Oct 23, 2009

Match cows to resources for fall feed savings

Now’s the time many people save money on spring-calving cows. They have just weaned the calves, or perhaps weaned them several weeks ago, so that the cows are in pretty good shape. That would usually be at least body condition score (BCS) 5 to 6, depending on where they live and how much money the owners plan to save on feed.

If you haven’t weaned spring calves yet or cows are losing condition, it’s high time to convert them into their natural fall state: dry, second-stage pregnant cows that have relatively low maintenance requirements. That’s where the money saving comes in.

Once the calves are under separate maintenance, in many locations across the U.S. there is still time for cows to gain condition on such forages as crop aftermath, meadow regrowth, or dormant native grasses. These feeds would not be sufficient to sustain cow/calf pairs near weaning time, but can more than meet the needs of cows alone. Typically mild weather helps cows gain weight, too.

It’s important for cows to go into winter in good flesh, particularly if you plan to keep them employed at least part-time as grazers. Remember, if forage and supplemental intake falls short of needs at any time during the winter, cows must draw on body reserves. Many good managers plan on cows dropping one BCS point during the winter, just getting into a rising plane of nutrition a month or two before calving.

Studies have shown it doesn’t matter, physiologically, if a cow has lost weight or gained weight during the winter to arrive at her target BCS 5 at calving. But it does matter financially. Low-cost producers do not feed cows enough harvested forages and grains during the winter to make them gain weight. Instead, they plan ahead for winter savings.

Before you get too excited about scrimping on feed, consider when your cows calve. Producers who combine low cost with high value try to calve as near to “turnout” as possible. A Midwestern cow that calves April 1 and weans October 1 is just entering that low-maintenance second trimester, a good candidate for savings. However, if she calved in mid-January, she only has a week or two of that second trimester left—and on most Midwestern farms, she is not going to graze her way into better condition from November to January.

Farther south, this timing could work, depending on resources. The key is to match your cows’ production cycle to naturally available local forages, scheduling her second trimester of pregnancy to coincide with adequate supplies of lower quality, high-fiber grazing resources. Protein supplement is a safety net to accompany the high-fiber fall forages. However, through observation and selection, some producers have actually weaned their cows off supplements during these months. This can be an expensive area in which to experiment because if cows lose enough condition that they are too thin at calving, calves may be off to a poor start and cow rebreeding performance will suffer.

You can move the herd toward lower maintenance overall through selection of replacement heifers. To begin, keep weaned heifers on the same kind of forage-based diet as cows for a few months.

The worst thing you can do is to try to step them up to gaining 2 or more pounds per day while they are growing. With modern genetics, research shows it is generally neither necessary nor profitable to push weaned heifers beyond daily gains of 0.75 to 1 pound.

Some producers let fertility guide this process, paying little attention to visual appearance. After a no-frills winter, they expose virtually all heifers to bulls, but only for three or four weeks. Those heifers that are bred tend to require less feed to achieve reproductive function, but further selection may be necessary to achieve uniformity.

Other producers visually appraise the heifers at the end of a fall backgrounding phase, keeping only those heifers showing good body condition as replacements.

For those bred heifers about to join your herd next spring, even low-cost champions are moved to chip in a few more groceries as needed this fall and winter to give them every chance at a successful first calf. This may be accomplished simply by saving the best fall pastures for them, rather than hauling in harvested feeds. — Steve Suther

(“Black ink” is a cattle management column written by Steve Suther and Miranda Reiman of Certified Angus Beef. The column is not designed for strictly Angus producers, and does not necessarily represent the views or opinions of WLJ or its editorial staff.)