Confinement feeding of beef cows both before and after calving is standard practice for some operators. For others, it's only a stopgap measure in times of drought or loss of pasture.

Grass is still the preferred practice. It's less expensive and easier to manage. But with the rising cost of pasture — $20-$26/animal unit month (AUM) — and the increasing availability of by-product feeds, confinement feeding may become more feasible.

  • The extra costs of feed storage, processing and feeding equipment are generally the biggest obstacles. All roughages must be ground to improve intake, digestibility and reduce waste. Grinding also improves mixing in the feed wagon when other by-products are added.

  • Mixing is a key to successful confinement feeding as no single feed is usually economical or nutritionally sufficient by itself. Generally, we use a blend of ingredients to balance the diet. Mixing also allows the addition of less palatable feeds to the diet.

    Many by-product feeds are high in moisture (wet pulp, citrus pulp, wet gluten) and need to be mixed with drier feeds. There are also a number of liquid by-products, such as corn steep, condensed Steffens filtrate (CSF) and whey, that can be mixed with dry or high-fiber feeds.

  • Because many rations fed in confinement are fibrous and bulky, bunk size should be adequate to hold a daily feeding and, in some instances, two daily feedings. In feedlots, 9-14 inches of bunk space is usually adequate, but mature cows need up to 3 feet or more/head as boss cows will chase more timid cows from the bunk.

    In some cases, feeding every other day or feeding ad libitum with high-fiber feeds may be the answer. Some feeds, however, must be limit fed so cows will maintain weight and not get fat. Costs go up when feed is wasted.

  • After economics, disease in calves is probably the biggest concern. Diseases tend so spread more rapidly in confinement situations than on pasture or range. Calving in a dry lot is conducive to navel infections, scours and coccidiosis.

    In dry, dusty lots, respiratory infections can be a problem. Wet, muddy conditions also present problems. Provide plenty of dry bedding for calves.

    If possible, a sheltered area only for calves should be made available. In addition, provide some bunk space or creep area for calves as the cow ration is usually too high in fiber.

    Creep-fed calves can be early weaned, thus reducing feed costs for the cow. It's more economical to feed the calf directly than to feed the calf through the cow. Dairy calves are routinely weaned off milk at 6-8 weeks. That's providing that starter intake is 2.5-3 lbs./head/day for one week.

  • Contrary to popular belief, hay is not a good starter feed for calves, even though they may start eating it early in life. Rumen development starts with anatomic and physiological changes in ruminal tissue.

    The esophageal groove closes and the digestive tract grows larger as the calf grows. However, the major factor influencing the development of the forestomach (rumen, reticulum and omasum) of the young calf is diet.

    Dry feed with a high fermentation value — carbohydrates and soluble protein — produces volatile fatty acids (VFAs) that stimulate development of the rumen. Hay produces low levels of VFAs and grains produce high levels. The “scratch” factor (fiber from hay) isn't as relevant as we once thought.

  • Clean water is essential for calves. It's needed to promote starter intake to allow for early weaning. The higher the dry matter intake, the higher the water requirement. The calf can't obtain enough water through milk. Bear in mind that a water trough that is just right for cows is too high for calves.

Despite the management and feeding differences of confinement, a number of producers make it work. A big key is planning ahead.

David Wieland is a nutrition consultant specializing in cow/calf, feedlot and horses. Based in Shepherd, MT, he also publishes a subscription newsletter. Contact him at 406/373-5512 or