An Alternative to Expensive Grazing

June 14, 2009 07:00 PM

By Rick Rasby, University of Nebraska Beef Cattle Specialist.

The calls continue to come in asking about the feasibility of dry-lotting beef cows, but dry-lotting cow-calf pairs seems like a lot of work. In addition, cows belong on pasture in the spring and summer and one of the unique characteristics of cattle is they have the ability to convert forage to protein.

There are a couple of reasons for the questions. Pasture costs continue to increase even in this time of financial uncertainty. There are reports that pasture agreements are going for $26 to $28 per AUM for a 5.5 month grazing period. That's $31.20 to $33.60 for a 1,200-lb. cow. With these figures, pasture costs alone range from $171.60 to $184.80 or the 1,200-lb. cow. Add on transportation costs, mineral/salt, and fuel and labor cost associated with checking to cows and bill per 1,200-lb. cow-calf pair quickly approaches $200.

So much for the spring/summer grazing phase for being a cheap part of total feed costs. Also, because of the soft cattle market, some producers think "running age” cows will continue to decrease in price and it may be a good time to add on a few more cows that have some years left in them, but yet they don't have the pasture to add a few more cows.

Each year Bruce Johnson conducts a survey of Nebraska farmers, ranchers, and land-owners titled the Nebraska Farm Real Estate Market Development Survey. The results of his survey can be found in a publication titled "Cornhusker Economics Newsletter" and is usually in one of the March issues. Bruce categorizes the survey information into eight districts. The majority of the sandhills of Nebraska are located in the "North” district. The information is not reported in AUM's but are dollars per cow/calf pair and cows will typically weigh between 1100 and 1300 pounds. Average rental on in 1986 was $10.50 and $33.65 in 2008.

Dry-lotting beef cows is not a new concept for beef producers. Vern Anderson at the Carrington Research Station that is associated with North Dakota State University has research dry-lotting beef cows and has a nice publication that can be accessed via the web at NDSU Publications.

Some of the advantages can include:

  • less investment in land;
  • small cow-calf operators can increase their cow numbers without buying or renting additional land;
  • diets can more closely meet the cow's nutrient needs as they change throughout the production cycle;
  • drought is not a concern; easier to gather and treat animals that are sick or injured;
  • easier to implement an artificial insemination program;
  • and calves are basically "bunk broke” as they are use to eating out of a bunk.

Some disadvantages are:

  • more labor and equipment are needed;
  • cows are need closer supervision;
  • herd health program needs to be well designed and implemented;
  • and, if cows are naturally mated in a dry-lot, calves need access to a place that they can get away from the riding/breeding activities.

It is interesting that data suggests that performance of calves and cows is similar whether they were dry-lotted or managed on pasture.

Some producers that drylot cows have cool-season grass pastures but no warm-season pastures to go to when the summer temperatures increase and the cool-seasons grasses go dormant. These producers have the opportunity to conduct the majority of the breeding season using bulls completed before cows have to be dry-lotted. This helps with the challenge of trying to breed cows in a drylot situation; although breeding may need to be finished up in the drylot.

Pen size and lot space can be variable depending on soil type and drainage. A general recommendation is 500 to 800 square feet per pair. Plan on between 28 and 36 inches of bunk space per cow depending on cow weight. If you have a mix of young and old cows, it would be ideal to have separate pens for these groups. If separate pens is not possible, then hedge toward the higher number in regard to bunk space per cow. Diets for dry-lotted cows usually contains a lot of forage and therefore are bulky so deep feed bunks will help limit waste. The calf, as it gets older, will also come to the bunk and eat and diets need to be adjusted.

There are many ways to go about designing diets for pairs in a dry lot. Cheap, or less expensive, feeds are needed to make this a profitable enterprise. Baled corn stalk residue, CRP hay, straw can work to stretch higher quality forages such as alfalfa. Depending on the price, corn may or may not fit into the diets for dry-lotted cows. An alternatives to corn, especially in the summer, are corn by-products. Usually distillers grains are usually cheaper in the summer because it is a time when the number of cattle in the feedlot is low. Also, distillers grains (regular and modified) and gluten feed can be stored in bunkers or ag bags.

Information on storage of grain byproducts can be found here. If you feed distillers grains, no more than 1/3 of the diet on a dry matter basis likely needs to be distillers. Distillers and gluten feed are high in phosphorus, so no supplemental phosphorus is needed to meet the dry and lactating females needs. There is likely a need to add calcium to the diet. Mix the diet uniformly, pay attention to sulfur content, and make sure there is plenty of bunk space so all cows get their share. When diet contain high amounts of grain and you will need to adapted cattle to these diets. As always, you will need to push the pencil to determine what feeds are economical and if this type of enterprise is feasible for you to consider.

Dry-lotting beef cows may be an alternative to expensive grass and a way to expand the cow herd on a limited forage base. It would be important to check with your Department of Environmental Quality to determine if permits are needed for this type of confined animal feeding operation.

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