Study could provide money-saving alternative for cow-calf producers


SCOTTSBLUFF, Neb. – Karla Jenkins would like cattle producers to imagine a couple of very different scenarios.

In one, the cost of renting or buying good-quality pasture to run a cow-calf herd is through the roof. In the other, wide-spread flooding or other natural disaster has devastated acres of prime grass pasture.

Actually, today, neither one of these scenarios needs much imagining – they’re reality in and around the cattle producing regions of Nebraska, Wyoming and Colorado, said Jenkins, cow-calf and range management specialist at the University of Nebraska Panhandle Research and Extension Center in Scottsbluff. And, if her research proves itself out, she may have a solution to that long-term expense or short-term disaster relief.

Jenkins is studying the benefits of limit-feeding cows and cow-calf pairs on confinement. Not the traditional confinement one thinks of, with critters crowded together. While it could work in a feedlot setting, if that’s what a producer has available, her idea goes well beyond that. 

In addition to feedlots, a cow herd confinement setup could be on virtually any open ground – post-harvest corn stubble in a field, a pivot corner – just about any place the cows can be contained, access is available for water and the producer can get to at feeding time.

“Because of the floods Nebraska has experience, there may be some pasture land that has sand on it from the rivers, so they may have grasslands they’re not going to be able to use,” Jenkins said. “Obviously, not by choice.”

While western Nebraska and eastern Wyoming experienced more blizzard and mud than flooding from late-winter storms this year, the impact is pretty much the same – land that can’t be grazed, or grazed as heavily as usual, Jenkins said.

“And, in light of the fact a lot of perennial grass acres are gone – not from disaster but from more crop production acres,” she said. “There’s higher land prices that make it harder to acquire, either through purchase or lease, of a lot of perennial acres you would need to start a cow herd.”

And it could mean a foot in the door for a new generation
of producers.

“Sometimes, we have producers who want to come home to the operation and continue in farming and ranching like their parents did, but the place only has x-amount of income,” Jenkins said. “Unfortunately, it’s a ‘we can’t all come home to mom and dad’s basement’ concept.”

That’s the other side of the coin for a confined-cow management system. The herd can spend part of the year in confinement, part of the year grazing the corn-stalk residue, Jenkins said. Or, part of the year they are on some annual forage, then back into the confinement setting. 

It all “becomes part of an ongoing system of herd management,” she said. “It can basically be confining then in an area where they’re not out, over-grazing pasture.”

There are some considerations to take into account when working up a confined-cow management plan, Jenkins said. One is the ration, because where ever producers plan to keep their cows, they’re going to have to supplement to make up for the fact they’re not grazing. And those rations change, depending on where the cow is in the birthing cycle.

“We know what (the cow’s) requirements are,” Jenkins said. “We just develop the diet to meet her needs. We have to make sure she gets plenty of energy.”

In addition to the supplement, the bulk of the cow’s daily feed comes from some type of roughage – corn stalks, either grazed or baled and fed, for example, depending on what’s the least expensive. 

“I know a guy in Texas who feeds cotton seed hulls and broken cookies he gets pretty cheap,” Jenkins said. “If we know the energy and protein contents of the feed we have, and what her requirements are, we can always balance something that will sustain her.”

There’s some give-and-take to limit-feeding, confined-cow management. For one thing, it’s more labor intensive than just turning the herd out on pasture, with the necessity to feed daily, Jenkins said. There also needs to be consideration for the needs of the calf during that portion of the cycle, with access to feed as it nears weening and water throughout, she said.

“And you have to do a little more sorting of the cows when you’re limit feeding,” she said. “You’ll still have some cows that get bossy, pushing other cows around.

“I think it could be adopted broadly – it depends on what they have,” Jenkins said. “I’ve seen some people get very creative with how they set up a (confinement) system.”

The management plan also helps make weening the calves a smoother process, she said. Since the pairs are together in the confinement area, the calves get used to eating solid food alongside their mothers, which is important in the development of the rumen in the growing calf.

It’s possible to set up the system to provide a separate creep area for the calves, with their own feed source the cows can’t get to. It could be as simple as a gate the calf can pass through but the cow can’t, a hot-wire set high enough for the calf to pass under, or just about anything else the producer could come up with, Jenkins said.

“It seems to work well for those people who are trying to get started, who don’t have a lot of money,” she said. “And it seems to work well for people with integrated operations.

“Everybody needs to kind of map it out on a piece of paper,” Jenkins said. “Look at the age of the cows, where you get the cows, how you manage all those things. Rather than just overlaying how I feed them on the herd I have, back up and look at what works best, given
the resources.”

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