by: Clifford Mitchell

Looking for that next meal or asking the question “what's for dinner,” is something most will do daily. Different situations or times of the week may call for something different or an affordable option that will stretch that dinner budget. Unfortunately, the four-legged critters walking the pastures cannot ask what's for dinner or make a simple request for a special meal, but they know when it's meal time and if nutritional requirements are not met lost profits or lost production will be the answer.

High grain prices, winter weather and in some cases the lack of moisture make finding that next meal for the cow herd very challenging for cow/calf operators. Cattlemen, in a lot of areas, have been given the tough task of utilizing available resources to make sure the cow herd is not compromised nutritionally, yet not get in a bind with increasing input costs.

“Operators know what their cow herd needs. The challenge is making the right decisions to optimize cow performance in an economical manner,” says Dr. Matt Hersom, Extension Beef Specialist, University of Florida.

“Producers have to meet cow's daily nutritional requirements. Look at your resources and see where they stack up. If they aren't getting enough, it has to be made up somewhere,” says Dr. Karl Harborth, Extension Beef Specialist, LSU Ag Center.

Working through the winter months when forages can be in short supply or offer little nutritional value is often when cows get stressed. Variable weather patterns, cooler temps or calving could change nutritional requirements drastically in a very short time frame. Stepping up management is usually the best defense when cattlemen near the crisis mode.

“Group cattle that are of the same age or in the same stage of production. Body condition score (BCS), age and nutritional requirements are ways to keep the herd managed nutritionally. There are different requirements within the herd,” Harborth says. “When you wean that calf it's time to start getting those cows back in the proper condition. Waiting until 30 or 45 days before calving to try and get them in the right shape will be too late. Anytime feed costs are high it is a good reason to cull poor performers.”

“Look at the cow herd and maybe change the way you're grouping the herd. Calving date, BCS and age are ways to sort the herd so you can more precisely feed cattle,” Hersom says. “Prioritize what group needs feed based on nutritional requirements. Pairs, cows that need to improve BCS before calving and open heifers have pretty high requirements. Dry cows or later calving females are definitely at the bottom of the food chain. Feed only cows that need feeding if you're short on feed. Open cows need to go.”

Assessing available resources or planning a feeding strategy is a logical step. Poorly fed cattle can become a financial burden for many outfits.

“For most, the biggest issue is there enough out there to meet that cow's daily requirements. If not, then we need adequate supplemental feed for deficiencies. Tailor that feeding program to meet each group's specific needs,” Hersom says. “There is not a lot of room for error. You have to try and match her needs with available feed resources. Do the math and find the best value.”

“Unfortunately, cattlemen aren't known to be very efficient feeders. To stretch or get the most out of winter feed resources, producers need to be more efficient feeders,” Harborth says. “Know what the cow's requirements are. An average weight is a good place to start. If you don't have access to a scale, cull cow receipts will give you a good idea. BCS cattle to make sure they are in the shape they need to be in.”

Feeding animals efficiently involves better management and sharp pencil. Most factors that make feeding animals through the winter tough, cattlemen have no control over. Feed costs, quality and manner feedstuffs are fed are all factors that begin and end with management decisions.

“A little information goes a long way helping cattlemen make better decisions and can help track every mouthful. Look at every feed outlay with more scrutiny. Find the best buy on a per nutrient basis. Dollar per unit of protein, not just the cheapest cost per ton,” Hersom says. “Every situation is not the same and you have to do the math. As producers, we may not do this frequently enough and we could be a little out of practice. Keep that pencil relatively sharp, calf prices will only mask inputs costs so much. Match needs with resources. Do the math. Find the best option from a cost per nutrient basis and what the desired results are for the cow herd.”

“Just because something is cheap doesn't mean it is the best thing to feed. Evaluate costs on a per pound of nutrition basis and know if there is a lot of moisture in the feed,” Harborth says. “There is a convenience factor with some feed alternatives that offers certain producers a dollar value for not delivering every day. If you're checking cows every day or every other day, there is probably a cheaper alternative.”

Using different feed resources may allow some producers the opportunity to limit feed or save a dollar by feeding in what some may call a non traditional manner. Sometimes higher quality feed stuffs may look more expensive; however, when producers evaluate changing feeding strategy, it is the best option.

“Alfalfa hay could be a good alternative for some outfits because it offers a lot of advantages from a nutritional stand point. Look at the ways you supplement cattle and cost of delivery needs to be part of the math,” Harborth says. “By feeding a higher quality feed, producers might be able to feed every other day or three times a week. Another strategy could be to feed high quality hay one day and lower quality the next.”

“Limit feeding scenarios are out there and can be taken advantage of. Balance your rations and feed exactly what they need,” Hersom says. “Supplemental feeding can be done every other day or three times a week. Make sure the cows are getting enough nutrition and there is not as much waste with this scenario.”

Waste is fairly common in most operations. Significant losses of nutrient value and tonnage come with the territory because the hay crop is not stored and fed properly. This is a costly item, especially in rough winters, high input costs and feed shortages.

“Eliminating waste is a good way to stretch the feed or hay supply. Get an analysis of your hay crop; you may not always have the quality you think you have. Feed lower quality hay first and gradually work your way to the higher quality hay. This should be in line with the cow herd's requirements,” Harborth says. “Find ways to make efficient use of that hay crop. You can feed hay more efficiently by feeding it more often. With rising fuel costs, operators will have to draw the line on how often they feed hay.”

“You have to know hay quality. If hay is different quality, cattle with higher needs get the higher quality hay,” Hersom says. “Feeding round bales is pretty wasteful in a lot of scenarios. Maybe only allow cattle access to hay six hours a day to try and eliminate waste.”

Commodity or by product feeds have become more common for the everyday rancher. It was not long ago when outfits that utilized these products were viewed as innovators. With high grain costs these products have been utilized by many outfits just to stabilize production costs.

“These products can be part of the ration. They are usually available on a local or regional basis and if they are available there is often an advantage to feeding them,” Hersom says. “Often the disadvantage is you have to take a truckload or there are handling issues. If you can share a truckload with a neighbor and handle these products it is a cheaper alternative.”

“We can get pretty creative with our rations. There are a lot of things we can feed if it is accessible and we can get these products. Unfortunately, most cow/calf producers don't have a lot of experience with these items,” Harborth says. “It is all relative to where you're at if these products are economical. When feed costs get expensive you would be amazed at what I get calls about as potential livestock feed. If you can utilize a coop group or get with your neighbors where you can buy a truckload of a commodity you can get cheaper prices.”

Entering the arena of by product or commodity feeding presents a new set of challenges. Producers need to be careful with some of these products because they sometimes do not deliver the necessary nutritional value and present unique problems when fed in the wrong manner.

“Some of these products are very good, but people can be misled as to their real value. There are problems with some of these alternatives. We need to make sure we have balanced rations and cows are getting what they need,” Harborth says. “Know what you're getting in these products. Get an analysis on these products and know what you have on a per nutrient basis. Ask for help balancing your rations so you don't unknowingly harm the cow herd.”

Besides working to cheapen the actual ration and save dollars at delivery. Some basic husbandry practices coupled with some innovative management can help stretch feed resources or make more efficient feeders.

“Make sure you cover the basics and have a good herd health program. You are wasting time and money feeding cattle that aren't healthy because of the level of performance you get out of the cattle. If cows aren't healthy and in good BCS going into calving it will cost this year and next years bottom line,” Hersom says. “Early weaning can be an option. You will cut cows nutritional requirements drastically, but on the flip side those calves need a sound nutritional program. This is a very operation specific scenario. If you can manage your resources and are prepared to deal with the calves or early market, it can have some advantages.”

A sound nutrition program may sound elementary to some producers because taking care of that cow is top priority. As input costs reach new levels and the weatherman throws a “monkey wrench” into the plan, most producers have to get a sharp pencil or become very artistic to craft a plan.

“The ramifications for not taking care of the cow herd could be very expensive,” Harborth says. “The cost of all supplements has sky rocketed and we need to become more efficient feeders. There are a lot of ways to remedy this situation. Waste always comes to the forefront when we have to manage our feed resources.”

“Limited feed resources offer the potential for unlimited management. Be open to different alternatives,” Hersom says. “Make sure you know what you're getting and you can handle that product. Beat the bushes get prices and amounts. Strategic management and imagination will help those cows get what they need."

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