Will Corn be a Viable Option for Backgrounders This Fall?

07:24AM Aug 21, 2014
BT Background Calves 2
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Corn should be a lot cheaper this fall, but will it be better than other alternative feed stuffs?
By: Jeff Lehmkuhler, Beef Extension Specialist, University of Kentucky

As fall approaches, many beef producers are making plans for weaning this year's calf crop. With record high calf prices, many calves will be marketed without being weaned or preconditioned. This provides an opportunity for the backgrounding segment of our industry. However, with the high investment in the feeder calf, folks will be looking for options to reduce inputs. Feed costs are the first area to consider and this year may offer some savings for some operations that have access to corn below elevator cash bids.

Last week's Kentucky Department of Agriculture's market report had next day cash corn bids of $3.40-$3.85 which calculates to $120-$140/ton range. Soybean hulls from the state were $150 FOB while dried distillers grain was $155 at Hopkinsville, Ky. Corn gluten feed in the Midwest was reported in the $140-$160 range FOB. These prices are not what most folks will be quoted when calling the local feed mill or dealer. Cash bids for new corn are often much lower than the price of corn to be sold as feed due to handling, shrink loss, and mark-up added to ensure a profit margin. These prices of commodities serve as benchmarks and can be used to make adjustments in the feeding program. As of today, corn is a viable energy source in relation to the other coproduct feedstuffs.

Feeding starch-based energy supplements to cattle consuming a forage-based diet has been shown to lower rumen pH and have a detrimental impact of forage digestion. This reduced forage digestibility can lead to lower intakes and decrease overall energy available to the animal. Nutritionists often referred to this phenomenon as a negative associative effect. This doesn't mean that one can't feed corn in forage-based rations. One simply has to limit how much starch is offered if the goal is to maximize fiber digestibility. There are other factors such as forage quality, protein available in rumen and rumen degradability of the feedstuffs. There can be situations in which one would be willing to sacrifice some fiber digestion and feed higher rates of starch-based supplement. This may be when corn is relatively cheap, hay is low quality, hay stores are short, alternate fiber-based coproduct feedstuffs are more costly, and the target rates of gain are moderately high. Sound familiar? This appears to be the situation this fall.

Can corn be used in forage-based programs? Recent research from Iowa involving steers grazing bromegrass and being provided supplemental energy at 1% of body weight in the form of soyhulls, a 20%/80% blend of corn and soyhulls or 40%/60% corn and soyhulls revealed an 8% increase in performance or about 0.2 lb/d increase in daily gains when corn was fed with soyhulls when compared to soyhulls alone. Similar findings were noted by Oklahoma researchers in which Angus steers grazing dormant native range were provided either corn/soybean meal, soyhulls/soybean meal, dried distillers grains or a cottonseed meal/soybean meal supplement. Steers supplemented with a low rate of a 40% protein cottonseed/soybean meal supplement gained 0.44 lb/d while those receiving soyhulls/soybean meal, corn/soybean meal or dried distillers grains gained 0.81, 1.03 and 0.86 lb/d, respectively. The reported supplement conversion (pounds of supplement per pound of additional live weight gain) was numerically lowest, most efficient, for the corn/soybean meal supplement. The level of corn fed in this study was 0.67 % of body weight. Brazilian researchers compared beet pulp to corn supplemented at 0.6% of body weight and observed no differences between source of energy when steers were grazing warm-season grass pastures. These recent studies with corn support the option for using it in forage-based programs.

The next question to answer is how much? The level of corn supplementation reported to have no impact on fiber digestibility is 0.25% of body weight. However, others have shown that levels up to 0.7% had minimal impacts when corn was offered and 0.8% when barley was the source of supplemental energy. The levels of supplement from the research discussed above falls within these ranges.

Providing supplemental energy from corn may be a viable option this year to lower feed costs. A 600 lb steer could receive 1.5 to 4 pounds of corn daily and potentially have minimal impacts on fiber digestibility. Often forages require additional supplemental protein in addition to energy reducing the actual level of corn needed.

A scenario in which 600 lb feeders require 1% of body weight in supplement to provide adequate energy will be used to compare possible supplement mixes. It is also assumed that the supplement should contain 16% crude protein and the mineral and vitamins would be provided separately free-choice. A $25/ton mark-up on feed is added to the plant prices reported earlier and corn price is increased by $0.70/bu from elevator cash bids. A 55:45, near 1:1, soyhull/corn gluten feed mix would cost $175/ton. A 60:40 corn and dried distillers grain mixture would provide similar protein at $10/ton less. The same savings would be seen by moving a traditional 2-way mix of soyhulls and corn gluten feed to a 3-way mixture with corn while the crude protein would be lower. This doesn't include the increased gain and efficiency that may be observed when feeding corn in comparison to other feedstuffs.

If you are considering to utilize corn this year in place of other feedstuffs such as corn gluten feed or soyhulls, call your local extension office to obtain additional information to develop a cost effective supplement program.