Historically high grass cattle prices and escalating costs of gain have caused many grass managers to closely evaluate the various inputs and management practices in order to maximize returns. Further complicating this decision process are the existing pasture conditions (water supply) resulting from last year’s drought. Moreover, the unseasonably warm temperatures combined with the advent of timely moisture have resulted in native grass pasture growth 3 to 4 weeks ahead of schedule. If cattle have not been placed on pastures this spring on a time schedule to match the earlier than normal growth of grass, it is plausible that calf performance may be disappointing because of advanced grass growth (lower crude protein and higher fiber content). As a result, supplement programs in addition to grazing dates may require adjustment this year.
One often overlooked mistake that can contribute (or help) to an already stressed make or break margin is the management of shrink when calves are removed off of grass. For example, reducing shrink by one percentage unit on an 800 lb steer with a value of $1.35 per pound is roughly equal to $10 to 12 dollars per head. Cattle shrink can be impacted by gathering time and conditions, pre-gathering rations and handling.
With respect to gathering time, many operators prefer to gather at first light and have the calves ready for the trucks sometime between 8 and 10 am. According to multi-year research conducted at KSU, producers can pick up about 3 pounds per head per hour for every hour after daylight that the calves are allowed to graze, until 9 a.m. or so. More specifically, steers gathered three hours after daybreak shrunk at a rate of 0.5 percent per hour compared to 0.69 percent per hour for steers gathered at daybreak. Steers shrunk 0.71 and 0.67 percent per hour when gathered at one or two hours after dawn, respectively.
This occurrence is related to the typical grazing pattern of cattle. Depending on factors such as forage type and environment, cattle will usually graze during 2 to 4 distinct periods throughout the day with the primary grazing period being during the early morning. In effect, disrupting this grazing period “robs” them of their main meal of the day. In general, KSU research has shown that cattle shrink at approximately 1.0 percent per hour for the first 3 to 4 hours of food and water deprivation, then shrink declines to as little as 0.1 percent per hour up through 10 hours.
Naturally, stocker operators are concerned about the typically hot weather conditions that are encountered when calves are gathered during the latter summer and fall months and as a result calves are gathered during the very early morning hours. So, delaying the onset of gathering by even 1 to 2 hours and coordinating with the arrival of trucks, a producer will have the opportunity to pick up pounds by grazing longer, and by reducing the amount of time the calves can “melt” off the pounds they carried into the pen.
Be it the inherent disposition or the environment from whence the cattle originate, excitable cattle seem to shrink more and take longer to recover the pounds that they lose. With that being said, most grass cattle managers recognize the importance of careful and minimal stress cattle handling and have the facilities and attitude geared towards quieter handling. While supplement costs are high, strategic supplementation on an every other or third day basis during the final 2 to 3 weeks of the grazing period will familiarize “edgy” calves to a truck siren or horn and may facilitate their movement to the load out facilities with minimal stress. Moreover, the supplementation of crude protein during the latter grazing period will improve the intake and digestibility of the grass which will result in some improvement in calf performance.
Source: Dale Blasi, extension beef specialist