University of Wyoming scientists explore benefits arising from weaning, cornstalks and cattle-feeding options
John Ritten | Assistant Professor, Department of Agricultural & Applied Economics
Steven Paisley | Associate Professor & Beef Cattle Specialist, Department of Animal Science
Scott Lake | Assistant Professor & Beef Cattle Specialist, Department of Animal Science
Photos courtesy of University of Wyoming
Research suggests profitable alternatives may exist that reduce dependency on high-priced corn for cattle feeding while maintaining high-quality beef products for consumers.
Biofuel production and the resulting higher corn prices mean less profits for cattle feeders.
That also translates into less potential profits for cow-calf producers who retain ownership of their calves into feedlots.
Calf prices are strong now but increased feeder cattle supplies could also translate into lower prices to cow-calf producers as feeders attempt to reduce overall feeding costs.
All of this means traditional cattle feeding practices need to change.
Previous animal science research suggests placing feeder cattle on high-quality grain diets early in life can increase carcass quality by causing some cells to turn to marbling in the muscle, even if placed on lower nutritional feeds later in life. Animal science research also indicates weaning calves at 120 days and feeding until about 205 days provides an excellent window for nutritional management to improve marbling.
Such research points to the possibility of alternative weaning dates coupled with feeding less corn as a way to potentially reduce feeding costs while maintaining carcass quality.
Researchers in the Departments of Animal Science and Agricultural and Applied Economics received a grant from a five-state ruminant grant consortium to investigate this critical issue.
The research investigated feeding corn-based diets to early-weaned calves followed by a period of slow growth that allowed for “compensatory” skeletal growth. Researchers wanted to determine if this alternative approach could create equivalent-sized market cattle with higher quality grades but at lower feeding costs.
Four alternative management and feeding strategies were tested at the University of Wyoming’s James C. Hageman Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension Center near Lingle. Researchers then analyzed the economic outcomes using simulations of different input and output prices for the following:
1) Early wean, graze on cornstalks followed by a short feeding program (EWCS)
2) Early wean with regular or traditional feeding program (EWF)
3) October wean, then graze cornstalks before a short feeding program (OWCS)
4) October wean followed by a traditional feeding program (OWF)
Should Cow-calf producers change weaning dates?
If a producer plans to sell a calf at weaning, is early weaning (EW) or normal October weaning (OW) more profitable?
Results from this research indicate normal October weaning is more profitable for the cow-calf producer (Table 1).
The improvement in returns over variable costs was more than $160 per head for weaning in October as compared to early weaning (assuming 180 calves sold from a 200 head herd). This is largely due to lower weaning weights for calves weaned in July as opposed to October.
Even though the lighter-weight calves are worth more per pound at the sale barn, the lighter sale weight reduces returns overall. These results suggest if cow-calf producers do not plan to retain their calves, they should wean as they normally would in the fall.
If You Are a Feeder, Are Any of These Alternatives Attractive?
With cow/calf producers preferring the typical October weaning date, determining if this strategy is also preferred for feeders who buy these calves is important.
Table 1 reports “feeding profitability” across the alternative feeding and weaning options analyzed. Table 1 reveals the differences among the “feeding profitability” (profitability of just the feeding stage) in all four treatments when in an operation such as a feedlot.
Mean profit is greatest for early weaning cornstalk-short fed (EWCS) at $8,483 for 90 steers.
The next highest average profit of $4,494 occurs for the early wean–traditional fed (EWF) strategy.
The least profitable strategy is the October wean traditional fed strategy (OWF).
This suggests feedlot operations should prefer early weaned calves overall.
What should cow-calf producers do if they want to retain ownership?
If a cow-calf producer were interested in retaining ownership of their steer calves, total profitability from birth to slaughter suggests different results than those reported in Table 1.
Results indicate cow-calf producers should wean in October and then use the cornstalk alternative. There is nearly a $260 per head advantage for this alternative as compared to early weaning with cornstalks. This is largely due to the opportunity cost of the calf for the producer and total days on feed.
An early-weaned calf means fewer pounds to sell, and so the producer gives up that potential income for an early-weaned calf as compared to an October-weaned calf. This is coupled with total feeding costs over the life of the calf once weaned.
The producer who weans the calf early would then have added costs of feeding as compared to an October-weaned calf.
Thus, the producer who retains ownership is better off to wean in October and use cornstalks coupled with short feeding of corn.
Overall, these results suggest potential merits for feeding concentrates during critical life stages and utilizing cheaper feedstuffs such as grazing residue. This would likely be most attractive to those feedlots able to buy early-weaned calves.
Early-weaned calves may be attractive to feedlots from a profitability standpoint, but our results suggest cow-calf producers will generally have improved profitability with normal weaning strategies.
If feedlots want to attract earlier-weaned calves, they will have to pay premium prices to cow-calf producers. While the calves in our experiments did not show differences from a carcass quality standpoint, if further studies found such differences, potential premium prices for earlier-weaned calves could improve profits from retained ownership and the overall attractiveness of early-weaned calves.
This research suggests that profitable alternatives may exist that reduce dependency on high-priced corn for cattle feeding while maintaining high-quality beef products for consumers.
While this reports only one year of data, it does suggest more research is warranted as the beef industry struggles to deal with high corn prices.
Chris Bastian can be reached at (307) 766- 4377 or at email@example.com; John Ritten at (307) 766-3373 or firstname.lastname@example.org; Steve Paisley at (307) 837-2000 or email@example.com; and Scott Lake at (307) 766-3892 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. ❖