The biggest factor determining profit margins on a calf is the annual cost of maintaining a cow. And typically, the biggest factor in determining annual cow costs is winter feeding.

Maintaining condition of the gestating cow is critical, as research and practical experience consistently show that substandard nutrition during this period can negatively impact calf health and performance, and next season’s conception rates.

But with prices for virtually all feedstuffs and for the fuel to transport them significantly higher than just a year ago, innovation and creativity become important in sourcing and using feeds.

Graze early, graze often

Animal scientist Ivan Rush, PhD, at the University of Nebraska’s Panhandle Research and Extension Center, Scottsbluff, says the overlying strategy should be to encourage cattle to graze for the major part of their diet. Depending on the region and location, this might include standing dormant grass, windrowed hay, corn stalks or other crop residue.

North Dakota State University Extension beef cattle specialist Greg Lardy, PhD, agrees, emphasizing that energy prices are at the root of most of the increase in production costs. Producers, he says, need to look for ways to cut inputs that are most dependent on energy. These include harvested feeds and bulky feedstuffs transported long distances. “We need to find ways to let the cows do more of the work,” he says.

Lardy notes that growth in demand for ethanol production has led to a significant increase in corn acreage, much of it outside traditional corn-growing areas. This trend has made more stubble fields available for winter grazing, a new option for cow-calf producers in some locations.

Lardy says the total volume of residue, including stalks, leaves, husks, cobs and grain, typically is about 50 pounds per bushel of corn harvested. A field that yields 120 bushels of corn will contain about 6,000 pounds of residue per acre. Cows typically are able to graze about half of the residue in a field or about 3,000 pounds per acre in this example. Based on those estimates, he says, 1 acre of corn residue should support a 1,000-pound dry cow for 45 to 60 days.

Strip grazing  —  using electric fencing to concentrate cows into a smaller part of the field and moving over the course of the season  —  can improve utilization and potentially allow higher stocking rates.

As selective grazers, cattle will eat the most digestible and nutritious residue in the field  —  grain, corn husks and leaves  —  before moving on to cobs and stalks. The longer cattle graze a stubble field, the lower in nutrient content it becomes. Strip grazers need to pay attention and move cattle in a timely manner, and cows in the same stubble field over the course of the winter might need protein supplementation later in the season. Lardy says corn residue also is low in most minerals and vitamin A, so a good supplementation program is important.

Lardy says some producers in the Northern Plains area have had success with planting annual cover crops after small-grain harvest for grazing during the fall, winter and spring. In some cases they plant a single crop, such as millet, or a “cocktail” of crops including turnips, radishes, annual grasses and legumes. These systems provide high-quality forage while preventing erosion and returning nutrients and organic matter to the soil. He also has seen success with windrowing crops such as millet into swaths for winter grazing. Strip grazing in these fields improves forage utilization and minimizes waste.

Researchers with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, working at the Northern Great Plains Research Laboratory in North Dakota, recently tested a program of “swath grazing” cattle through the winter on crop stubble fields. They wintered spring-calving cows on fields in a rotational cropping system, growing oats and peas the first year, triticale and sweet clover the next and corn the third year. At harvest, they piled crop residues into windrows to allow better access for grazing cattle. The cows in the swath grazing system gained slightly more weight than similar groups wintered on perennial western wheatgrass or fed hay in winter corrals, while providing the additional benefit of returning nutrients to the soil.

Pinch pennies on purchased feeds

Rush acknowledges that in most situations, cow-calf producers will need to supplement their cow herds with some combination of harvested feeds. While harvested forages generally are expensive these days, producers might have access to lower-cost options such as wheat straw that they can upgrade with other ingredients.

With wheat prices high, farmers harvested a lot of wheat acreage and produced significant tonnage of straw this year, Rush says. Wheat straw in western Nebraska and eastern Wyoming has been priced at $50 to $60 per ton  —  less than half the price of alfalfa hay. Wheat straw by itself is not very palatable, but producers sometimes grind it and mix with higher-quality ingredients to produce a more palatable and nutritious feed.

Treating wheat straw with anhydrous ammonia as a non-protein nitrogen source boosts its feed value, but Rush points out the process requires more management and labor, and that the price of anhydrous ammonia has increased considerably along with other nitrogen fertilizers.

Rush says some producers have had success with injecting large bales of low-quality hay or straw with molasses-based liquid supplements to improve palatability and feed value. This can be a fairly low-cost option, he says, although it requires investment in some equipment and labor.

Sorghum or sudan grass residue, harvested while still moist, makes decent silage but needs to be stored in bags or bunkers. Hay made from millet, sorghum or sudan grass can make a good feed, but Rush reminds producers to test for nitrates.

Cow-calf producers should look for opportunities to purchase unconventional products to use in their winter feeding programs. In areas with vegetable production and processing, for example, producers might have seasonal access to products such as waste or cull potatoes, beets or carrots. Wet beet pulp improves the palatability of low-quality hay or straw, but Rush notes it is relatively low in protein.

When feeding lower-quality forages, Rush says, you need to pay attention to protein supplementation to allow cattle to fully utilize the energy in the feed. Natural protein sources such as distillers’ grains are best in this situation (see sidebar).

Rush reminds producers that low-cost, low-quality feeds don’t always turn out to be as cost-effective as they appear, if cattle performance suffers. Lardy agrees. He notes that on one hand, research has shown most improvements in profitability do not necessarily come from improving productivity but rather from controlling cost per unit of production. At the same time, producers need to know what not to cut. Up-front savings in animal health or nutrition can end up costing you more in the long run. He encourages producers to invest in forage testing. The small investment in knowing what you have can allow you to fine-tune your supplements, ensuring good nutrition while avoiding waste.

Breeding for new realities

In the long run, Lardy says, we need to emphasize genetic selection to match the cow herd to the forage resource. When he asks producers about the size of their cows, most will say they weigh 1,200 or 1,300 pounds. But when he looks at sale reports for cull cows at area auctions, they are coming in at 1,400, 1,500 or even 1,600 pounds.

Producers have selected for heavy weaning weights and, consequently, increased the mature size of their cows. Big, heavy cows might have worked when feed and the energy to grow and transport them were cheap, he says, but in an environment of higher production costs, producers need to select for efficiency. 


Capitalize on co-products

Prices remain volatile, but corn and corn-based co-products from ethanol production have become slightly more cost-effective in recent months, especially relative to the high price of hay.

Depending on proximity to a source of ethanol byproducts, producers might find economic benefits to using either dry distillers’ grains with solubles or wet distillers’ grains with solubles. DDGS require more energy for production and, thus, cost more on a dry-matter basis but are less expensive to transport. WDGS are a lower-cost option on a dry-matter basis but with higher transport costs.

University of Nebraska animal scientist Ivan Rush says WDGS make an excellent supplement to enhance low-quality forages. Blending the product with wheat straw, corn stalks or other roughage produces a feed that’s a good source of protein and energy.

Limited storage time can be an issue for WDGS, but producers with access to the product can successfully mix it with other feeds for season-long storage. University of Nebraska researchers recently conducted a series of tests to evaluate storage systems for WDGS mixed with various other feedstuffs. For a link to the report, including recommendations for storage ratios using various feed ingredients in either silage bags or bunker silos, click here.

Cow-calf producers also can use distillers’ grains to supplement cattle grazing stubble fields or dormant pastures. Unlike corn, distillers’ grains do not interfere with forage utilization. Researchers at Iowa State University recently conducted a metabolic test to determine the effects of DDGS on intake and digestibility of smooth bromegrass hay. Their results indicated that increasing the amount of DDGS fed increased total dry-matter intake and digestibility but decreased hay intake porportionately. They concluded that supplementation of grazing cattle with DDGS could increase diet digestibility while reducing forage intake, potentially extending pasture acres.

For links to additional Drovers articles and research reports related to winter feeding and supplements, click here.