Confinement systems for cow-calf production have attracted attention and research efforts in recent years, as a possible alternative to more extensive, pasture-based conventional production.

Cactus Feeders is one company exploring confinement-cow systems to determine whether benefits of the more management-intensive production could pay off over time. Veterinarian Roberto Eismendi, general manager of Cactus Feeders Cow-Calf Division, recently updated veterinarians on what his company has learned through its experience in confinement-cow management.

Eismendi presented the information during the recent Academy of Veterinary Consultants summer conference in Kansas City, and followed up with more information at the American Association of Bovine Practitioners (AABP) conference in Charlotte, N.C. in September. A previous article, titled “Confinement cow-calf management: Testing the options,” provides a general overview of the Cactus program.

Following a smaller test of drylot cow-calf production, Cactus recently converted its 40,000-head Syracuse, Kan. feedyard into a cow-calf facility with capacity for 8,500 cows. The company now uses the facility to test feeding and reproduction-management options, develop production protocols, produce weaned calves with strong immunity and genetic potential and improve the genetic composition of the cow herd.

Eismendi says the confinement system is an intensive production activity, requiring high inputs, high management intensity and a different set of challenges from conventional cow-calf production. Several of those challenges relate to reproduction, calving and calf health, although the system does offer potential advantages for reproduction, which we’ll discuss later.

Calving behavior and calf health require additional attention in confinement systems, particularly when calving coincides with inclement weather, Eismendi says. Providing 600 to 700 square feet of pen space per pair helps minimize problems, but even then, confinement changes calving behavior and pairing success. Instead of a cow isolating herself to calve away from other animals in a pasture, confinement cows deliver their calves within a group of other cows, which can disrupt the normal pairing behavior necessary for early colostrum intake and subsequent nursing. Also, Eismendi says concentration tends to result in more pathogen exposure for newborn calves.

To help mitigate these issues, Cactus focuses on a short calving season, requiring adequate labor resources during that time to help manage calves. Using estrus synchronization and AI, followed by clean-up bulls, the team has reduced calving seasons from 67 days to 45, while retaining a 92% pregnancy rate.

Calf diarrhea being a challenge that increases over time in a calving pen, they use a modified version of the “Sandhills Calving System” to reduce pathogen exposure. After 30 days of calving, the team sorts pregnant cows and moves them to a “clean” pen, away from calves born earlier in the season. Each calving pen is used just once per year, and crews frequently clean and remove manure from those pens.

Timely transfer of passive immunity through antibodies in colostrum affects calf survivability, average daily gains, age at first breeding and longevity of females in the herd, Eismendi says. The team vaccinates cows six to seven weeks prior to calving to improve passive transfer, then monitors the calving process closely to ensure calves receive adequate quantities of colostrum soon after birth. Mature cows should nurse within two hours of calving, and when they don’t, the team supplies colostrum replacement to calves within the first six hours. First-calf heifers typically produce lower quantities and quality of colostrum, so the team feeds their calves at least one dose of colostrum replacement within the first six hours. Intensive calving management increases labor costs, but pays off in better calf survivability and long-term performance, Eismendi says.

To boost active, cell-mediated immunity, the crews vaccinate calves at birth, using an oral vaccine for rotavirus and corona virus and an intra-nasal vaccine for IBR, PI3 and BRSV. Calves receive booster vaccines at around 70 days of age and again at weaning.

The confinement setting provides reproductive advantages in that the team can more easily use synchronization and AI, and manage the herd for several calving seasons, which helps spread the cost of maintaining bulls and employing workers. The Cactus group currently manages cows in three seasonal calving groups, with targeted marketing plans for each set of calves. In addition to spreading costs and market risk, this system provides an opportunity to give open cows a second chance, simply by moving them into the next calving group. This can keep cows in the breeding herd longer, compared with conventional systems where ranchers cull open cows once the breeding season wraps up.

Early weaning helps improve heifer-pregnancy rates while also reducing feed costs and boosting calf gains. The Cactus team aims to breed first-calf heifers at 11 to 12 months of age to reduce yardage costs an overall heifer-development expenses.

Currently, Eismendi says, production costs in the system produce a breakeven calf price that results in some loss at the calf stage. Good health and performance during backgrounding and finishing help make up for the shortfall. In the future, the company plans to utilize advanced genetic and reproductive technologies, along with management technologies such as remote sensing and individual behavior monitoring to increasingly build efficiencies into the system and increase calf values. 

Next: Nebraska research shows semi-confinement systems, incorporating winter corn-stalk grazing, could make confinement cow-calf systems more economically competitive.