Limit feeding pays off
Rich Porter thrives on ugly cattle. His order buyers in Georgia and Kentucky sit on their hands as their counterparts compete to outbid each other for the sleek, preconditioned calves that bring top dollar. Then Porter’s buyers scoop up the scrawny, malnourished and mismanaged bull calves that appear to have more value than they cost. At least they don’t pay for beauty.
“I get mostly 3-weight cattle that are not used to being confined and have never seen a feedbunk,” says Porter, who runs a backgrounding and finishing operation at Reading, KS. “We look for bull calves that we can buy at slightly under heifer calf prices. Our only guarantee is that we will have a health challenge.”
Porter’s program is designed to straighten out the calves on a combination of limited feed and grass. The goal is to get enough compensatory gain to make up for any death losses, which average about 4 percent.
After the calves arrive on the farm, they are castrated, wormed and given all the necessary shots to ward off respiratory diseases. Then, they are placed into one of 16 pens, each of which has access to a 16-acre fescue pasture. “We start them out on a ration of wet distillers grains, cracked corn, longstemmed hay and supplement, which is ground and fed in bunk feeders,” Porter reports. They get about 6 to 7 pounds of dry matter per head per day.
“Basically, we want all cattle to eat for at least two hours a day, but they have to be out of feed after four hours,” he says. “At first, our cowboys have to drive them to the pens. But they quickly learn that when they see the feed truck, they need to head for the feed pens. There is no waiting around to eat later, because there is no later.”
Porter says the program meets several objectives. His initial motivation was to reduce the number of calves that get sick from overeating between days 10 and 25.
But he soon found several additional advantages to the limit-feeding approach.
“With the calves coming in to eat, it is very easy to spot any that are sick. Not hanging around in the pens in a confined situation, they are less subject to disease,” he says. “Problems with overeating are eliminated. There are probably feed-ef ficiency benefits, too, but I’m not too concerned about weight gains at this point,” Porter continues. Calves gain between 1 and 1.5 pounds a day.
“We will look for bull calves that we can buy at slightly under heifer calf prices. Our only guarantee is that we will have a health challenge.”
After 30 days, the cattle are brought up to eating all they want and Porter begins adjusting the ration by adding corn silage. After 45 days, calves go to grass, if available; otherwise, they are on a growing ration until they weigh about 800 pounds. Then, they go on a finishing ration.
Porter’s program is one of several different approaches to limited feeding producers have adopted over the years to meet various objectives. Dan Faulkner, Extension beef specialist with the University of Illinois, reports several studies demonstrate limit-feeding improves feed efficiency, thereby reducing costs of gain.
“When we limit feed, we reduce how fast feed passes through the digestive system, so cattle digest feed better,” Faulkner explains. “By limiting feed, we shrink the size of the digestive organs. Cattle produce less manure and have lower maintenance costs, so we get better economic returns.”
Dale Blasi, Extension beef specialist at Kansas State University, conducted a study in 2007 on limited feeding with stocker cattle going onto burned tall-grass pasture. “Our main objective at the time was to shave production costs because corn prices were being driven up by ethanol demand,” he explains.
After a 20-day processing period, Blasi divided highrisk crossbred calves with an average weight of 420 pounds into four groups. A control group was full-fed, while the other three groups
were restricted to dry matter intake at the rates of 2.5 percent of body weight (BW), 2.25 percent BW and 2 percent BW. The 16 percent crude protein ration consisted of alfalfa hay, cracked corn, prairie hay and wet gluten feed. After 45 days on feed, the steers were turned out on burned tall-grass pastures.
It was no surprise that through the backgrounding phase, the full-fed steers had the highest average daily gain, at 3.12 pounds per acre, and produced the most total gain, an average of 167 pounds per head. The steers fed 2.5 percent BW averaged 2.29 pounds and gained 143 pounds; those fed at 2.25 percent BW averaged 2.13 pounds and gained 139 pounds while those fed at 2 percent BW averaged 1.61 pounds and gained 110 pounds.
However, once on pasture, 90 days after turnout, steers that had been on a restricted diet out-gained those animals that had been on full feed. The full-fed steers averaged 2.09 pounds per day and gained 196 pounds. The steers fed at the rate of 2 percent BW had the highest average daily gain on pasture (2.57 pounds) and also produced the highest gain on pasture (215 pounds).
Most significant, Blasi says, the control group—the steers that were full fed— cost 25 percent more than the steers for which feed was restricted. Additional benefits included less manure handled during the backgrounding phase and the opportunity to run more cattle on the same amount of pasture. — DTN