Wintering calves |

Wintering calves

Beef Specialist, UN-L Panhandle research and Extension Center
Ivan Rush |

As winter approaches many have retained ownership of calves, at least replacement heifers, and are making decisions on how to best improve income by retaining after weaning. Discussions will continue on the profitability of calf feds, backgrounding at 2.25-2.50 daily gain up to 800-900 pounds or wintering with a slower rate of gain with the intention of taking them to grass. When the decision was made to feed calves as calf feds corn was $5 or more per bushel, projected cost of gain in the feedlot was high and finished breakevens was relatively high. At that time, however, the fed cattle futures were much higher which gave some optimism of a good fed cattle market in the spring. That has all changed at this writing, but those that have calves on feed are pretty well committed, at least the cattle are, so if not already done so, some action to take advantage of purchasing corn below the cost of production should be considered.

For those that are backgrounding, cost of gain will favor those that are taking advantage of the cheap energy sources, primarily corn at harvest time. Today the cost of energy from corn is about 30 percent less than energy from good quality hay. I realize some are feeding hay that was harvested on the place and grains may need to be shipped in considerable distance. However, if the backgrounded cattle are in corn producing areas, in most cases today energy from corn will be cheaper than the current hay market. Feeding of corn silage and beef pulp may have prices locked in and committed, which may limit changes. The concern with feeding higher levels of corn or other energy sources, is the time old concern by the feeder that the cattle are too fleshy and won’t gain well and convert efficiently in the feedlot. As a consequence they will bid down on the cattle and you essentially give away the added gain. This is especially true if sold in the spring of the year when the thinner cattle, even though relatively heavy, are green enough to go back to grass. How many times have we seen grass cattle bring more per head than comparable cattle weighing 150-200 pounds more destined to go to the feedlot for finishing? It is a balancing act between keeping the gain high enough to keep cost of gain down and yet provide a backgrounded calf that has high market value. As a rule of thumb, if implanted steers gain in excess of 2.25-2.50 pounds daily (heifers perhaps .25 pounds less daily) body condition or fat will increase. If gaining less then a higher cost of gain may be experienced, however, backgrounding gains in excess of 2.75 daily may decrease value per pound when sold for finishing, so overall profitability will be less.

Many question the proper rate of gain for calves going back to grass. In general, most believe that the past .33-.5 pound winter gain is too low, however, much gain over 1.25 pounds will produce big grass cattle if weaned in late October weighing 550 pounds. If we assume 200 days to grass from weaning and 1.25 daily winter gain then we will make a calf weigh 800 pounds at grass time, which is too heavy for most to take to grass. I mention this because I often hear it stated cattle need to gain in the 1.25 pound range during the winter. If this is desired or recommended, then one must start with lighter cattle or calculate gain for a shorter period of time or perhaps place on grass for less than 90 days. Some will winter at 1.25 and then split the cattle in late winter or early spring and program the lighter end to grass and heavier end to finish which works relatively well.

Implants have probably already been administered at this time but if not, unless you are seeking an “all natural” market, some gain, efficiency and dollars are being left on the table if the cattle are programmed to gain over 1.25-1.50 pounds or more daily. I feel ionophores should be a part of any wintering program. They not only improve gain and feed efficiency but also aid in reducing the incidence of coccidiosis, bloat and digestive upsets. Also, external parasites such as lice should be controlled. Most calves get poured at weaning and that will do a good job of controlling lice up to mid to late December but then the lice population will start to increase. If an insecticide product was used to control both external and internal parasites at weaning, such as Ivermectin, Dectomax or Cydectin, then I would only worry about controlling lice this winter, especially for confined cattle. If lice are left uncontrolled, gain may be cut 25-50 pounds per head, plus they are ugly and tear down fences. Controlling lice is one of the most cost effective practices you have available. I would recommend the same for cows.

Hope you all enjoyed a great Thanksgiving and took some time to reflect on your many blessings after a big beef dinner and if not – Beef, it’s what’s for Christmas dinner.

email ivan rush at

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