Profit is difficult with low cattle prices, and the key to survival is in finding ways to minimize feed costs without losing production. The largest single expense in running a cow is usually her winter feed cost. If you put up hay, one aspect of analyzing costs will be to look closely at your haying methods, equipment, labor and fuel and consider all your options. For many producers, this is an area where costs can be reduced by letting cows harvest more of their own feed (finding ways to extend fall and winter grazing) or changing to a more efficient and economical haying system, or hiring someone else to do the haying.
Another option when producing hay is to sell high value hay and replace it with lower cost feed. Many producers don't consider the market value of their high quality forages and only look at costs of production. In years when good alfalfa hay can be sold for $80 to $100 per ton, many ranchers would come out farther ahead to sell that hay (or part of it- keeping only enough for the young animals in the herd that need the extra protein) and use a lower quality roughage for the main cow herd.
You can save on feed costs while still providing adequate nutrition, if you feed wisely. According to Larry Corah, extension beef specialist at Kansas State University, many herds could reduce feed costs 25 to 50 percent while improving nutrition at the same time. An eight-year summary of the Iowa State University Beef Cow Business Record System showed a spread of $121 between the high profit one-third producers and the low profit one-third ($301.60 annual cow cost versus $423), and annual feed costs accounted for $50 of that difference. Yet the high profit group who spent less on feed produced 98 more pounds of calf per cow and had a 2.8 percent higher calf crop. So spending more on feed doesn't necessarily mean you are providing the cows with better nutrition.
Greg Simmons of Deseret Land and Cattle Company, speaking at the 1990 Kansas National Conference on lowering beef cattle costs, said that by focusing on ways to reduce hay fed, Deseret was able to reduce total feed cost per cow from $381 in 1979 to $197 by 1989. During those 10 years they accomplished this with more efficient use of available forage, focusing on a greater reliance on grazing. They reduced their dependency on harvested forage, yet increased their actual beef production.
Most stockmen who increase profits are ones who find ways to reduce the harvested, feeds used. There are many ways to do this, including use of crop residues, utilizing cool season forages that can be grazed earlier in the spring (getting cows off hay sooner), saving certain pastures for late fall/early winter grazing, etc.
In areas where crop residues are available, it's the cheapest feed. One crop residue rarely used to full advantage is wheat straw. With proper supplementation, it can make up much of the diet, especially dry cows before calving. And by ammoniating wheat straw, the nutrient quality can be improved to equal or exceed that of prairie hay, says Corah, for about $35 per ton (this includes the cost of baling, hauling and ammoniation).
A way to reduce use of hay in spring is to use cool season plants such as wheat pasture, brome or fescue. Wheat pastures offer a lot of potential because of their early growth and high productivity. In range areas, plantings of crested wheat can allow early spring grazing well ahead of the native range plants.
Feed nutrients as needed
When buying feeds, compare prices not by volume or weight alone, but also by nutrient content. The $10 to $35 spent to test a hay sample is often a very good investment, enabling you to match feed sources to cattle needs, and avoid serious shortfalls in nutrition or wasting expensive nutrients on cows that don't need them. Test feeds for protein levels. You can't minimize costs on protein supplements (while still meeting the needs of your cows) without knowing the level of protein in your hay or pasture. If you know the protein levels, you can figure out how much or how little additional protein you need to provide.
If using winter pastures, alfalfa hay can be a reasonable protein supplement, compared to supplements like cottonseed or soybean meal. Most years, alfalfa is cheaper than other protein supplements. Even good grass hay will provide adequate protein for dry cows on marginal winter pastures. The important thing is to use the resources you have at hand. If the equipment and labor are available and hay is nearby at a reasonable price, it may be the cheapest alternative. But when hay has to be hauled a long ways, increasing its cost, another type of supplement may be cheaper.
Energy is probably the most expensive and most important part of diet. Protein, minerals and vitamins are all wasted unless the cow's energy requirements are met first. Roughage is always the most economical source of energy, especially if you let the cows do as much of the harvesting as possible (pastures, cornstalks, etc.). To get the most from your pastures, rotate the grazing, divide the herd into groups according to their needs, saving the best pastures for those that need it most -- yearlings or first calvers. You can also use supplemental protein (alfalfa hay or other sources) on rough feeds or poor pastures to increase digestibility and intake. But protein supplementation can drastically increase winter feed costs if not managed properly. Dry pregnant cows don't need it unless they are on very low quality forage.
You must consider the needs of cows. Energy and protein requirements vary greatly, depending on stage of pregnancy and lactation. A cow in late gestation needs about 1.5 pounds of crude protein, whereas a lactating cow needs at least 2.25 pounds. The important thing to remember when reducing costs is to not reduce the overall productivity of your operation; do not shortchange you cows on basic nutrition. The two most critical periods in the cow's year are the 30 to 50 days just before she calves and the 80 to 100 days after calving (until she is rebred). The best time to cut feed costs is after weaning, when she has lowest requirements and can utilize poorer quality roughages, crop residues and by-products; you can find numerous ways to reduce her feed bill.
Cows should not be left on marginal fall or early winter pastures while still nursing calves, or they lose too much body condition. One extension research project showed that cows on unsupplemented pasture that continued nursing calves until December lost about 150 pounds and 1.5 points in body condition score by the next calving. If calves must be left on cows this late, pasture must be supplemented with adequate energy and protein to keep cows from losing weight.
But this costs money and is counterproductive. Keeping calves on cows until late may look advantageous for weaning weights, but when cows are pulled down to calve at a body condition score of 4 or less, next year's calf crop percentage is lowered (more weak or sick calves, greater chance for loss) and replacement costs increase since more cows come up open the next year.
Earlier weaning -- utilizing your best pastures for the weaned calves that will do as well or better on green pasture than still on their mothers on marginal pastures -- can be a way to save feed costs. You can put the dry cows on the marginal pastures where they can hold or gain weight even without supplements since they no longer have the stress of milking.
Often feed costs can be reduced by minimizing waste. In some situations, cows can be fed once a day or even every other day, but in many instances, they waste hay by bedding on it or tromping it into the mud. Feeding smaller amounts more often not only wastes less hay, but also enables younger cattle or slower eaters to get more chance at their share.
Hay can be fed on well-sodded pasture without much waste, but if the ground is muddy, you may want to use feeders -- especially when feeding alfalfa -- where the cattle can clean up all the hay instead of tromping it into the ground. Since about 75 percent of the nutrients in alfalfa are in the leaves, much of the value of alfalfa is lost when feeding on the ground.
Fit your cattle to your environment
Your cow herd and management should be tailored to your specific conditions for best reduction of feed costs. One way to do this is to match your calving season to your resources. Another way is to use genetic selection to create the type of cow that can perform well in your environment, utilizing least-cost feed sources, shaping your beef herd to fit your feed. This may mean changing the genetics to breed a type of cattle that can best utilize what your place grows, rather than changing your feeding program to match the cattle.
In other words, you should grow cattle that do well on your particular crop (native grasses, desert rangeland, irrigated pasture, crop residues, grain, alfalfa-whatever your place grows best) rather than having to buy feeds you don't grow in order to enable your cattle to perform.
With the wide variety of genetics available to the cowman today, often the best way to minimize feed costs is to engineer your cow herd to fit your own conditions.