Managing costs has always been critical in the success of beef production, but perhaps never more than today.

Don Adams, University of Nebraska professor of animal science, says over-consumption of a 2:1 salt and dicalcium mix (6% phosphorus) by just 1 oz./day, which averages about 1¢/cow/day, can add up to $1,100 in a 300-head herd over a one-year period.

"So you can see it's important to know the content of what you're feeding, what supplements you really need and how much to feed," Adams says. "It's never been more important to have a written plan and monitor costs."

Adams recommends starting with a year-long plan. "Include an emergency component so you know what to do in case of drought, fire, hail, deep snow or other circumstances. Even if you don't have an emergency, you'll find it difficult to purchase feed at the same time everyone else needs it. That's why I make every effort to get ranchers to look at their entire year when they develop a feed plan."

A thorough knowledge of feed costs, at today's prices, could help producers save several thousand dollars over the winter feeding period, even with a small herd of cattle.

"Dicalcium phosphate is about $1,000/ton," Adams says. "At $2.78/lb., the costs add up pretty quickly if cows over-consume the mineral. Over-consuming just 1/10 oz./day adds up to $2/cow/month. Extrapolate that to 100 cows, and you're talking a lot of money over the course of the year."

Adequate phosphorus in cattle diets is essential, Adams says. A phosphorus deficiency can result in reduced productivity in all types of cattle, including reduced feed intake, reduced rate of gain in calves, reduced conception, anestrus and reduced milk production. Cows will appear gaunt and lethargic and have a rough hair coat.

But overfeeding phosphorus, the price for which has risen 700% between February 2007 and November 2008, can rob producer profits in a big way, he points out.

Adams says the phosphorus requirement for a dry cow in the Midwest is about 13 grams/day, and increases to about 18 grams just before calving. But cows grazing in the winter “probably get 13-14 grams of phosphorus from the forage alone, which means they don't need a supplement," Adams says.

The same goes for cows supplemented daily with ½lb./head of distiller's grains (DGs). “Just about any kind of protein supplement, including grazing corn stalks, is likely to contain phosphorus,” Adams says.

If mineral supplements are fed free-choice, Adams suggests providing cows with a 2- to 3-day supply at once in order to save fuel and labor. Even if the cows consume all the supplement in one day, they’re receiving the necessary amount of minerals and won’t over-consume.

Adams says most grass hays and meadow hays will meet the phosphorus requirements without a supplement, too. "Your cows can be a bit short on their daily requirement for a month or so without problems. Cows store phosphorus in their bones, so a small, short-term deficiency won’t harm them.”

While the cost of overfeeding is easy to recognize, underfeeding pregnant cows will cost producers in the long run. Undernourished calves or open cows quickly reduce returns, he says.

Other measures. Adams says planning can save producers big. Begin by assessing the number of days cattle need to be fed and consider how much hay and protein supplement they need for a specific period of time.

"Analyze your hay and supplements so you know what you're feeding and how much to feed," Adams says. "The protein content of prairie or meadow hay typically varies between 6-10%. You don't want to underfeed, but you can't afford to overfeed, either. It's important to know the total digestible nutrients (energy) level in your specific feed. Make sure the feed meets the cattle's requirements and that you're getting fair value for the cost of the feed."

  • For further insight, Adams recommends www.agmanagerstools.com The website offers worksheets that allow producers to input specific data and calculate total costs, cost/head and cost/day to feed cattle. In addition to specific feed details, the worksheets include transportation cost figures, labor and rent.

    "This tool will help determine if it's more effective to feed alfalfa or DGs, for instance," Adams says. "In calculating feed costs, be sure to include costs for transportation and feeding. Depending on your individual situation, what's economical for one feeder may not work for another."

  • Segment herds so older cows don't intimidate and reduce feed intake of younger cattle.

  • For cows on winter pasture or corn stalks, if weather conditions become icy, the body condition of cattle can quickly deteriorate.
"Cows can't break through ice to feed and don't travel very well on it," Adams says. "In corn stalks, if husks, leaves and corn are frozen to the ground, cows won't get the nutrition they need from the stalks. If there's a serious winter storm, quick intervention is the only way to keep the cattle from suffering harm."
-- Loretta Sorensen