1,250-pound dry cow will require approximately 1.5 pounds of crude protein and 11 pounds of TDN to maintain her body condition. To satisfy that requirement, a cow could be fed approximately 15 pounds of wheat straw and 13-14 pounds of wet distillers grains (roughly equivalent to 5 pounds dry). If straw is priced at $90 per ton and wet distillers at $100 per ton then the daily cost would be approximately $1.33. Of course yardage, or the cost of feeding, would have to be added to the feed cost. If yardage was valued at $0.25 per cow, per day, this would give a monthly cost of $47.50. This is not cheap, but may be competitive compared to increased pasture rates in many areas. There are many alternative feedstuffs available that may help in lowering cost.
Shipping cows is sometimes an attractive alternative. I believe the most important factor here is the care giver where the cows are being shipped. This is especially true when cattle are shipped long distances. The cost of shipping and the ability of the cow to adapt to a new environment are also important. The greater the change in the environment, the greater the concern for adaptation.
Shipping costs not only money for transportation, but also bumps and bruises during the shipping process. If cows are shipped 400 miles at $4 per loaded mile, the cost per truck would be $3,200 (round trip). If 45 cows were on the truck that would mean $71 per cow. If left for four months, it costs almost $18 per cow, per month, which would pay for quite a lot of feed in a drylot.
I wish there were easy and economical answers to drought. I spent a lot of time in 1988 and then again from 2002-2008 dealing with drought. Somehow ranchers were able to get through it, just like they will in 2012. Best of luck.