The 2-year drought has caused both a reduction in cow numbers as well as a reduction in available forage for beef cows. As we head into spring and summer, many producers are coming up short on pasture forage and may be considering drylotting cows and their calves.

Jeremy Martin, PhD, Great Plains Livestock Consulting, Inc., Eagle, Neb., says handling pairs in this manner will add cost to most operations, but given the high price of pasture in many areas, it’s worth investigating the economics now rather than being forced to sell cows.

The first step is assessing the feed situation. “It is always important for producers to use their resources most wisely, but in times like this it is critical to get the most from every dollar invested in feed, whether that is native pasture, annual forages, or harvested feeds,” Martin says. 

Martin says if producers do not have enough feed on hand to feed cows beyond the traditional turnout date, now is the time to discuss feeding options with their nutritionist and local feeders that have feed available. “The herd nutritionist may have ideas about ingredients that can save money,” he says.

Confinement or semi-confinement
For cow-calf pairs, Martin says semi-confinement may be a better option as far as calf health and performance. Too much exposure to a dusty environment in confined pens can negatively affect calf health. But if calves can “escape” the drylot into an adjacent area of pasture, that can help protect their health. ‘If possible, a creep gate or fence that allows calves to escape the drylot conditions is perhaps the easiest way,” Martin says. “It may also be possible to use electric fence for the same purpose. In general, the larger the area, the less dust the calves have to breathe in and the lower the likelihood of pneumonia.”

If drylotting is the only option, Martin suggests to creep feed calves with a feed specifically formulated for younger calves as it will relieve some suckling pressure on the cows as the calves get bigger. This will help decrease the cows’ feed needs while maintaining calf growth. Provide calves access to free-choice, high quality roughage to stimulate rumen development.

“In general, I think closely confining pairs can present health challenges regardless of calf age, but the effects are probably more dependent on environmental conditions than age,” Martin says. “However, 2-3 month old calves can handle these environmental challenges with more ease than newborn calves.”

Be aware of pen density when drylotting cow-calf pairs as they have different needs for space than feedlot animals. “Before weaning, I prefer pairs to have a minimum of 700 square feet per pair, and 1,000 square feet is probably better,” Martin recommends. “The pair should have three to three-and-a-half feet of bunk space.”

After weaning, the limit-fed cow will need at least 400 square feet of pen space and two feet of bunk space. “Water space is also an issue, as lactating cows require lots of water. I prefer to have a minimum of two inches of water space per pair. This may require providing additional tanks, which is well worth the investment.”

Martin says reproductive performance of confined cows can be reduced if conditions are extremely hot due to the reflective heat from the surface of the pen. Consider shades if cows are tightly confined during the breeding season, and if semi-confined, allow cattle access to natural shade if at all possible.

Early wean calves
In a confinement situation, early weaning of calves can be more efficient in terms of calf growth, and feeding cows and calves separately costs about the same as feeding a cow-calf pair, Martin says.

If producers are going to early-wean, it’s important that facilities are managed and maintained so that small calves can use them. “Most of the concerns with early-weaned calves are consistent with weaning calves at any age, but there are a few that are not normally a problem,” Martin says. “The most important, in my opinion, is water source, as many feedlot tanks are not designed to allow access for very small calves.” He adds to make sure neck rails are lowered to provide access to feedbunks and water tanks.

Access to bunks can also be a problem, as most feedlot bunks are not designed for small calves either. “If this is the case in a facility, calves should have access to a bunk of their own with a ‘creep’ ration, or access to creep feeders until they are weaned.”

Martin thinks the perfect scenario, if it can be achieved, is to creep feed the calves a total mixed ration similar to what they will receive after weaning. For an early-weaned calf, the roughage part of the ration will need to contain some high-quality hay for the first 60-90 days after weaning. Provide a nutrient-dense, highly-fortified ration to develop the calves properly and keep them from getting too fleshy at a young age. Martin suggests reading information from Ki Fanning, PhD, PAS, on the timely and correct use of chlortetracycline in weaning calves

Pen maintenance is extremely important and approaches to bunks and waterers need to be well-graded so calves can approach easily. “As always, pens should be cleaned before bringing calves into the feedlot,” Martin says.

After weaning, it becomes more feasible to limit-feed both the cow and the calf, which can reduce the amount of roughage required to support the pair.

Post-weaning
Because cows are being more intensely managed, it makes sense to consider this opportunity to reduce the herd’s calving window by using synchronization and artificial insemination tools. “Confining cows is not ideal for most operations, but if it must be done anyway, it makes sense to utilize the synchronization tools available to tighten subsequent calving seasons,” Martin says.

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