Factors to consider before entering a cow wintering arrangement

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In a year that has been trumped by drought, cow/calf producers have little room for error in any of their management decisions.  Due to the drought, producers have been forced to seek out alternative feeding strategies for bred cows and heifers. This has resulted in the creation of a number of new feeding contracts between producers and feeders during the fall of 2012.

When determining the value of a contract and understanding what should be included from a cow/calf production standpoint, the following points should be considered:

  • Body Condition Score (BCS): This is a great tool that producers and feeders alike can use to assess the overall condition of the cows both when they enter the feeding grounds and when they get on the trucks at the end of the contract. Included within a contract should be the average BCS of cows when they enter the feeding program and what the expected BCS of cows at the end of the contract. (See iGrow's Basics of Body Condition Scoring publication).
  • Death Loss: While minimal death loss should be expected while the cows are being fed through the winter, it would be ideal to determine what an acceptable death loss is and what the ramifications will be if that loss is exceeded. In general less than 1.0% of death loss should occur in healthy bred females through the fall and winter months.
  • Pregnancy loss: Feeds have the potential to induce abortions in pregnant cattle. Therefore if pregnant cows or heifers are sent to a feeder, the contract should determine who is responsible for the loss of pregnancies, and what an acceptable rate of loss is. For example, if a feeder were to feed a ration that is high in nitrates(greater than 1.0 ppm) to bred replacement heifers and an abortion storm takes place, the persons responsible for the loss of those pregnancies should be defined in the contract and what the monetary compensation will be. (See Abortion Risk with High Nitrates).
  • Calving: Clearly define if bred animals will be returned to the homeplace prior to the beginning of calving or if the feeder will be calving them out. If the cows or heifers will be returned prior to calving, make sure to allow adequate time for shipment before the beginning of the calving season. Dr. Russ Daly suggests that producers ship cattle no later than 30 days before the beginning of the calving season. He also stated “Late gestation (last trimester) is a time when a cow’s immune system is dampened and adding the stress of a long haul could make other issues crop up that could cause abortions/early calving.”  In addition, if the cattle will be calved at the feeding operation, the death loss of both cows and calves should be defined within the contract, and the desired herd health protocols. This would include tagging, records to be kept, vaccines/medications to be given to the calf, which vet should be called if assistance is needed, in what cases the vet will be used, and who will pay for those expenses.
  • Herd Health: In the case of a herd health issue or an individual animal health issue, the contract should detail what steps will be taken, which vet will be used, and who is responsible for the cost.
  • Housing: Cattle owners and feeders should determine what the conditions will be and where the cattle will be fed. Are you expecting your cows to be fed in a pasture setting or will they be in a feed yard? Will cattle be co-mingled or be kept separate?  These things should be defined in the contract, as well as desired bunk space per head, watering conditions, and shelter. 
  • Before a final agreement is made and cattle shipped, the lenders from both parties should be involved to make sure that all financial obligations can be met.
  • Perhaps the most important factor to remember is that any and all agreements should be in writing to prevent misunderstandings.

While there are a bundle of topics that can and should be addressed in a feeding contract, traditional contracts used for stocker type feeding scenarios should be altered to include critical components for pregnant cows and heifers.

Source: Kalyn Waters with contributions from Warren Rusche, SDSU Extension Cow/Calf Field Specialist.



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