Cattleman and consulting nutritionist Kenneth Eng believes that in this current climate of escalating land and feed prices, a semi-confinement cow-calf model makes economic sense. And, he’s putting a total of $2 million behind researching the concept as a potential method to deliver long-term economic sustainability to the cow-calf sector.

Last month, Eng formalized details with the animal science department of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) on a charitable foundation that will honor the memory of his late wife, Caroline. Eng earned his BS and MS degrees from Nebraska.

Under the agreement, the Dr. Kenneth and Caroline McDonald Eng Foundation will contribute $100,000/year to UNL and potentially other universities. It’s projected that approximately $2 million eventually will endow the research effort.

Cow-calf sustainability

The goal is to improve the long-term economic sustainability of the cow-calf sector of the U.S. beef industry through development and adoption of technologies to reduce costs of feed inputs by 25%, while maintaining productivity and beef product quality, Eng says.

"I’m doing this to remember Caroline and our mutual love for the land and cattle, and the people who work in it," Eng says. Prior to her accidental death in June 2010, Caroline served as chief financial officer of Eng Ranches, the Engs’ land, cattle, research and consulting operations.

“In the late 1980s, I reduced my consulting business. With a lot of help from bankers, we bought ranches when the land market was depressed. We often stocked our operations with cows from drought areas that were started in semi- or total confinement. It turned out to be a pretty good business model and Caroline and I had a lot of fun. Good cattle prices and escalating land values made the investments successful even though I made plenty of mistakes,” Eng says.

In many areas today, Eng says it's not unusual for a conventional cow operation to sell for $10,000-$30,000/cow unit of carrying capacity or more. While that's nice for the seller, those levels make it almost impossible for a young person to get into the business.

"The cost-per-cow unit is much lower with semi-confinement than with a conventional ranch. If, by feeding in a dry lot, you can run 2-3 cows/acre, you can get your cost down to $2,000-$3,000/acre as opposed to $20,000. That's a big advantage," he says.

In addition, a cow's maintenance requirement is greatly reduced because she isn’t expending as much energy foraging, Eng adds. “All the textbook data on what it costs to maintain and produce a cow and calf has evolved under more conventional pasture deals; they don’t apply to a confinement situation. In confinement, you can cut maintenance requirements by at least 15%, maybe closer to 25%," he says.

Eng is quick to point out that the cattle aren't totally confined in his system.

"Semi-confinement allows you to reduce your carbon footprint, but it's not like putting a laying chicken in a cage,” he says. “Let’s suppose you end up doing a cow or two cows/acre. That’s like allowing 20,000 sq. ft./cow, so she's not being abused; in fact, she's being taken better care of because she can be more closely monitored. These cattle are confined for feeding but they have access to grass, while the manure they excrete has a tremendous pasture value as well," he says.

Beyond making cow-calf production more affordable and efficient, semi-confinement cow-calf production is also a model that would seem to fit well with feedlots, he adds.

“Procuring replacement cattle in the face of today's shrinking cattle numbers is a big challenge. If a feedyard can run 1,000 to 2,000 cows on the side, that’s a leg up on replacements. It also allows the calves to be backgrounded, and age- and source-verified," Eng says.

An annual symposium

Outside of involvement in the general outlines of the research, Eng says he won’t “meddle” in specific research projects. “But the one thing I will insist on is that the information goes to the public on a timely and at least an annual basis.” That will accomplished via university and media publications and an annual symposium on semi-confinement beef production and related topics to be held each year at an alternating location. The first symposium is planned in 2013.

In preliminary discussions with the university researchers, Eng says two general areas of study have surfaced:

  • Can semi-confinement production systems utilizing limit-fed, high-energy diets during periods of low-nutrient availability, such as during drought or in winter, be used to improve profitability?
  • Can cow input costs be reduced without affecting maternal productivity?

Beyond that, Eng says, a whole host of potential research revolving around semi-confinement cow-calf production is possible. Under semi-confinement feeding, for instance, certain practices, such as embryo transplant and artificial insemination become more feasible. There’s also the potential in researching various aspects of production efficiency, such as residual feed intake (RFI) in cows.

RFI is the difference between actual feed intake and what would be expected based on the animal's body weight and growth rate over a specified period. Positive RFI animals eat more than expected in relation to their weight and gain, so they are less efficient.

“There’s a very big difference in cow efficiency, and while it’s related partially to cow size, there are more-efficient cows and less-efficient cows at the same size. Identifying the efficient cows offers tremendous potential for driving this industry forward,” Eng says.