Like never before, ranchers are faced with increasing costs of production, and it’s causing many of them to rethink their production strategies. But, while they may be pressured to slash costs randomly as they look ahead to winter herd management, cutting costs just for cost-cutting sake may not be the best approach.

Ron Gill, Texas AgriLife Extension livestock specialist, and John Paterson, Montana State University Extension beef specialist, were asked to take a look at some places to save money and places spend money this winter. Here are their suggestions in no particular order:

Five places to save

  • Cut hay waste.
  • Feed more crop residue. In many parts of the country, straw is an overlooked feed resource – especially for cows in early gestation. Consider using wheat or barley straw at about 75% of the ration on an as-fed basis with 25% alfalfa hay through the second trimester of gestation.

    “Save the good alfalfa hay for when you need it most – just before, during and after the calving season,” Paterson says.

    The same can be said for corn stover. Once the crop is harvested, half the feed energy remains in the field. Most cornfields will provide 1-2 months of grazing/cow/acre.

    However, anytime straw is fed or crop residues are grazed, cows should be monitored closely and body condition scores (BCS) recorded, so that necessary supplementation can take place when required.

    Long-stem straw has a very low digestibility and grinding of straw increases consumption. This leads to higher digestible energy intakes – and added cost, which needs to be penciled-out.

    Take the time to get to know your cow herd better and sort them into feeding groups. Cows need to consume forage at the rate of 2-3% of their body weight to have a chance of maintaining performance.

    Dry beef cows will need a diet that is 8% protein in the middle third of pregnancy and 9% protein in the last third. Pregnant yearling heifers require at least an 11-12% protein diet, while heifers and cows nursing calves need a diet that contains at least 12% protein.

    Paterson says surveys show ranchers tend to underestimate the weight of their cows by as much as 20%. “This makes a huge difference when you’re feeding a herd that averages 1,450 lbs./cow vs. what you think might be 1,200 lbs./cow.” You can be far more efficient if you know the true average weight of your cows going into the winter.

    He also says overfeeding heifers can cost money. In most instances, heifers need to gain 1-1½ lbs./day from weaning to the start of the breeding season. They only need to be 60% of mature body weight going into the breeding season and 85% of mature weight when they calve as a two-year old.

    Learn how to BCS your cows. Body condition should be evaluated and recorded three times annually: at weaning, 60-90 days before calving, and at calving. By assigning BCS scores at the time of weaning, the cows can be sorted for appropriate feeding.

    Manage nutrition to prevent middle-aged cows from dropping below BCS 4 during the production cycle, Gill says. “Younger cows should be held at about BCS 5.” He adds that money can be saved, especially during a drought, by culling lower BCS cows early and allowing the rest of the herd to maintain body condition on standing forage.

    Altering body condition takes time. One body condition score is equal to about 60-80 lbs. of bodyweight in small- to moderate-frame cows. Large-frame cows require 100-150 lbs. of body weight to change a single condition score.

    Paterson says protein and/or energy is often supplemented because it makes the rancher feel good. “But this may not be the best strategy for the cow and for herd profitability,” he says. “We need to get beyond traditional feeding regimes.”

    He challenges ranchers to hunker down with a calculator and begin assessing the costs of supplementation on a cost/lb. basis for both protein and energy.

    High-concentration protein supplements that are natural protein sources don’t need to be fed every day. “It might be advantageous, for example, to feed 1 lb. of a 40% protein vs. 2 lbs. of a 20% protein – saving delivery time and fuel,” Paterson explains.

    Know the nutrient requirements of your animals. Study nutritional charts and get a feel for what you need to supplement with and when. Underestimating forage nutritive value will lead to over-supplementation, Gill says.

    Also, the benefits from supplementation can be enhanced when supplemental feeding is started before the onset of cold weather. It is easier to alter cow BCS during mild, fall weather than during harsh, winter weather.

    Five places to spend

    Paterson and Gill agree that in each of their regions, mineral supplementation should be considered an investment in herd productivity and not necessarily a cost. Calcium, phosphorus and salt are likely to be the most limiting macro minerals in cattle diets.

    “Don’t stop supplementing phosphorus,” Gill stresses. “Phosphorus has a major impact on reproductive performance.” Cattle are more likely to be phosphorus-deficient during the winter, when they often subsist on dry forages. Concentrates contain moderate to high concentrations of phosphorus.

    Paterson says that while there may be times of the year protein or energy supplements may not be necessary, there is seldom a time when mineral supplementation isn’t necessary.

    Paterson recommends one of the first places to spend money is on a forage analysis by a commercial laboratory to help a rancher design a feeding program that will economically meet the requirements of the cow herd. This should include evaluation of the protein, energy and mineral composition of forages – whether range, pastures or hay.

    The most useful analysis reports for hay supplies should be based on a representative sample from each “lot” of hay – hay from one field that has been cut, handled, baled and stored under uniform conditions.

    Interpreting forage analysis reports is a two-part process, Paterson adds. “The first step is understanding the basic terminology and meaning of the report. The next step is to evaluate each lot’s ability to produce a desired level of animal performance."

    The cost of wintering an open cow or heifer – or even an extremely late-calving cow, can substantially increase wintering costs. Gill and Paterson say a place to spend money – and therefore save money – is to pregnancy test after weaning.

    Whether through ultrasound, palpation or the novel blood pregnancy test that’s commercially available, post-weaning pregnancy testing can pay off. Paterson says research from the Noble Foundation in Oklahoma shows the average value of pregnancy testing is nearly $80/cow.

    The National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS) indicates that less than 20% of beef producers utilize pregnancy diagnosis in their cowherd.

    “Pregnancy testing is often overlooked by producers with smaller herds,” he says. “I would advise that all herds get pregnancy tested this fall.” Additionally, he says identifying non-pregnant females can help identify cows with disease-related fertility problems from the herd.

    Using growth-promoting implants is one of the most cost-effective methods of enhancing cattle gain and efficiency of gain. Paterson believes that more producers should evaluate and plan for the use of implants and ionophores.

    “This is a good place to spend – as it’s one of the best ways to gain production efficiency,” he says. “The use of implants and ionophores in cattle decreases the feed needed for growth and increases feed efficiency.”

    Gill says added gain through the use of growth implants averages 20-30 lbs./head. But, he adds, implanting must be done correctly by experienced producers. Implanting should also be a strategic decision – based on the sex of the calves, the market for calves and animals’ life stage.

    “Many implants are available, but selection of an implant is less critical than the decision on whether to implant,” Gill adds.

    Of course, if cattle are being raised for entry into a “natural” beef program, implanting and ionophores are normally not an option. And, Paterson says cattle must have adequate nutrition before implants or ionophores can positively influence feed efficiency and gain.

    Failure to address potential disease threats and prevent diseases will only compound the problems caused by increased operating costs. Parasite control, including attention to heel flies, horn flies, etc., should be considered through consultation with an attending veterinarian.

    Herd biosecurity has many components, Paterson says. These include vaccination for common diseases, strategic screening for diseases, nutrition and animal movement and handling.

    “We’ve shown in Montana that whole-herd screening for the bovine viral diarrhea virus as a component of herd biosecurity can be one of the most cost-effective investments a rancher can make,” Paterson says. “Money spent on herd health and preventing disease always pays off.”
  • Weigh and sort your cows.
  • Body condition scoring.
  • Strategic supplementation.
  • Mineral supplementation.
  • Forage analysis.
  • Pregnancy testing.
  • Implants and ionophores.
  • Herd biosecurity.
  • Paterson says to look at your operation from “30,000 ft.” and determine how much hay is being wasted, and where. He says large, round hay bale management systems often lead to the greatest and most consistent losses – up to more than 25% of its feeding value.

    “Minimizing hay loss begins with dense and well-formed bales and storing them on a well-drained site,” Paterson says. “Research shows site selection is more important than row orientation in cutting hay waste.”

    Deterioration at the bottom of bales stored on damp soil can be substantial. If round bales are stored individually, a space of at least 18 in. between bales is needed for air circulation.

    Storing bales with the rounded sides touching is not recommended because this creates a trap for rain and snow. And, while it makes bales a bit harder to handle with some equipment, losses will be higher if the round bales are stacked tightly end to end.

    And, Paterson says, make sure you know the true feed weight of the bales you’re feeding. “You’re headed for a wreck if you think your bales weigh 1,000 lbs., and they really weigh 800.”