Drylot beef cow production can be a viable alternative for producers, according to researchers at North Dakota State University's Carrington Research Extension Center.

The researchers are in the middle of a six-year study that compares drylot and pasture cow-calf beef production systems.

"We are conducting this study because pasture and rangeland for grazing beef cattle are diminishing in some parts of the county due to drought, land taken out of pasture and hayland for more profitable crop production, labor shortages and other factors," says Vern Anderson, the animal scientist at the center who leads the research.

Preliminary results of the study suggest that spring-calving beef cows can be managed in drylot, but careful herd management and integration with crop production is needed for competitive biological performance and economics.

"The bottom line depends heavily on feed cost and meeting the cows' nutritional needs," Andersons says.

For the drylot system part of this study, researchers confine cow/calf pairs to a feedlot pen during the summer until crop residue is available for cows to graze in the fall. The drylot calves are weaned at that time. Pasture calves are weaned in late October, and cows graze the native grasses until about Dec. 1, when they are returned to wintering pens.

Lactating drylot cows are fed a variety of feeds, with rations balanced to meet or exceed requirements. Feeds used include crop residues (corn stover, wheat, barley and pea straws) and multiple coproducts (distillers grains, wheat midds, barley hulls and others), plus some corn silage and grass hay. The two groups of cows are wintered in separate pens but on the same basic ration.

"Biologically, drylot calves were 46 pounds lighter than pasture calves when drylot calves were weaned in late September," Anderson says. "Creep grazing can improve calf gains and reduce creep feed consumption. Steers from the two groups were equal in weight when sent to market on the same day after feedlot finishing."

Here are some other findings from the study:

* Cow weight varied more in drylot cows during the year and from year to year.

* Pregnancy rates were similar for both groups of cows after three years of the study.

* More drylot cows were assisted at birth than pasture cows (14 vs. 5 percent).

The researchers also found that feed costs were higher for drylot cows during lactation ($1.72 per head daily), compared with cows on pasture ($1 per head per day), but drylot cows spent fewer days on high-cost diets.

Here are other findings related to cost:

* Annual feed costs per cow were $519 per cow for drylot cows and $457 per cow for pasture cows. Extending crop aftermath grazing can reduce drylot cow feed costs and distribute manure.

* Creep feed costs were $84 per calf for drylot calves and $101 for pasture calves, which consume creep feed for more than four weeks longer than the drylot calves.

* Manure from drylot cows was valued at $60 per head for nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium fertilizer.

"The net annual production cost was $580 per cow for drylot and $557 for pasture cows," Anderson says. "The drylot cost equates to $43-per-acre pasture rent, with six acres per cow for the six-month grazing period from late May to early December. The crop enterprise gets paid for stover and other feeds, enhancing crop-livestock integration."

The weaning weight in late September was 571 pounds for drylot calves and 617 pounds for pasture calves. Considering the costs of production, this equates to $1.02 per pound of drylot calf and 79 cents for pasture calves weaned in late October at 707 pounds.

"The critical factors for drylot production are providing the right nutrition at the right time to keep feed costs down," Anderson says. "This means sourcing low-cost or high-nutrient-density feeds at competitive prices. Feed quality is critical, especially from calving to the end of the breeding season as drylot cows perform based on what is placed in the bunk."