Ranchers face two competing economic realities today, explained Warren Rusche, SDSU Extension Cow/Calf Field Specialist. “The market is signaling for more calves while at the same time grazing resources required to produce these additional calves are very expensive or unavailable.”

He added that the current prospect of drier conditions and reduced grass growth, further compounds the problem.

Some feed solutions to stretch pasture forages which Rusche suggests include:

  • Improved pasture management; 
  • Increased usage of annual forages for grazing;
  • Feeding more harvested feeds to lessen the reliance on traditional pasture systems; 
  • Supplemental feeding while cattle graze; and
  • Raising cow/calf pairs in a drylot or an enclosed structure which doesn’t use pasture at all.

Lactating cows

Whether or not these systems will work for your operation, Rusche said depends upon whether or not they provide sustainable diets for maintaining lactating cows which are cost competitive with pasture.

“This is a key critical factor in whether or not these systems make sense,” he said. “Common diets rely heavily on low-cost crop residues combined with by-product feeds or other supplemental feeds.”

Other possibilities, Rusche said limit-fed rations based on grain. He said that under current market conditions, these kinds of diets often cost less than the top end of pasture or range leases when considered on a cost per head per day. 

What cattle producers have to say.

“Any time changes in standard management practices occur, there is a learning curve and occasionally unintended consequences,” Rusche said.
For example, labor needs obviously increase when cattle are fed every day compared to grazing pasture. The costs of manure disposal and potentially higher equipment repair and depreciation expenses Rusche said all need to be considered as well. “On the other hand, semi-confinement may make technologies such as AI easier to manage,” he said. “Manure represents an opportunity to reduce fertilizer expenses for crop acres.”

Earlier this year, SDSU Extension sponsored a program on alternative cow/calf production systems that featured a producer panel as well as researchers experienced in these systems. These are some of the observations that they reported.

Management: One of the statements made by Dr. Vern Anderson, retired animal scientist at NDSU-Carrington was that semi-confinement could be “cow heaven” or something much worse, depending on how well producers manage the physical environment of the cow. Proper drainage, pen maintenance, and bedding when necessary are important to avoid excessive mud and all the associated performance and health problems. 

Nutrition: As mentioned earlier, heavy use of crop residues is a common characteristic of these systems. Producers need to make sure they follow sound nutritional principles, especially when feeding less common feedstuffs. The panelists felt that it was easier to meet the cattle’s nutritional requirements and head off problems by bunk feeding a balanced diet. Some also indicated that they had observed lower than expected feed requirements because of either improved environment, less walking, or a combination of those factors.

Health: The risk of increased disease is a common concern. However, the producer panelists did not report significant health issues. Some of the reasons they gave included the ability to treat cows and calves in a timelier manner and improved ability to meet the cattle’s nutritional needs. They also worked closely with their veterinarians to develop vaccination and treatment protocols.

Other items to consider are bio-security and minimizing stress factors. In a poster presented at the 2015 Midwest Animal Science meetings, researchers from Nebraska reported that treatment rates for calves in an intensively managed environment were 0 percent in year one but 84 percent in year two. These differences were attributed to weather stress (October snow) combined with exposure to a set of calves that had been shipped  in to the facility. calves. This points out that producers need to keep calves isolated if they are also bringing in other cattle.  

“Agriculture has adapted to changing environmental and economic conditions many times in the past; the cow/calf business is no exception,” Rusche said. “Managing cows and calves more intensively in a semi-confinement system is a potential option to deal with the economic realities of the beef business and adapt to changing environmental conditions.”