What Are My Options When I Am Out of Grass?

(Troy Walz, UNL)

As the drought that has plagued the western Great Plains for over a year spreads across the Midwest, producers are making hard decisions about cowherd management. Drought is no stranger to most cow-calf producers so most have a plan for culling decisions related to about 20% of the cow herd. When drought threatens the grazing resources for the other 80%, difficult decisions have to be made.

The first question that must be answered is should I feed them or sell them. This article explores some feeding options producers may have, but cost of production and opportunity costs will need to be carefully evaluated for each one.

Annual Forages

For those with irrigated cropland, annual forages may be a means of providing grazing when perennial forages are limited. Planting spring cool season annuals such as oats, rye, triticale, or mixtures containing brassicas can stretch the grazing season and delay liquidation or confinement for a time. Producers might also consider “forage chains” in which the spring planted cool season annual is followed by a warm season annual for grazing, haying, or chopping as silage, followed by another cool season crop for late fall or following spring grazing.

NebGuides that may be helpful to producers considering annual forages are G2185G2262, and G2172. The cost of seeding, fertilizer, and water need to be evaluated against other feeding options. Additionally, with current commodity markets, the opportunity cost of planting forages vs. planting grain commodities must be carefully considered.

Feeding Supplemental Feed on Pasture to Stretch Grass

Supplementing protein on grass will not reduce grass intake, in fact, it will likely increase grass intake, especially when grass quality is low. However, mixing a wet, high-quality feed like wet distillers grains, with a low quality roughage such as ground crop residue can replace some grazed forage and help meet the nutrient needs of the pairs.

Research has suggested this forage replacement is most likely to be 0.50 pounds of forage dry matter for every 1.0 pound of a mixture of 30:70 wet distillers and wheat straw on a dry matter basis. This means of drought mitigation is something that needs to be planned and implemented to stretch pasture and is not meant to be used as a means of retaining cattle on a pasture that already needs grazing deferment as this will not prevent overgrazing. For more information on forage replacement using crop residues and by-products visit NebGuide G2099.

Early Weaning

Early weaning (less than 180 days of age) can be a useful drought mitigation tool. This removes the calf who is likely eating 1.5% of BW on a dry matter basis in forage from the pasture and also removes the demands of lactation from the cow and may reduce her intake by 20%. Calves who are early weaned need a source of rumen undegradable protein such as distillers grains to replace what they were receiving from milk or they will likely not gain over 1-1.5 pounds/day. Additionally, they need highly digestible feed that will not slow passage rate through the rumen and reduce intake, thus the quality of hay used is very important.

Producers who want to early wean calves may find it advantageous to feed the calves to a more traditional market weight, but need to carefully evaluate the cost of gain against the value of that gain, particularly with today’s high commodity prices. For more information on early weaning calves, see NebGuide G2047. The cow may then graze the pasture longer without the demands of lactation and the calf’s forage intake, or the cow may be maintained in confinement, which can be done with by-products and residues.

Confinement Feeding Production Cows

Limit feeding nutrient dense diets to cows in confinement has been shown to be successful. When limit feeding a diet based on low quality forage and distillers grains the efficiency of the early weaned calf vs. feeding the lactating cows was similar. Early weaning, however, does allow the calves to be fed a diet that is better suited to their needs which can allow for increased gains.

However, recent research suggests the most economical return is to feed calves a creep ration through a creep gate while allowing them to nurse the limit fed cow. Those that can mix a separate ration for the calf, similar to that which would be fed to an early weaned calf, can get increased gains and profit.

However, for some producers, creep rations may not be feasible. Calves of limit fed cows that are not fed a creep ration will have limited access to feed and thus lower gains. The lower feed costs may not make up for the lower gains resulting in lower profitability at normal weaning time. However, due to the lower gains these calves will experience some compensatory gain, thus retaining the calves for a growing period can result in improved profitability. For more information on feeding production cows in confinement see NebGuide G2237.

While there are options for feeding cattle when grass is limited, producers want to carefully evaluate the cost of feeding the cattle against the value of the cow-calf pairs.


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