Steve Paisley: Cull cow feeding and management

Steve Paisley

My last column discussed making the decision whether or not to feed cull cows. Several factors, and several decisions, made up front, help to determine the profitability and success of a cull cow feeding operation. As discussed a month ago, evaluating current fall prices, selecting thin to moderate cows and estimating the potential for increased gains and increased market value are important up-front considerations. The second half of the enterprise is evaluating feeding facilities, developing a feeding budget and maximizing performance on the selected group of cows.

Facilities: While any properly maintained feeding facility should work, there are a few considerations, the most important being that cull cows require space: Like a set of bulls, cull cows develop a pecking order, and require not only pen space, but most recommendations suggest allowing 20-24-in. of bunk space as well. Recent studies in North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming have also evaluated using self-feeders for cull cows as well. Both systems are viable, but adequate bunk space is important for any feeding operation.

Feeding considerations: The success of nearly all feeding enterprises hinge on building profit potential in your buy/sell margins, and maximizing that profit potential by maximizing cattle performance. If you are considering a drylot program for finishing cull cows on grain diets, one of the keys to profitability is achieving weight gains rapidly and marketing the cattle sooner, rather than later. Feeding the cattle somewhat becomes a compromise between feeding efficiency and carcass improvement.

The most efficient gains for cull cows are during the first 5-6 weeks, when cattle are regaining fill and depositing lean muscle. During the second half of the feeding period, cattle transition to depositing a higher percentage of adipose, both in internal and external fat, as well as marbling. These second half gains are less efficient, as it requires more calories to deposit a pound of fat than it does a pound of lean muscle.

Typical feedlot cull cow enterprises feed cows for 75-80 days. This captures that early efficient gain period and also allows cattle to deposit grain-fed “white” fat to improve carcass attributes. Cows coming off of native pastures must be gradually adapted to a grain-based diet, but a certain feeding aggressiveness is required to achieve 250-300 lbs. gain within the 75-80 day feeding window. Generally it is best to start with a diet containing approximately 50 Mcal NEg/cwt., but cattle can be moved up rapidly over a two week to a diet containing 60 to 63 Mcal NEg/cwt. and 11.5 percent crude protein. Diets do not need to be exotic to accomplish the task at hand. Cull cows are usually mature, non-gestating, and non-lactating so their requirements are quite low.

Winter grazing may also be a viable option for producers to feed cull cows. In regions where winter range is available, cull cows could be grazed and supplemented to support reasonable rates of gain. Grazing is even more appealing if crop residues, especially corn stalks, are available. Over two months, a cow could conceivably gain 100 lbs., approximately 1.5 body condition score, or more.

Grazing or forage-based programs are very tempting for some producers, as they often have the feed resources on hand, but it is very important to develop a budget first. Weight gains are considerably slower on forage-based programs, and while feed costs are less, very few if any of the cows will qualify for white fat premiums because of the forage based diets. There should still be a pre-determined goal and feeding schedule. A typical forage-based cull cow program should shoot for 200-lb. gains over a 100-110 day period.

Feedlot performance: Cull cows can achieve surprising weight gain in relatively short times on high grain diets. University of Wyoming studies have achieved 3.8-4.0 lbs./day over a 91-day feeding period, while Nebraska studies (2003) report gains of 4.63, 3.55, and 3.46 lbs./day in cows from three different sources fed for 90 days.

Cows fed for shorter durations will likely experience more rapid gains. Illinois data (1989) compared the performance of cows fed for 42 or 84 days. They observed a clear advantage for cows fed for shorter periods (6.04 versus 3.53 lbs./day for cows fed 42 or 84 days, respectively). It should be noted that these rapid gains are directly related to feed intake. We are used to feeding growing steers and heifers, where feed efficiencies (lbs. of feed required to achieve 1 lb. of gain) are in the 5.0-7.0 range. However, to achieve that same pound of gain, a cull cow is likely to require 7.25-9.0 lbs. of feed depending on the length of time she is fed. The same Illinois data reported earlier (1989) fed mature cows for either 42 or 84 days. As discussed earlier, the cows fed for 42 days achieved an efficiency of 4.66, while the feed efficiency for the group fed 84 days was 8.43.

Mature cows have very large capacities, resulting in dramatically high intakes. The obvious consequence is high feeding costs. Therefore, any management factors that can be used to improve animal performance will help improve the profitability of feeding cattle. To help improve feed efficiency, all cull cows should receive an aggressive implant strategy and be fed an ionophore and melengesterol acetate (MGA) at recommended levels. Although this statement appears at the end of the paragraph, it is probably the most important. Feeding ionophores, either Rumensin and Bovatec, as well as feeding MGA, are very important to keeping cattle on feed, and maximizing gains.

Implanting: Implanting cull cows can dramatically improve feedlot performance, carcass weight and should be considered for all cull cow feeding programs. In addition to stimulating intake, improving gains and feed efficiency, implants also increase lean muscle gain (at the sacrifice of fat deposition) and can also negatively impact tenderness. These responses are dependent on the timing and type of implant used.

Cody Wright (SDSU), presenting at a previous Range Beef Cow Symposium, reports that both estrogenic and androgenic implants have been researched in cull cow feeding experiments. Estrogenic implants cleared for use in cows (Synovex-H, Implus-H and Component E-H) are based on a combination of 200 mg testosterone and 20 mg estradiol benzoate. Androgenic implants cleared for use in cows (Finaplix-H and Component T-H) contain 200 mg trenbolone acetate (TBA).

Studies suggest that “mild” implant programs, those utilizing estrogen-based implants, have shown minimal responses, while the more aggressive implant programs, those that include higher dosages and include TBA, have shown favorable responses in gains and feed efficiency. As mentioned earlier, the use of more aggressive implants will potentially impact marbling and tenderness. This is often not as large of a concern in cull cow feeding programs, as quality grade (marbling) has less of an impact on prices received.

Over the last two columns we have discussed cull cow programs, starting from developing a marketing plan, taking advantage of seasonality in prices, selecting the right group to feed, considering feeding and management options, maximizing efficiency and trying to capture any profit margin available. With all of these pieces in place, there is potential to capture value in cull cow feeding.

There is a note of caution as well. Choosing not to implant, not including an ionophore, feeding cattle too long, can all negatively impact profitability. If anyone has questions concerning feeding cull cows, please consider working with your local or state extension specialist to develop budgets, feeding programs and marketing opportunities.