Feeding stockers all they’ll eat with cheaper feed ingredients –controlling average daily gain (ADG) with energy density – offers some stockers a solution to scarce forage.

Whether by design or necessity, Jason Sawyer, a Texas A&M University stocker specialist, says more stocker producers in his part of the world are learning the ins and outs of mixers and feed wagons. Some are transforming receiving pens into grower-yard space.

“The cost of feed commodities has stabilized and you can find some competitively priced feed ingredients,” Sawyer says. “Plus, risk in the stocker business is placing more importance on being able to add weight to cattle no matter what the weather gives you.”

Sawyer is talking here of the additional production risk some producers assumed last year when they mitigated price risk by forward contracting in the cash market. Lopsided basis made futures hedges impossible at the time. What they were left with, of course, was having to add weight specified in the contract, whether planned grazing went according to schedule or not.

Especially for producers who are creative and flexible, full-feeding a total mixed ration (TMR) can offer cost of gain that is competitive to forage.

As an example, establishing wheat pasture in Sawyer’s part of the world last fall was costing $110/acre, or a pasture cost of gain (COG) of 50-55¢/lb. Total COG was in the range of 65-68¢. One grow yard he works with has a feed COG gain of 45¢/lb. “He has lots more overhead to feed the ration though, so total COG is in the mid 60s,” Sawyer says. On both counts though, the cost remains significantly below feedlot COG, which is currently in the low to mid-80s.

“The wildcard is how much cost the producer has in forage,” Sawyer explains. “If you fertilized in September, the price was higher than if you fertilized in October, which was higher than if you fertilized pastures now.”

Of course, fertilizer application is itself a risk-management strategy. In Alabama, for instance, Darrell Rankins, an Auburn University Extension beef cattle nutritionist, explains some producers are simply applying less fertilizer to ryegrass, and will stock pastures with fewer head.

To make full-feeding of stockers economically sensible, besides having the necessary facilities, Sawyer emphasizes you’ve got to be flexible.

“I can get 2.4 lbs. of gain with a ration consisting of 50% alfalfa, 40% corn and 10% cottonseed meal. But if alfalfa goes to $250/ton, I’m blown out of the water,” Sawyer says. “To make the economics of TMRs work, you have to be flexible enough to substitute ingredients.”

Fortunately, wherever producers operate, there are likely local ingredients unique to the area that can offer cost advantages. As an example, Sawyer mentions one client who uses floor sweepings from a potato chip factory. Another in a different state contracts all the grass clippings from a massive golf course.

“Every producer has different ammunition to work with,” says Dale Blasi, a Kansas State University stocker specialist. “The key is inputs and knowing your costs. It’s just a function of what’s available and what price you can lock in.” He recently helped a stocker operator devise a supplement based on cottonseed burrs to make do with available dry native grass; 1.76 ADG for a feed COG of 50¢.

For producers considering using feed beyond supplementation levels for the first time, Sawyer offers some considerations:

  • Can you handle bulk commodity ingredients? “If the answer is no, the cost of pre-mixed feed will make it difficult for you to make a full-feed stocker ration work,” Sawyer says.

  • Can you consistently source feed ingredients and substitutes for a ration that’s consistently cost competitive? Over the past two years the relative prices among various ingredients has varied considerably week to week. If you can access substitute ingredients and build rations with them, you have the opportunity to always be competitive with gain cost, he says.

  • Do you have the labor this type of program requires? “It’s one thing to figure you can grind the hay, mix the rations and feed the cattle every day; it’s another thing to be able to accomplish that consistently.”
As in most areas of business, Sawyer says the innovators are generally the most successful at full-feeding stocker cattle. In this case, he explains, “When they lose, it’s often because they remained too tied to their last innovation rather than look for the next one that is even more advantageous.”