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Supplements among largest costs in cow-calf operations

By Missy Hodgin
Texas AgriLife Agent

Managing beef cow supplementation costs was one of the topics of last week’s Fall Beef Cattle Update put on by Texas AgriLife Extension Service, Clay County.  Dr. Ted McCollum, AgriLife Extension beef cattle specialist, covered the topics of fall and winter cow nutrition and how feed availability will affect price.

Among the list of all production expenses for commercial cow-calf operations, supplementation expense is among the top five.  Feed costs often occupy the number one position on the out-of-pocket (variable cost) expense list and, thus, often receive the initial attention when producers desire to “tighten the belt.”  The following is a list of prioritized suggestions to consider when developing a supplementation program for the cow herd.

Most important, an appropriate stocking rate is essential if efficiency and economy are expected of the supplementation program.  The purpose of supplementing grazing cattle is to correct a nutrient deficiency of the diet.  The quantity and quality of available forage have as much or more to do with the success or failure of a feeding program as the characteristics of the supplement.

Cattlemen must be good stewards of the natural resources entrusted to them.  Long-term heavy stocking rates weaken the forage resource, subject the soil to erosion, reduce the efficiency of rainfall use and capture and reduce the quality of water harvested from range and pasture watersheds.  According to Tony Dean, USDA-NRCS District Conservationist, range health going into a drought will affect when a producer can restock and to what extent a producer can restock following a drought.

Nutrient requirements of the cow must be matched with productivity of the environment.  In other words, cows with smaller nutrient demands have a greater chance of achieving their biological production potential in any given environment.  When feed supply is restricted and/or environmental stress is present, moderate-sized and moderate-milking cows are more efficient producers.

For the commercial cow-calf producer, the production period with the greatest nutrient demand (calving, lactation) and the period of greatest expected nutrient availability should coincide.  Forage maturity and quality are inversely related, while maturity and quantity are typically directly related.  Since native range forages traditionally exhibit their highest quality during the spring and early summer, a large portion of the cows in the southwest calve during that time period.  Management decisions which ignore this nutrient supply:demand relationship may result in supplementation programs with reduced efficiency and increased feed costs.  However, marketing objectives targeted for summer, fall or early winter calving programs may compensate for this loss of efficiency.

Sort cows by physiological condition to improve supplementation efficiency and reduce costs.  The first sixty to eighty days post-calving is the period of greatest nutrient demand experienced by a cow during the production year.  Heifers with their first calf at side demand special consideration during this time period if high conception rates for the second calf are a priority.  Body condition adjustments are most efficiently made during the second and third trimesters of pregnancy.  Therefore, if possible, sort cows by age and expected calving date.  Implementation of a 90-110 day breeding season greatly facilitates this sorting process.

Initiation and termination of the supplementation program are critical decisions.  A frequently asked question is “When should I start feeding?”  The theoretical answer is as soon as the cows start to experience a nutrient deficiency.  Maintaining body weight is hard enough – attempting to replace lost weight/condition and subsequently improve condition is economically inefficient.  Tardy initiation and/or unwarranted continuation of supplementation result in increased costs.

Nutrient content of the supplement has a significant impact on the response observed.  Protein is often the first-limiting nutrient for cattle grazing dormant forages or consuming poor quality hay.  Feed purchasing decisions should be based on price per pound of nutrient (usually protein) basis, not simply on a price per cwt or ton basis.  High protein supplements (>30% crude protein), fed at 0.1-0.3 percent of body weight per day, stimulate forage intake by as much as sixty percent.  This provides a large boost in energy and demonstrates why correcting a protein deficiency is usually the first priority in supplementation programs.  Energy supplements (10-18% crude protein), when fed at 0.7-1.0% of body weight daily, can be used to extend a limited forage or hay supply without reducing performance.  General purpose feeds, of which the 20% crude protein formulation is perhaps the most popular, are an excellent choice when attempting to maintain forage intake and improve performance (body condition).  Recommended feeding rates are 0.3-0.5% body weight per day.

Purchasing and provision decisions also offer opportunities for reducing supplementation costs.  By-products (ex. Distillers grains, corn gluten, soybean hulls, wheat mids, etc.) are often overlooked by cattlemen for several reasons including sourcing, purchasing and payment challenges, necessity of using troughs or bunks, handling equipment and storage requirements, etc.  However, with high corn prices and protein products, ranchers may need to take a closer look.  Traditionally, feed prices are the lowest in mid to late summer and highest in winter.  Contracting feed in late summer for use the following winter can result in substantial savings.  It should be noted that forward contracts are typically confined to larger volumes of feed and may not be applicable for smaller operations.  Handling feed in bulk reduces labor inputs and generally results in a $5-20 per ton reduction compared to sacked prices.

Reduced feeding frequency saves labor, fuel and equipment wear.  Research results indicate little or no difference in performance of cows supplemented 2 or 3 times per week compared to those fed daily.  Recent studies would indicate that feeding once a week yields results comparable to those fed more frequently.  High protein supplements perform well when offered infrequently, however, high energy supplements perform best when offered frequently and in small amounts.  Infrequent feeding of large amounts of grain/high energy feeds can cause serious illness.

Sustainable grazing management systems, cost effective supplementation programs and an effective preventative herd health plan are fundamental requirements for achieving performance goals.

For more information on this subject, contact Missy at the extension office at 940.538.5042 or 538.5052 or via email at mlhodgin@ag.tamu.edu.


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The Pioneer Sentinel is an online newspaper designed to deliver the news of Clay County, Texas, in a concise and community-friendly format.

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