By Laura Mushrush
Set your cowherd up for greater potential using these management tips
Forty head—that’s the size of the average cowherd in the U.S., according to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
“Usually a small cow-calf herd means a diversified operation,” says Rick Rasby, Extension beef specialist, University of Nebraska–Lincoln (UNL). This means the majority of producers have several irons in the fire, making it essential to maximize resources to keep the herd profitable.
“The cattle have to complement the rest of the enterprises, and the enterprises have to complement the cattle,” Rasby adds.
Whether they’re juggling an off-farm job or a diversified operation, cow-calf producers with a few dozen head have to play a smart game with limited resources. According to Rasby and Jaymelynn Farney, Kansas State University Extension beef specialist, there are a few steps producers can take to increase their herd’s potential:
1. Reduce input, increase output.
- Use ionophores. These feed additives are designed to alter the rumen to increase feed efficiency and weight gain. Ionophores allow cattle to perform similarly on 10% less hay, Farney adds. They can also be fed in a dry or liquid form to any age group of cattle.
- Implant calves. “Implants are an old technology but still a great technology,” Farney says, adding there are different kinds of implants for different age groups of cattle. “For your dollar, you can hardly find a larger return on your investment than with implants.”
According to Oklahoma State University research, steers implanted in the nursing phase will net a 0.10-lb. increase in average daily gain compared with non-implanted steers.
- Supplement when needed. “First, I would test the forage,” Rasby says. “This allows you to figure out where you need to supplement.”
Feeding a supplement when needed will balance cattle diets and result in greater performance.
“You don’t have to spend a lot of money on a nutritionist,” Farney says. “Use your local livestock professionals and state Extension specialist.”
- Use available feedstuffs. “Low input cost is key,” Rasby says. “Take advantage of corn residue if it’s available.” Research shows grazing residues has no impact on corn yield if cattle are stocked at a recommended to rate, he adds. The Cornstalk Grazing Cow-Q-Lator from UNL can help determine stocking rate and cost.
2. Assess your genetic strategy.
- Maximize heterosis. One of the simplest ways to put more pounds on the ground is by capturing heterosis through crossbreeding.
“Crossbreeding results in greater reproduction rates and higher weaning weights,” Farney says. “It’s an easy way to put on more pounds, and more pounds equals more money.”
Research by The Samuel Roberts Nobel Foundation says direct heterosis could increase calf survival by 4%, weaning weight by 5% and post-weaning gain by 6%.
- Tighten your calving season. To reduce time and labor resources, synchronize cows’ estrus cycles for breeding—it lessens the amount of time needed and yields higher calf weights.
“It doesn’t have to be timed AI—just synch them to be bred at the same time,” Farney says, adding the earlier cows cycle and calve, the greater the return. “Research shows you get 1.5 lb. to 2 lb. of calf weight per day of age. Calves born in the first 30 days of the calving season have around 60 lb. more weaning weight.”
- Ditch heifers. Calving out heifers requires higher quality feedstuffs and risks greater calving difficulty and weaning lighter calves, Rasby says.
“Could they buy pregnant heifers? Would that be more economical than having a heifer bull around? They might not have enough replacement heifers to get full use of a bull,” he says. “If the herd size is 50 cows and replacement rate is 15 that equates to seven to eight heifers to meet replacement needs. This producer would probably keep 10 heifers to develop and breed. The typical bull-to-female ratio is 1:25, but it depends on the age of the bull. Cost per pregnancy is high in this scenario.”
- Get the most of your bull. “Again if the producer owns 65 head of breeding females, should you have two or three bulls if the bull-to-female ratio is 1:25?” Rasby says. “Get to a number that fits your resources but also to where you aren’t underutilizing bulls.”
It might be cheaper to lease a bull. “Find a seedstock producer who understands your goals and objectives,” he adds. “This also gives you the opportunity to cut into their expertise.”
3. Get creative with marketing.
- Talk about your cattle, and participate in premium sales. If a producer is practicing advanced herd health and management protocols, the best thing he can do about it is tell potential buyers, Farney says.
“From a marketing perspective, don’t be afraid to brag on your cattle. If people don’t hear you’ve been doing something above and beyond, you won’t capture additional revenue,” she says.
Seek out sales specifically for documented preconditioned cattle in structured programs, such as VAC-45, to capture earned premiums.
- Collaborate with a neighbor. The size of your heard determines how you market cattle—the more cattle you sell at a time, the more they are worth.
“Generate a partnership with cohorts who have similar genetics,” Farney says. This also gives producers more marketing options since some outlets require full semi-loads at a time.
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