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Guest Opinions

Extension by Scott Lake

Written by Scott Lake
Managing the Cow Herd

    In the past two calendar years seed, feed, fuel, fertilizer and equipment costs have increased dramatically. For beef producers, high corn and hay prices have challenged us to consider alternative strategies to lower cost of production and/or increase income to improve profitability.
    Each operation has its own goals and unique set of resources, which include basal feeds, labor, storage and feeding flexibility and animal numbers, among others. No one approach is right for everyone, but a plan needs to be formulated for each operation that makes the most sense and provides the best opportunity for the operation to be profitable.
    There’s lots of ambiguity, volatility and complexity in the marketplace, so producers need to focus on being objective about their business and the environment they’re operating within, and they need to remain well informed to make good decisions.
Culling the herd
    Feed cost represents somewhere between 60 and 75 percent of the annual cost of keeping a cow. This year the annual cost, which includes both summer and winter, to feed a cow could easily exceed $500 per cow or more, depending upon the operation.
    The point here is that when we figure total cost to keep a cow for the year, it is going to be expensive. This year especially, is a good time to cull hard and keep only productive cows. Hence, only productive cows that provide the greatest opportunity to generate a profit should be retained in the cowherd.
    To be productive, a cow must first, be bred, preferably in the first 45 days of the breeding season, and secondly, have the ability, including the milk, genetics and soundness, to produce a heavy calf at weaning. Cows that fail to conceive, or have any problem(s) that will prevent her from weaning a heavy calf next fall, should be considered a cull candidate.
    Pregnancy checking and culling cows earlier versus later can add value to the cow. Cull cow prices have a seasonal cycle and are typically above average in August, but drop as we progress through September to November. Seasonally cull cow prices tend to peak in the February to March time frame.
Forages
    Forages, including hay, corn silage and haylage, are the typical basal feed in most cow operations. Each year, the two big variables facing producers are forage quality and quantity. With the high price of feeds, producers are often challenged to harvest or buy forages that can provide a large portion of the nutrients needed by the animal. Forages can be highly variable in their nutrient profile, and thus the recommendation to sample and analyze forages for nutrient content is justified this year.
    When forages are analyzed and it is determined that the available forage cannot meet the animal’s requirements, then a cost-effective plan can be developed to provide the deficient nutrients to economically optimize productivity. Typically this means utilizing feeds that are high in one or more nutrient categories (energy, protein, vitamins, minerals) that the forage is not meeting. Compared to a year ago, many areas of the region are in worse shape regarding hay inventory, as weather this year has impacted our ability to produce, harvest and store high quality forages.
    Feed the lowest quality forages to animals with the lowest nutrient requirements. Nutrient requirements are lowest for cows shortly after weaning when they are in mid-gestation. Requirements increase significantly as the cow enters late gestation, and increase again after calving. Young cows, have a requirement for higher quality feeds than older cows at every stage of production, thin cows have higher requirements than fatter cows, and cows experiencing winter wind chill factors below 30 degrees Fahrenheit have higher requirements than cows with shelter or wind break.
    The recommendation is to divide the cowherd into management groups by nutritional requirements. In cowherds where a limited breeding season of 45 to 75 days is used the management groups might be replacement heifers; young cows plus thin older cows; mature cows in moderate and above condition; and bulls. If the breeding season is significantly longer than 75 days, the number of management groups should increase to allow economical delivery of feed to cows according to their requirements during gestation as compared to lactation.
Limit feeding hay
    Recent research at Purdue University has shown that limiting cow access time to large round bales for one, two or four hours reduced forage disappearance by 72, 50 and 22 percent, respectively, compared to estimated free choice hay intake.
    With these limited access programs, when the hay consumed is properly supplemented, cow performance, or weight and body condition, is not negatively impacted. The ingredients and level of nutrients should be used to supplement these cows will be determined by cow requirements and forage quality.
    The take home message is that if we are feeding cows to the point of them leaving a little, we are probably feeding too much. Investments into a bale processor, while a large initial investment, will save a lot of feed and money by reducing waste and increasing digestibility of the forage.
Commercial supplements
    Commercial supplements are an option to add needed nutrients and to stretch limited forage supplies. In most cases, these commercial supplements will contain a combination of energy, protein, vitamins and minerals.
    The challenge for producers that are buying commercial supplements is to first find the correct supplement that will meet, without significantly exceeding the nutrient requirements of the animals they are feeding, and second to make sure it is cost effective compared to other alternatives. Many commercial supplements have been created to reduce labor, such as tubs and tanks, and the value assigned to convenience must be evaluated by each producer.
Summary
    High input costs are stretching our resources and stressing our minds. As we enter the last quarter of 2012, we need to make sure we have a feeding and management plan in place that will allow us to minimize our feed costs, optimize herd performance and maximize profit.
    The ability to manage costs is dependent on the ability to define the source of these costs and make decisions accordingly. Identifying opportunities to add value and improve management and genetics is dependent on a good record keeping system. It is clear that controlling costs and deriving the most value for our product needs to be the focus for all beef cattle operations. Each operation is unique, and consequently strategies, such as those outlined above, need to be evaluated within the context of their application to an individual operation.
    Scott Lake is the UW Extension Livestock Specialist and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..