Windbreaks provide economic management toolWritten by Emilee Gibb
In a region of the country where wind can reach over 100 miles per hour, investing in windbreaks in range situations can not only improve cow and calf health, but also can improve performance and ultimately, a producer’s profits.
“If we lose three calves because of weather, we could have paid for a windbreak,” says Natrona County Extension Agriculture and Horticulture Educator Scott Cotton.
“A windbreak creates what we call an air movement shadow downwind behind it,” says Cotton.
For every one-foot increment in the height of the windbreak, there is approximately nine feet from the bottom of the backside of the windbreak that the wind is blocked.
“If we’re trying to shelter 100 feet, we really need a 10-foot-high wind break,” explains Cotton.
When planning the size to build a windbreak, producers need to estimate how many square feet they need sheltered and how many cattle they need to provide shelter for.
“If we figure that that every cow needs about 100 square feet to get out of the weather, then we’re going to need that 10-by-10 foot area behind the shelter for each cow,” he continues.
“Choosing the right location is about knowing what our drifting patterns are,” says Cotton.
He explains that placing windbreaks in the wrong location can result in drifts that form behind the windbreak that are nine times the length of the barrier.
“Along the railroads and highways, we put them quite a bit away so that the snow drifts and then scours again where we want it clear,” he continues.
From personal experience on their operation, Cotton notes that many producers should be able to identify problem areas on their land that need windbreaks.
“Most ranchers have been on their land so long that they have an idea of where the bad winds are and can put the windbreaks in, so it gives the cattle an opportunity to move in a logical direction,” says Cotton.
Many ranchers will place windbreaks intermittently, such as in one-mile intervals.
Cotton explains, “Cattle will move about a mile downwind to get away from the wind.”
Cattle typically move away from the dominant wind until they find a location that is sheltered.
“This can be good when they come down to windbreaks,” he says. “It can be bad though if they go down into a creek bottom or somewhere the snow can blow right over them.”
Cotton notes that it is important to train cattle where windbreaks are and to use them in the event that the wind encourages animals to move in the opposite direction of windbreaks.
“If the wind pushes them in a direction away from the windbreaks, some will go to it if they’re really familiar with the windbreak,” he explains. “Others might turn straight downwind, and then we have problems.”
When choosing a location to build a windbreak, it is also important for producers to consider ease of access in and out for livestock.
“We encourage producers to be sure that windbreaks are places that cattle can move in and out of, so they don’t get trapped and they also have access to water,” says Cotton.
Placing windbreaks in higher elevation areas can help improve access for cattle.
“The windbreaks on top of a hill are a lot safer than ones down in a creek bottom. They’re easier to see from the rancher’s perspective, too,” continues Cotton.
Providing thermal protection is another important goal for windbreak placement.
“Windbreaks usually face north-northwest, so the sun comes in from the southeast side and makes a warm spot out of the wind for the livestock,” he explains.
Another factor that producers should consider is whether to have a solid windbreak or leave small air gaps.
“The solid windbreaks tend to make a cleaner line drift behind it and sometimes creates blockages, whereas the ones with the little air gaps tend to feather the wind and makes it a more uniform and gentler line behind them,” he notes.
Cotton notes that while windbreaks can be made from a number of materials such as steel, wood or straw, choosing the most economical option will depend on material availability.
“If we’re in a timbering area, slat wood is pretty inexpensive. An average windbreak that’s a 100-foot-by-100-foot L-shape will probably cost $500 to $600 plus labor,” he says.
He notes that areas of the state that are not close to a lumber mill would require ranchers to use higher-quality materials, increasing the cost.
In some areas, producers may utilize snow from previous storms to build windbreaks.
“Some ranchers take a V-plow and build windbreaks out of snow. The only cost is fuel,” Cotton says. “The down side is, if we get a bad enough storm, that snow starts moving, and our wind break goes away.”
Using hay or straw to build a windbreak can serve multiple purposes, says Cotton.
“We typically use our low-quality hay. The cattle can get behind it as shelter, and they can just eat on the windbreak,” he concludes. “Some of those big square windbreaks can last two or three years successfully.”
Strategic planningEarly winter supplementation optimal for improving body conditionWritten by Emilee Gibb
Snowy and blustery storm fronts moving in hint at the upcoming arrival of winter to Wyoming.
As cattle producers make seasonal preparations, University of Wyoming (UW) Extension Beef Specialist Steve Paisley encourages them to consider their fall and winter supplementation programs to optimize both cow and fetal performance.
“If we can strategically supplement that cow and get her up to an optimal body condition going into calving, it’s much easier to do it in the fall and early winter than it is to add weight to a cow that is producing milk,” stresses Paisley.
Supplementation programs vary throughout the year depending on forage quality and stage of production, says Paisley.
“The quality of our base forage is going to determine what type of supplement we need,” he explains. “The other part is what stage of production our cows are in.”
Determining when to begin supplementing is largely influenced by body condition of cattle.
“It starts by evaluating our cows and deciding the current condition of our cows,” continues Paisley.
The goal is to have mature cows at a body condition score of five as they enter calving season.
“They may need to gain weight to get them to a body condition score of five, and that will affect what supplement we use,” explains Paisley.
He also advises that producers evaluate the quality of the forage they are feeding to determine if body condition goals can be met with it.
“Then we can combine the data from the grass and hay and then determine what kind of production we need out of our cows,” continues Paisley.
During late fall, most cows are in the middle third of gestation, explains Paisley.
“Their energy requirements are relatively low, and they’ve got plenty of forage out there, so typically we supplement with a high protein supplement during this time of year because winter quality grasses or winter forage are relatively low in protein,” says Paisley.
Winter forages average four percent protein. In order to adequately digest forage, he notes that the diet needs to be approximately seven percent protein.
Protein supplementation in the winter is beneficial for two reasons, says Paisley.
First, protein supplementation improves the digestibility of winter forages.
“The rumen microbes are able to break down the forage and get more utilization of the grass that’s out there,” he comments.
Paisley also explains that protein supplementation increases forage intake.
“They’re breaking down grass faster in the rumen, and it moves through their system faster they’re able to eat more, plus, protein has a little bit of a hormonal influence that actually increases intake on its own,” says Paisley.
As cattle move closer to calving, Paisley notes that the diet transitioned to an energy supplement and harvested forages are primarily fed.
“Their energy requirements have gone up quite a bit and the overall protein value of the forage increases because it’s harvested. Now, the cows are needing energy,” he says.
If possible, Paisley suggests that producers sort cattle into groups based on their body condition.
“Sort our cows into groups, where we have a group that is in good condition and they probably don’t need as much supplement versus thinner cows that need some more supplement,” he says. “If a producer has the ability to sort those cows and then tailor a program to each of those groups, that’s the best scenario.”
Paisley notes that if all animals are in the same group, producers will feed to increase the body condition of the thinnest animals.
“Maybe not all of them need to gain weight, so sorting them into groups may reduce our overall supplement cost,” continues Paisley.
In general terms, the approach in developing a winter supplementation program is the same for producers across Wyoming.
“If we’re grazing a dormant grass or winter forage, they’re all going to be relatively low in protein and energy,” he explains. “Typically, we’re going to supplement protein in the fall and early winter, then include more energy as the cow’s requirements increase in late winter and spring.”
However, Paisley comments that some areas of the state are able to utilize crop residues, which will alter available nutrients slightly.
“For example, if we’re in southeastern Wyoming, we may utilizing corn stalks or corn residue. It’s going to be tailored a little bit to the quality and the type of forage that we have,” concludes Paisley.
Industry benefits: Flexibility keeps cattle industry on topWritten by Gayle Smith
Despite having a complex marketing system, flexibility is what makes the cattle industry so successful, according to an economist from Oklahoma State University.
“When we are talking about cattle and beef markets, the question is what will get produced and how much will get produced,” Darrell Peel told producers at the Nebraska Grazing Conference. “As a producer, we think we can decide what will get produced, but we really don’t. These two questions are answered by the demand-side of the industry.”
“Ultimately, consumers decide what will get produced and how much,” he said.
What producers can control are the resources that will be used for this production.
“Producers make the decisions on how to allocate those resources amongst alternative uses,” he explained.
The cattle industry is flexible. Cattle can survive on a forage-based diet or a heavily grain-based diet, and anything in between, Peel said.
The market determines the most efficient way to get it done.
“It puts the cattle industry in the middle of everything from a crop standpoint, and in terms of land and forage resources and how they are allocated,” Peel explained. “We have fixed and variable forage resources.”
“Rangeland is a fixed resource and crop production and crop aftermath are variable resources,” he told producers. “Since the cattle industry is the biggest livestock enterprise in the U.S., it falls on cattle producers to determine how to utilize and change in response to changing conditions.”
“If we had a bigger sheep industry, the way these resources are used would be different,” he noted.
Corn, soybeans, hay and wheat account for 86 percent of the crop production in the U.S.
“What happens in these markets signals what will happen with other crops,” he said.
If corn acres increase, soybeans typically follow, he said. Wheat acres are declining, and hay production has been significantly down during the last decade.
“Cattle inventory was down also, so now that it is rebuilding. It will be interesting to see if hay acres also increase,” he said.
When corn underwent a significant increase in acres several years ago, some pastureland was tilled and put into crop acres.
“The question now is to what extent is that a long-term or permanent change? There was lots of fence torn out, ponds filled in and expensive terraces built for crop production. That doesn’t revert back instantaneously,” he said.
Between 2007 and 2012, Peel says 9.2 million acres were also pulled from the Conservation Rescue Program (CRP) and put into crop production. Little was put into pasture.
“There are lots of things happening regionally in terms of how the big picture has changed over time,” he said. “How will we utilize the land resources and how will that apply to cattle production, since it is the biggest variable factor that has to change in response to those kind of incentives?”
Peel sees Nebraska cattle producers having an advantage.
Between 2007 and 2012, not much change occurred in the number of acres of pastureland in the state. Cropland accounts for 20 millions acres, while rangeland is 23 million acres.
“Nebraska is unique,” Peel said. “There is no place else that has so many major cropping areas so close to rangeland.”
In fact, Peel sees the ability to use forage and grain to finish cattle as a factor that makes beef competitive with alternative meats.
“There are 4 million acres of rangeland in this country that don't have a better use than cattle production,” he stated. “Can we take for granted that we will continue to have a cattle industry in this country?”
“I think we can because cattle eat grass and we don’t have anything else that does. If we had to compete solely on other things, we probably wouldn’t win that,” he explained.
“We have to compete against all other uses of land and production of that land, without using those forage resources that can’t be used for other things,” he continued. “We have the ability to adjust, which is an advantage and an opportunity, but it means that we can’t sit still. Changes in the market conditions outside of beef production means we have to make changes to this industry. We have the flexibility to be more responsive to those changes.”
“Ultimately, economics will force us to utilize that flexibility. The question is whether we do it willingly, or wait until after the market beats us up to get the point,” Peel stated.
Decision to buy, raise heifer calves provides economic, genetic consequencesWritten by Heather Smith Thomas
There are many things to consider when making a decision on whether raising or buying replacement heifers is the best situation for the ranch. These include feed costs, labor availability and costs, environmental factors, genetics, prices, tax implications, etc. It’s not always easy to figure out what might be best – and it may change from one year to another.
Lee Schulz, assistant professor in economics from Iowa State University, says BEEF Magazine did a recent survey that showed about 83 percent of producers hold back heifers to expand and about 37 percent buy heifers additionally.
“There are some combinations of that, since many ranchers retain heifers, as well as buy some. USDA’s survey also showed that about 83 percent hold back heifers,” he comments. “Many people raise their own but still take advantage of opportunities to buy, due to accelerated expansion in recent years and the current cattle cycle.”
“There have been very strong profits lately, so producers wanted to take advantage of this and expand their herds,” he says.
Making the decision
“It’s not always a very clear cut decision whether to raise or buy replacements. We really have to look closely to see if it really costs us less to raise them than buy them,” Schulz says. “There are significant costs and some risks in developing heifers.”
Of the risks, Schulz says the time between retaining a heifer and getting a payout in the form of a calf is lengthy.
“On the flip side, there is also a bit of risk on the open market in terms of availability,” he continues.
“We went through that in 2013 through 2015, seeing historic high prices for replacement heifers,” he says. “There is some risk in selling heifer calves and then going out in the open market and purchasing bred heifers.”
There are risks and advantages both ways, and producers doesn’t always know which would be best.
“We have some tools to help ranchers in these decisions, such as looking at the net present value of those heifers. This investment decision – either raising their own heifers or purchasing them on the open market – is a longer term investment, anticipating getting at least five, six or more calves out of that replacement animal,” Schulz comments.
Producers must consider not only the conditions in the market at the time but also the longer term regarding what the prices and costs are going to be, he says.
“It is very important to budget out that decision, not only today but also going forward into the future. If a rancher is purchasing heifers, they have to look at that multi-year gain potential in genetics and realize it’s not just a one-year investment. The genetic potential will exist over the life of that productive female,” says Schulz.
Sometimes a person can go out and buy genetics that are better in certain aspects than what they already have. , sometimes the genetics they’ve worked many years to create are better suited for the purposes of the ranch, he says.
“When looking at this decision, in terms of selling heifer calves and purchasing replacements, producers are assuming that they have on-farm feed production and facilities that would not be used if they weren’t being used for stocker production,” Schulz adds.
First, he suggests looking at feed resources. Feed that would be used to develop heifers should be considered at market value.
“But maybe there’s more potential for holding back more females and decreasing culling rate, and perhaps that return would be higher by putting the feed through the cattle instead of selling it,” Schulz says. “There are many factors at play, and each producer must make their own decision.”
He continues, “It’s difficult to give any rule of thumb because there is a lot of variability in expectations of price and costs, not only for the individual operation but also looking forward.”
It’s always a gamble as ranchers try to pencil it out and predict what the costs might be. The more homework they can do, the better off they are and more able to make the right kind of gamble.
“It’s very important to do a lot of sensitivity analysis around the assumptions for price, costs and productivity to look at what is really the best case scenario and what is the worst case scenario,” Schulz comments. “Ranchers need to really look at where the risks are, in each situation.”
Producers are advised to buy bred heifers if it truly costs less to buy them rather than raise them and if they value alternative uses of the money and time spent raising heifers, the reduced need for “heifer” bulls, and if they want to grow their herd faster, with an increased number of productive females sooner.
“It’s also an evolving situation. What might be better one year might not be better in another. Producers need to look at these things each time they try to make this decision,” says Schulz.
Some of the tools provided by economic research and analysis at the various universities can be helpful.
He comments, “We developed several tools in the height of this expansionary phase, and I think they have been used a lot by producers. These can help producers educate themselves on various aspects of this important decision.”
Foot rot in cattle possible in wet, muddy conditionsWritten by Heather Smith Thomas
Foot rot is an infectious condition that causes swelling, heat and inflammation in the foot, resulting in severe lameness. The swelling and lameness can come on gradually, but more often, it appears suddenly.
Andrew Niehaus, assistant professor of Farm Animal Surgery at Ohio State University, says the bacteria causing foot rot are generally present in the environment. The animals most at risk are those living in an unsanitary environment where there is a lot of manure.
“We tend to see more cases in wet, muddy conditions. Feet are constantly wet, which makes the skin softer, and it becomes easier for certain pathogens to penetrate that skin barrier,” he says.
Any little nick, scrape or puncture around the hoof, heel or between the toes may open the way for opportunistic invaders.
Occurrence of foot rot
Even during a dry summer some cases appear, especially if cattle have to go through a boggy area to get to water or wade into the mud surrounding a pond when getting a drink. Mud mixed with manure make perfect conditions for foot rot.
“The organisms that cause foot rot are anaerobic, which means they thrive without oxygen,” Niehaus says.
If the foot is down in the mud, there’s not much oxygen, and this makes perfect habitat for those pathogens. If cattle are wading through mud or standing in a muddy feedlot, they are at higher risk.
“The two organisms implicated in foot rot are Dichlobacter nodosus and Fusobacterium necrophorum. Both of these are anaerobic. They are somewhat symbiotic in that they may work together. One of them enters the break in the skin, and then the other one comes along and helps perpetuate the infection,” says Niehaus.
These bacteria multiply and cause further death and destruction of tissue in that area. This leads to more anaerobic conditions as the tissue dies, which helps facilitate the infection in a vicious cycle.
“The early stages of disease are often seen in the interdigital space between the toes, and it may later involve the heel area, as well,” Niehaus explains. “As it becomes worse, swelling may spread up the leg, with noticeable swelling above the hoof.”
Inflammation and swelling of the affected tissues are a hallmark of this disease. The swelling and lameness may be similar to that of an animal suffering from a fracture or snakebite.
It is important to have a proper diagnosis, because several other things can look like foot rot.
“It could be a fracture, a joint infection due to progressive infection from an ulcer in the bottom of the foot or a puncture wound. There may be swelling around the area of the coronary band in those instances, and it may break out there and drain. Those are some of the differentials we should consider, when we see a swollen foot and a very lame animal,” he explains.
Lameness could even be due to a nail or sharp stick embedded in the foot.
When making a diagnosis, it is important to look closely at the foot.
“I like to put the animal on a tilt table if it’s been brought to the hospital. On a farm or ranch, it could be put into a chute and the foot lifted with a rope. Out in a pasture, the animal could be roped and cast. We need a good look at that foot,” he says.
“With foot rot, the diagnosis is usually based on the fact the animal has a lot of pain in the interdigital space. It has a necrotic look and a very characteristic foul smell. If we ‘floss’ the interdigital space with a piece of twine or towel, pulling it back and forth, it is very painful for the animal. I frequently use this technique to make my diagnosis. Even just touching the affected area may be enough to elicit a painful reaction from the animal,” says Niehaus.
“The best way to cure the infection is to get the animals out of wet, dirty conditions. Some cases will resolve on their own. We can hasten recovery with systemic antibiotics and local treatment like oxytetracycline bandage foot wraps,” Niehaus explains.
“We can treat it locally by putting something like LA-200 on a gauze pad, wrap it and hold that next to the affected area. There are several good antibiotics labeled for foot rot, so we usually give the animal a systemic antibiotic, as well,” says Niehaus.
If caught early, the infection can usually be cleared up quickly.
“That’s another hallmark of this disease. It usually clears up pretty quickly if treated soon after it begins,” he says.
By the second day following treatment, there should be noticeable improvement and less lameness. It may take longer if the animal was not seen in the beginning and treatment isn’t started until after it has been lame awhile.
Some cases clear up on their own, but others can become severe if neglected and may progress into the joint.
“As it spreads through the soft tissue, it may go into the joint, as well. Then it becomes more difficult to treat,” he says.
Once the infection gets into the joints, it starts destroying the cartilage. Even if the rancher can eventually clean up the infection, which is much more difficult once it’s in a joint, they still may deal with an arthritic joint.
Niehaus says, “That animal will still be lame, and we are faced with either slaughtering the animal or possibly amputating the toe – depending on the circumstances. It pays to treat foot rot early.”