Though still a novel concept to most cow-calf producers, a growing number of stocker operators are utilizing program feeding to work their way around a lack of forage, and to improve the predictability of cattle performance.

In fact, barring lots of late-summer and early-fall rains, Dave Lalman, Oklahoma State University (OSU) Extension beef cattle specialist, sees program feeding as the primary opportunity for stocker operators in his neck of the woods.

"It's serious and getting more serious every day," Lalman says of his area's environmental conditions. "If an operator has the facilities, skill and ambition, it's another year -- like 1998 -- when feeding with corn and a supplement, or with corn and commodities, can achieve a respectable cost of gain."

In fact, at current prices, Lalman says, "We can develop a program ration for $110 to $120/ton, another $10/ton if you have someone else do the blending. That's 6ยข/lb. for feed with conversions of 5:1 to 6:1."

For producers with little or no program-feeding experience, Lalman advises, "You have to go into it with the right mindset and understand the principle behind it. You're feeding a high-energy ration but only about two-thirds to three-quarters of what the cattle would eat ad libitum... It won't work on pasture because you have to control what the cattle consume.

"Program feeding is all about you deciding what you want the cattle to consume and to gain...You can't be sloppy. You have to feed every day at about the same time, and have the capacity to feed the right amount; you can't guess at it," he adds.

You can find a complete description of the practice, as well as sample rations, in the OSU Extension fact sheet CR-3025 at www.OSUextra.com.