When wheat pasture isn't, stocker operators who rely on it have two options: wish the cattle well with their new owners, or figure out how to feed through it.

Given the stout feedlot placement numbers from November through January, plenty chose the first option.

While it's impossible to arrive at a hard number, David Lalman, Oklahoma State University Extension beef specialist, says the majority of wheat-pasture cattle that should be on pasture in Oklahoma moved back into the market long ago. Those that didn't are enjoying diets in addition to, or in place of, wheat pasture.

In west-central Oklahoma, which has some wheat pasture, though less than normal, Mike Jones of Sunrise Feeds says, “One thing most with self-feeders are doing is feeding a salt-limiting energy supplement at 1.0-1.5% of body weight. The key is it takes a while for cattle to adjust, and then you have to adjust how much you're feeding once the cattle acclimate.”

Jones says another ration in use is about a third each of corn gluten pellets, whole corn and peanut hulls. But anytime you deal with a self-feeder, you need to limit consumption, either with a limiter like salt or fiber, he adds.

Jones also says late-summer rain there made grass and wheat hay. He says he's never seen cattle go through so much on wheat pasture. The reason is the quality. Typically, he says, in wet years stocker operators put out low-quality hay to help reduce bloat problems. The cattle won't consume much of it, though.

“This year where it's been so dry, the wheat pasture isn't very washy. It's more concentrated nutritionally and the cattle have done well on it,” Jones says.

He's talking about cattle getting up to two-thirds of their diet from wheat pasture, then the remainder from hay and hand-fed 12-14% protein cubes or pellets to increase the energy. Others, if rigged for it, are using whole corn or rolled corn in troughs.

Farther south, Jason Sawyer, a Texas A&M University stocker specialist, says one common approach is utilizing mature pasture forage when available, attempting to dry-winter stockers at least long enough to see more seasonably favorable prices.

Of course, any folks with pasture are typically those who run stockers year-round, or yearlings in tandem with a cow-calf enterprise. Thus, extra grass is the exception rather than the rule.

“In general, they're feeding 1.5-3.0 lbs. of supplement and shooting for about 0.3 lb. of gain with this strategy. I think that approach has worked best for those who don't own the pasture,” Sawyer says. “Cash to cash on price movement, some can make that work but pasture costs need to be extraordinarily low.

“Basically, they're trying to salvage their breakeven by gambling on a spike in seasonal prices,” he adds.

That may not be the riskiest of bets. Lots of medium-weight cattle are already on feed. Just a little rain and grass fever, and these lighter weight calves could find even more price bounce this spring than normal.

Switching to feed

For those with pasture, and who already sank cost into planting wheat or other small grains, Sawyer says, “The feeder-cattle board has remained so strong that even at high calf prices, there's been opportunity for reasonable stocker returns. Feeding programs that wouldn't work before have more possibilities now.”

For instance, grain is relatively cheap, though freight can roll over the advantages in a hurry. In east Texas, for example, producers have an extra $30-$50/ton into it, compared to Panhandle costs.

Limit or program feeding is obviously the most extreme strategy. It can maximize feed efficiency and optimize cost of gain. But it comes with so many facility and labor demands (see chart at right) it doesn't usually fit into stocker programs geared around forage.

“Limit or program feeding allows you to extend the marketing window while protecting condition in the cattle, but many producers I deal with have decided it's not economically feasible for them,” Sawyer says.

Consequently, folks in this situation are more prone to use forage to dilute the energy of a concentrate-based ration, as Jones describes earlier.

However folks go about it, Lalman cautions, “If you feed them to gain the same as on wheat pasture, they get fairly fleshy and don't perform as well in the feedlot… If producers are unsure of calves' destination, we suggest feeding for no more than 2.25 lbs. of gain/day. Beyond that, and say 60 or 70 days on a feeding program, they'll get pretty fleshy.”

In his part of the world, Sawyer is comfortable shooting for 2.50 lbs. The exceptions, of course, are larger-framed, emptier, Continental crossbreds he says can be pushed to around 2.75 lbs.

“Producers holding cattle for spring grazing though, need to gear their nutrition programs back. There's no reason to put pounds on with something you have to buy,” Lalman says.

Use caution when conditioning

Sawyer says more aggressive implant strategies also can help protect condition. Use a high-dosage estrogen implant or an implant with trenbelone acetate, as an example, rather than a low-dosage estrogen product.

After all, it's plenty tempting to put all the gain possible on the cattle.

“It's easy to make a lightweight calf gain 3.5 lbs./day. If you've averaged 1.8 lbs. historically and were always trying to get 2.0 lbs., it's hard to change your mindset to restricting gain rather than maximizing it,” Sawyer says.

Plus, if folks haven't used feed much, or in a while, Sawyer says that without scales they can put more weight on cattle than they realize. Typically, stocker operators who opt to feed through a situation like this winter's have the knowledge and facilities to handle, mix and store feed. Even then, it's not turnkey.

“I'm concerned about misapplication of certain feed by-products,” Sawyer says. “We have a lot of options available. Many have tremendous feeding value, but most also come with special considerations…By their nature, feed co-products are variable. You can run into a wreck in a hurry if you don't do a nutrient analysis.”

Consider corn by-products. Often a lucrative value, they also concentrate sulfur. Someone who figures he'll just put it out free choice can get into problems quickly with sulfur toxicity.

Even the simplest management considerations can bite when switching to more feed.

“Labor is such a key issue that self-feeding is an attractive option. Occasionally, however, we'll get into a situation where we fill the feeders and discover the feed doesn't work physically; it's gotten bridged inside the feeder and cattle have gone without it for four or five days,” Sawyer explains.

Especially for folks less familiar with using feed, Sawyer says a too-common mistake is using commercial feeds for the wrong purpose.

“There are those who will take a commercial feed designed to be a forage complement and try to use it as a complete forage replacement,” he explains.

Squeezing the lemon

For those who'd rather see the glass half full, there are unique opportunities that present themselves in times like these.

Sawyer explains, “Maybe I bought some short-4-weight cattle thinking I needed lots of room to cheapen them up because of the high overall unit cost. Maybe I've put 100 lbs. on them. If I can just stretch them, in another month or so it will rain — it always rains somewhere.”

As well, Sawyer points out, for folks who have held on without getting as much gain as planned, they basically have a set of preconditioned calves. It may pay to explore the opportunities of marketing them as such.

Feeder-cattle contracts have offered potential, too. “Some people are looking at breakevens that are lower than feeder contract prices. The summer contracts are beginning to soften, but there have been opportunities to hedge them for a reasonable margin,” Sawyer says.

Moving forward, if spring pasture is also scarce, Sawyer says there are some perennial opportunities to consider.

“Those 650-weight cattle are always the bald-headed stepchildren compared to cattle on either side of them,” he explains. “If you buy 6-weight calves and put 200 lbs. on them, you can turn them faster and have more opportunity to manage their condition.”

Sawyer points out the opportunity is even more pronounced with cutter bulls. Buy a cutter bull, and the added risk, for $1.02, he says. Then sell him 200 lbs. later as a steer at $1.10.

“There aren't many price margins like that to exploit in this business,” he says.

Limit feeding

The minimums of limit feeding:

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

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

  • Scales or other methods of weighing out daily feed.

  • Roughage feeds to work cattle up to a higher concentrate diet.

  • Skill on the part of the manager.

  • Sufficient business management skill to assess the economic limitations and opportunities in limit feeding cattle.
  • A sound plan for the use or sale of cattle following limit-growing.

Source: Oklahoma State University (Gill, Lalman)

For more stocker production information visit www.beefstockerusa.org