As the drought continues to linger in many areas, livestock producers may want to consider some alternatives to using up their summer pastures. According to Rick Rasby, beef extension specialist at the University of Nebraska, producers need to minimize the negative impact livestock, combined with drought conditions, is having on summer range. “It is important to take care of the grass to maintain long term sustainability,” Rasby said during a recent Ranching for Profitability conference in Sidney.
He offered producers some ideas to help alleviate strain on pastures — the biggest one being to secure an alternative feed source. “If you can secure some hay or another type of feed, you should have enough to last until cornstalks or another feed source is available,” he explained. “Work these things into a drought management plan to keep the costs down.”
Rasby also encouraged producers to plan ahead to purchase their feed supply, and look for opportunities to reduce waste in what they do feed. “Find an efficient feeding system, and don’t overfeed. It may be better to slightly underfeed the cattle just so they will do a good job cleaning up,” he said.
In operations that have both cow-calf and yearlings, the beef specialist said this is the year they should consider either putting the yearlings into a feedlot or selling them early to save grass.
Consider early weaning
Cow-calf operators may want to consider early weaning. Calves can be weaned as early as 45 days, although 90 days may be more manageable. “If you decide to wean early, I would recommend consulting with a veterinarian on a herd health and vaccination program,” he said. “You may also want to consider preconditioning calves so they stay healthy.”
By early weaning, a non-lactating cow would need 4.6 to 5.9 pounds less forage than a lactating cow. In addition, if the calf eats 5.3 pounds, each 2.5 days the calf is weaned, forage supplies would be available for one additional day of grazing for a non-lactating cow, Rasby explained. By early weaning calves, producers may be able to free up enough grass to maintain the cows for more time, he added.
“If you early wean your calves, you might want to consider creep feeding them so they will be bunk broke,” he said. “It can decrease mortality and morbidity when you move them into a drylot.” However, producers may not want to creep feed their calves for too long before weaning because the calves will grow faster, consuming more milk and increasing the cow’s nutritional requirements, he added.
Once the calves are weaned, they should be fed a high quality diet with particles that are uniform in size, because they will sort the feed, Rasby said. He recommends course grinding all the feed ingredients. The diet should contain 65-75 percent TDN for energy, and 14-16 percent CP for protein. The calves should gain an average of 2-2.2 lbs per day.
Rasby encouraged producers to retain ownership of their calves because early-weaned calves that are fed high energy (starch) diets have a high likelihood of grading USDA average choice or better. It seems the starch in the diet triggers the marbling gene, making the calves marble better, he said. A study the beef specialist shared with producers showed 70 percent of calves in a group fed this type of diet graded choice or better. The calves in this study were both steers and heifers, and British X Continental breeds.
Another reason to retain ownership is to increase the chances of breaking even, he continued. “I don’t know if producers can generate enough dollars from these smaller calves to make production costs for these cows break-even,” he said. “It may be better to retain ownership as long as possible to give the calves a chance to grow so that a producer can break-even and cover his production costs.”
Cull poor producers
Cull the poor and open producers this year, Rasby said. This includes pregnancy checking the cows early, and selling the open ones, or moving them to a drylot if they need to gain some additional weight. “Don’t put a lot of money into cull cows this year,” he advised. “Pregnancy check those cows 40 days after breeding, and don’t put expensive forage into cows that don’t have a calf in them,” he said.
Producers should also pull their production records for the last three years, and cull any cows that consistently perform at the bottom. Also, consider culling any old cows that are close to producing their last calf.
Rasby acknowledges that some of these management decisions are hard to swallow. But, during a year when grass is short, if a producer can keep his whole herd intact, it may be one of those years when break even is good, he said.