Dramatic increases in feedyard production costs have made pasture and grass programs for yearling cattle more attractive, and supplements could become more cost effective as cattle spend more time on grass. If the price spread between calves and yearlings narrows, then higher yearling values relative to calves can allow stocker operators to invest a little more in production costs to increase gains, says Ron Scott, director of beef cattle research for Land O’Lakes Purina Feed.

So far this year, we have not seen any dramatic change in the calf-yearling price spread. For the week of Feb. 15, Kansas and Nebraska markets reported 500- to 600-pound steers selling at $125 to $128 per hundredweight, with 700- to 800-pound steers at $105. During the same week last year, the spread was almost identical at $100 to $121. If that spread narrows this year, which seems likely, supplements could become more cost effective for stocker operators.

Scott says the degree to which supplementing stocker cattle with energy and protein will improve returns depends on the situation. On wheat pasture, supplements typically do not improve individual gains dramatically, but can allow higher stocking rates and thus improve gain per acre.

On native range or other more moderate quality forage, grain-based supplements can improve daily gains significantly. For producers who own their grazing land rather than pay gain-based pasture rents, supplements can make sense in today’s market. Scott notes that his company’s Accuration line of supplements uses Intake Modifying Technology that causes cattle to consume multiple small snacks of the supplement throughout the day. Limited intake of the grain-based supplement helps to prevent dramatic depression in forage digestion, which improves overall utilization of the diet and subsequent performance, he says. The Accuration supplements are fed free-choice, so the cost of delivering supplemental feed is greatly reduced compared to hand-feeding.

Dried distillers’ grains with solubles are a viable option for supplementing stocker cattle, and research at the University of Nebraska and elsewhere has shown that supplementing DDGS for grazing cattle can improve gains and replace some forage intake. Nebraska researchers recently followed some earlier research to test whether DDG supplementation could allow doubling stocking rates on native Sandhills range. They found that supplementation increased average daily gains even when stocking rate was doubled. Forage consumption, however, was similar for double-stocked, unsupplemented and double-stocked, supplemented pastures, and the researchers concluded that forage replacement was not enough to allow doubling stocking rates.

Nebraska researchers also summarized four years of data to evaluate yearling performance on smooth bromegrass when supplemented with dried distillers’ grains . On average they supplemented cattle at 0.525 percent of body weight daily with DDG for entire 84- to 156-day grazing periods. Daily gains were increased by 0.55 pounds per day for the entire grazing season. Performance from the last two years of data show a quadratic decrease in ADG as grazing days increased and forage quality declined. The response to DDG supplementation increased with increasing grazing days. Both reports are available online.