Drought and high temperatures in the Southern Plains have combined to literally bake the forage and a passel of cattle right off the land in that important part of cattle country. By some predictions, a year-to-year decline in cow numbers of as much as 12-13% is forecast for both Texas and Oklahoma come Jan. 1, 2012.

“Many of those cattle liquidated due to drought went to slaughter, but quite a few moved, mostly north,” says Jim Robb of the Livestock Marketing Information Center in Denver. “The veterinary inspection data seems to support that some cattle have moved from the drought area north to Nebraska and South Dakota, with a very limited number moving north of South Dakota. Some also have gone to Colorado.”

Among those cattle migrating to Nebraska are several hundred cow-calf pairs lodged in semi-confinement at COE Cattle Company in Norfolk. Commingled from sale barns located from the Texas Hill Country west to San Angelo, and north and south of there, the pairs were held for 60 days in a Texas feedyard to gain condition before the ongoing feed shortage forced them north.

What’s particularly intriguing is that at COE Feedyard, a commercial feeding operation in northeast Nebraska, the pairs are in semi-confinement with access to pastures for grazing and woods for shelter. It’s a concept that just might offer far-ranging benefits to the beef industry in general.

A Nebraska experiment

It’s the second group of cow-calf pairs raised in semi-confinement that Kenneth Eng of San Antonio, TX, an icon among consulting nutritionists, has partnered on with COE Cattle Company. While Eng terms the first go-round last year, which consisted of cow-calf pairs transplanted from western Nebraska, as being very successful, he says the verdict is still in question on this latest parcel trucked 850 miles north to the Husker State.

“These cattle came out of an area that since October 2010 had less than 1.5 in. of total rain, with record daytime temperatures, to boot. These cattle literally had nothing to eat,” Eng says. “Of the pairs we bought, the calves weighed 150-175 lbs., while the cows, which easily could have weighed 1,200 lbs., were 825-850; weighed up together, the pairs were less than 1,000 lbs.”

Those nutritionally and health-challenged pairs moved first to confinement in a Texas feedyard under the watchful eye of DVM Wes Bonner at his feedlot in Nolan County. Limit-fed 20 lbs. of dry matter/pair/day on a diet of 46% cotton burrs, byproducts and supplement, the cows and their calves each gained 2 lbs./day, or 4 lbs. total, Eng reports.

Forced north

But, Eng says he went into the deal gambling on a break in the drought and more moderate feed prices as a result of the coming fall harvest.

“This venture was based on low-cost roughages; we had cotton burrs contracted for 60 days at $40-50/ton. Once that ran out, the rate was going up to $100-120/ton for new-crop material, with hay running $250-300/ton, and at least a similar rate for silage, on a dry matter basis, coming out of the pit,” Eng says.

“I never dreamed they wouldn’t get another drop of rain during this period of time, or that feed costs would increase this much. There’s just an incredible shortage down there of everything. It’s a drought of historic proportions,” he says.

So Eng decided to ship the cattle north to COE Cattle Company. He’s worked for 20 years as a consulting nutritionist with owners Bill Emrich and Ed McClymont. Shipping was about $75/pair, an expenditure Eng says wasn’t in his original calculations. But, he figures the feed cost savings in Nebraska will cover the cost within two months.

“We bought only pairs and kept them as pairs right from the sale barns in Texas to here in Nebraska,” Eng says. After 60 days of conditioning, the calves were averaging 300 lbs., while the cows were 1,000 lbs. The cattle made the 850-mile passage to Nebraska – 38 pairs/potload – in great shape, Eng says.

“They just ran off the truck, paired up together in a heartbeat, and headed up to the feedbunk. Of course, they all knew how to eat,” McClymont adds.

In Nebraska, the feed is mostly a distillers byproduct, plus cornstalks and a little supplement.

“They have access to grass, too,” McClymont says. “We feed them in the pens and they have access to grass for grazing and timber for shelter. The calves will do fine, but I’m a little nervous about the cows because the drought has probably compromised them a bit. September to November will be critical in getting them into condition to weather the winter.”

Wide-ranging benefits

But Eng contends that semi-confinement of cows makes economic and environmental sense.

“The cost per cow unit is much lower with semi-confinement than with a conventional ranch. In many areas, it’s not unusual for conventional cow operations to sell for $10,000-$30,000/cow unit of carrying capacity. That’s nice for the seller but it makes it almost impossible for a young person to get into the business,” Eng says.

Eng interjects, “And, it’s probably better to have them closely confined so that you can watch them and do whatever you need to do.”

Eng says he’s received inquiries from producers in Nebraska and the Dakotas looking for advice on his venture.

“I don’t know if it’s a good deal – it might be a fool’s errand, but it’s darn sure better than leaving them where they were. I tell my callers that it doesn’t make too much sense to move cattle from Texas to Nebraska four months short of winter, so ask me next spring,” he says

“But if, by feeding, 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 for food, he 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%,” Eng says.
It’s a model that would seem to fit well with feedlots, he adds, because 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 them to age and source-verify all the calves,” 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. 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.”

Eng thinks his Texas-to-Nebraska cattle venture has “a 50:50 chance” of working. “But if it doesn’t, it won’t ruin my day and, once again, I’ll have learned something.”

The economics of his venture aside, Eng believes in the potential of semi-confinement of cows; in fact, so much so that he’s in the process of formalizing a charitable foundation with three land-grant universities to explore the idea’s merits.

The foundation, the details to be announced in November, will honor the memory of his late wife, Caroline, who passed away in June 2010. She had served as chief financial officer of Eng Ranches, the Engs’ land business, cattle research and consulting operations.

“I’m working to found the foundation in Caroline’s memory as the Dr. Kenneth and Caroline McDonald Eng Foundation. The main reason I’m doing this is to remember Caroline and our mutual love for the land and cattle,” Eng says. The funds, which he says will be substantial, will support university research in the area of semi-confinement cow production.