“I've had some of the largest stocker operations in the area tell me if they had the guts, they'd get rid of every lease and go strictly to program feeding because they can put 300-400 lbs. on the calves at a similar cost to grazing, but with more predictability,” says Dave Jones, general manager of Livestock Nutrition Center facilities at Chickasha and Fletcher, OK.

Even those more inclined toward tradition are taking a harder look at it this year given the horrid grazing conditions since last fall.

“I think program feeding is the biggest opportunity for stockers in our area this year, other than getting lots of rain the next couple of months,” says David Lalman, Oklahoma State University Extension beef specialist. “At current prices, we can design a program ration for $120-$130/ton if you mix it yourself, $130-$140/ton if you have it mixed. That's 6¢/lb. for feed, and conversions are 5:1 to 6:1.”

For those unfamiliar with the practice, Lalman explains the terms “limit-feeding” and “program feeding” refer to feeding a limited amount of a high-concentrate ration to achieve a specific weight-gain target.

“A very small amount of roughage, if any, will be fed,” Lalman says. “This varies greatly with traditional management where cattle have free-choice access to forage and you take what weight gain you can get.”

More specifically, Lalman says, “With program feeding, you're limiting them to two-thirds to three-quarters of what they would normally eat. Typically, rations consist of 80-85% whole-shelled corn and 15-20% of a commercial pelleted supplement. The total amount of ration offered is increased every two weeks or so to maintain the desired level of gain.”

He adds many feed companies have supplements formulated for this purpose, and can help with supplement selection for specific classes of cattle and rates of gain.

For most folks, any non-forage discussion these days centers on grain by-products. Though some products, wheat-mids for one, are currently priced beyond program-feeding practicality, Lalman says others, like corn gluten and dried distiller's grains, remain prime candidates.

Whatever the ingredient, Lalman points out, “By-product feeds tend to vary a great deal in nutrient concentration and moisture composition. Therefore, it's a good idea to obtain a laboratory feed analysis from the supplier for each load of feed.”

If an analysis isn't available specifically for the feed you've purchased or are considering, he suggests having it tested. For most by-product feeds, moisture content beyond around 11% can create significant storage and spoilage problems.

Darrell Rankins, Auburn University Extension beef nutritionist, says he's seeing more by-product feeding. There's even talk of an ethanol plant going into Alabama, despite corn production being next to nil in that locale.

“Some producers in our area program feed almost exclusively. Most of them use a large amount of by-products, and some non-traditional sources such as weevil-infested flour,” Rankins says.

That's the exception, though. Ryegrass is the primary currency of stocker operators here, though last year's pasture was the worst Rankins says he's seen since coming to Auburn in 1989. Even then, he says, the more popular strategies were to limit numbers, transport calves to available grazing, or supplement with by-products rather than switch to a programmed regimen.

Incidentally, Rankins says some stocker operators in his locale have switched to more custom backgrounding, pooling calves from producers who lack the facilities to precondition and background themselves. They get calves in, sort them up for load lots, background them 45 days and market them for the producer.

Rankins says age has something to do with the scenario, as some stocker operators choose to deal with farm-fresh calves rather than endure the rigors of straightening out put-together loads.

Precision is a must

In order to estimate program feeding's potential, Lalman says, “The important factors in developing a ration are to obtain a high value for net energy for gain per dollar of ration cost, and then to adjust the protein and mineral content of the ration to the animal's requirements, determined by the targeted gain, the animal's sex, weight and frame size. It's simplest to calculate the ration's net energy for maintenance and growth (NEm and NEg) values on a dry matter basis.” Find a spreadsheet calculator at www.ansi.okstate.edu/software/PROGFED2.xls.

As for the mineral included, Jones believes matching it to the specific ration and goal is a key. “We're seeing 4-5¢ in better cost of gain with the right vitamin and mineral package,” he says.

Lalman cautions that feeding a single ingredient invites problems. He and OSU colleagues have tried feeding free-choice soybean hulls and the equivalent of 1 lb./day of hay on a dry matter basis.

“It works for a short period of time, up until about 45 days, then you start running into bloat problems,” Lalman says.

Bottom line, both Jones and Lalman suggest arriving at the performance goal for program feeding, then work with specialists to design a cost-effective program capable of achieving the goal.

Of course, feeding this way isn't for everyone. For one thing, cattle need to be fed the same amount at the same time every day in a situation where all calves have a chance to get to the bunk. You also must calculate and adjust the ration every couple of weeks as the cattle grow.

“Anyone with difficulty maintaining a regular time schedule should think twice about programmed feeding. You can't be sloppy, and you can't guess at it,” Lalman says.

“Program feeding is all about you deciding what you want the cattle to consume and gain. You have to go at it with the right mindset and understand the principle behind it, which is feeding two-thirds to three-quarters of what the cattle would normally eat. You don't feed hay, nor will it work in a pasture situation because you must control consumption,” he says.

Precision also extends to how cattle are sorted and grouped.

“Cattle must be as uniform as possible in body type, weight, size, age, disposition and previous background,” Lalman says. “The cattle also must be healthy at the outset, which means most stockers will be taking the cattle through a traditional receiving program before beginning with program feeding.”

Likewise, feed selection revolves around more than cost of gain and convenience. For instance, Lalman stresses, “Complete pelleted diets won't work with program feeding unless the pellet also contains cottonseed hulls or peanut hulls. The usual problem with a complete pelleted feed is it's not possible to maintain adequate roughage particle size to prevent rumen disorders and bloat.

“However, rations can be developed with only whole corn and specially formulated supplement pellets. With the whole corn program, the supplement and whole corn will have to be carefully mixed before they're fed,” he adds.

Predictability and flexibility

“Commodity feeding and supplemental feeding make stocker operations more predictable,” Jones says. “With program feeding, we've learned there are other ways to get stockers from 350 lbs. to 750 lbs. without hay or forage.”

Sometimes, that means program feeding only part of the season. In Alabama, for example, Rankins says some folks feed for about 1 lb. of gain until grass is available.

For the record, Rankins and Auburn folks conducted studies starting in 2000 to determine how feeding calves up front affected their subsequent pasture gains.

“The idea is that those cattle being limit-fed should exhibit faster gains on grass (compensatory) while those full-fed will continue on at the same rate of gain,” Rankins says.

In the initial study, one set of steers grazed stockpiled Bermuda until the first part of January, then received supplement (limit-fed soybean hulls) for a month until ryegrass was available. The cattle gained 1.26 lbs./day until grass season. Subsequently, they gained 2.54 lbs. during 60 days on ryegrass.

Another set of calves received a free-choice 50:50 ration of broiler litter and soybean hulls after the stockpiled grass was grazed. They gained 2.45 lbs. until the same out-date the end of April. Researchers saw the same thing in a study a year later. So, holding cattle didn't dilute grass gains later on.

Of course, Rankins says, “The simplest strategy for operators this year is to be cautious about their numbers early on.” He's a true stocker at heart, though; he figures it will rain.

Find a detailed fact sheet about program feeding lightweight calves at http://pods.dasnr.okstate.edu/docushare/dsweb/Get/Document-80/CR-3025pod.pdf.

Program feeding management

  • Adequate bunk space so most cattle can eat at one time.

  • Pens small enough that cattle can come up to the bunk when fed.

  • Scales or other methods of weighing out daily feed.

  • Roughage feeds to work the cattle up to a high-concentrate diet.

  • Skill on the part of the manager.

  • Sufficient business-management skill to assess the economic limitations and opportunities of limit feeding cattle.

  • A solid plan for the use or sale of the cattle following limit-growing.

Source: Oklahoma State University