For stocker operators this year, it seems every mention of the word “price” is accompanied by the word “high.” High corn prices, high calf prices, high wheat prices, high hay prices, high land-lease
prices — the list goes on.

Given these conditions, reducing production costs becomes a priority. But one area where spending some money can increase overall returns is supplemental feeding.

The way the market is shaping up this fall, calf prices are good, and yearling prices are even better, says Kansas State University Extension beef specialist Dale Blasi. Fed-cattle prices also look strong, but with feeder cattle and grain prices high, there is a need to minimize production costs during the finishing phase. One way to do that is to place cattle later and at heavier weights. So for stocker operators, particularly those who retain ownership, it might pay to maximize gains with supplements to minimize time in the feedyard.

Boosting energy on wheat pasture

Evan Whitley, PhD, is a livestock specialist at the Noble Foundation in Oklahoma. He says research consistently shows that feeding a high-energy supplement to cattle on winter small-grain pastures will boost gains, but producers need to calculate the value of that gain against all the costs, including feed prices and the grower’s intention to produce a grain crop.

Beyond ration prices, labor typically is the most limiting factor in supplemental feeding. “Producers need to ask themselves if they can commit to feeding supplements every day, or at least every other day,” Whitley says. With high-energy rations, every-day feeding will provide the best response.

Oklahoma State University animal scientist Gerald Horn, PhD, says supplements can offer several benefits for wheat-grazing programs.

  • Supplements can provide a more balanced nutrient supply, while also providing feed additives such as ionophores or bloat preventive compounds.
  • Supplements can substitute for forage where it is desirable to increase stocking rate in relation to grazing management or marketing decisions.
  • Supplements can substitute for forage when forage supplies fall short. 

Horn and a group of OSU researchers recently reported three years of trials to evaluate upplementation strategies for wheat cattle. One strategy they tested was to feed a sorghum-based supplement including an ionophore and minerals, targeting a limited daily intake of 2 to 3 pounds of supplement. This method, Horn says, consistently increased average daily gains by approximately one-half pound and increased profit by $15 to $31 per steer, although Horn notes the trials took place in the early 1990s when grain prices were lower than today.

In separate tests, the researchers compared two types of energy supplements — one a high-starch, corn-based feed; the other a high-fiber, byproduct supplement containing soybean hulls and wheat midds. The researchers hand-fed the supplements six days each week at a level of about 0.65 percent of body weight. This program increased average daily gains by 0.33 pounds and allowed 30 percent higher stocking rates. Type of supplement did not influence gains, supplement conversion or the substitution ratio of supplement for forage in these trials.

Due to late planting, seed shortages and high wheat prices, wheat pasture is in short supply this year and grazing periods are likely to be shorter then normal, Whitley says.

Meanwhile, the value of gain for stocker cattle also increased, and he believes energy supplements should improve returns in most situations.

On moderately stocked wheat pasture, say around 1,000 pounds of cattle per acre, Whitley says producers should evaluate the value of incremental increases in individual gains from energy supplements. This is a likely strategy for larger pastures where grain production is a priority — using supplements to improve individual gains without increasing stocking rates.

Another strategy is to use supplemental feeding along with higher stocking rates to boost total gain per acre, rather than per animal. Whitley says a well-planned and managed feeding program could allow stocking rates of 1,500 pounds per acre or higher, with the additional beef production helping account for likely reductions in grain yield. This could be a profitable strategy this year, particularly on smaller acreage.

Grazing dormant forage

Outside of wheat-pasture areas, Blasi says there could be some good opportunities for stocker operators to utilize lower-quality forages such as dead grass, along with supplements this winter.

“We’re looking closely at this kind of strategy,” he says. Calf prices typically hit their seasonal lows around mid-December, he explains. A producer could purchase cattle around that time, then run them on native pastures such as in the Kansas Flint Hills, using dead grass that grew after cattle came off in late summer, along with a protein supplement such as cottonseed meal or distillers’ grains.

With this strategy, the goal would not be to produce a lot of gain on winter forage, but rather to string the cattle along by feeding enough supplement to maintain condition and keep them healthy, programming them for faster gains after green-up.

Blasi stresses that for grazing dormant pastures, cattle need a supplement that is high in crude protein but fed at low levels, and he acknowledges that delivery can be a problem with loose supplements such as distillers’ grains.

Another potential downside to this approach, Blasi says, is that grazing might not leave enough dead grass for spring burning, resulting in less forage production the next growing season. With careful management though, Blasi believes producers could leave enough to gain the benefits of burning.

Backgrounding options

Where standing forage is in short supply, Blasi says producers might consider backgrounding calves this winter prior to spring turnout. He and a team of K-State researchers recently completed a study to evaluate different backgrounding diets and their effects on performance during subsequent grazing.

The researchers sorted cattle into four treatment groups for a 60-day receiving period. The control group received full feed, while the other three groups were limit-fed at 2.5 percent, 2.25 percent or 2 percent of body weight on a dry-matter basis.

As expected, the full-fed cattle gained the most weight during the backgrounding period, averaging 3.13 pounds of gain per day and a total gain of 167 pounds. Gains declined with the restricted diets, with the most restricted group averaging 1.6 pounds per day and gaining 110 pounds total.

Costs, however, varied widely. Production costs through the backgrounding period averaged $69.13 per head for the full-fed pens, but just $52.55 for the pens receiving the 2.25 percent diet and $49.85 for the most restricted pens receiving the 2 percent diet. While reductions in feed accounted for much of the savings, the researchers calculated that limit feeding also significantly reduced the cost of manure management.

Once turned out on grass, the limit-fed cattle gained weight faster than the full-fed groups, particularly during the first 45 days. After 90 days on feed, there were no significant differences in average weights between the full-fed group, the 2.5 percent group or the 2.25 percent group. Weights for the most severely restricted 2 percent group were significantly lighter.

Blasi notes that the restricted groups also incurred lower costs per head during the grazing period because their lighter weights at turnout allow higher stocking rates. He explains that at a stocking rate of 160,000 pounds of cattle on 640 acres, the 30-pound difference between the 2.25 percent restricted cattle and the full-feed calves would allow stocking an additional 13 head of the lighter cattle on the same land. Total savings from backgrounding through grazing came to just under $20 per head for the limit-fed cattle.

Summer supplements

Blasi describes a trial K-State researchers conducted in 2002, looking at the effects of supplementation during grazing on subsequent performance through finishing and on carcass quality. The researchers shipped 328 Southeastern calves, averaging 495 pounds, to Kansas for April turnout and summer grazing on native pasture.

A control group received no supplement, while the treatment group received about 5 pounds per day of dry-rolled corn mixed with a commercial protein and mineral mix.

The supplemented group averaged 2.2 pounds of gain per day, compared with 1.47 for the control calves, resulting in a difference of 68 pounds per head at the end of the grazing period. In the feedyard, both groups performed identically, with no significant differences in intake, average daily gain or feed efficiency. However, due to heavier initial weights, the supplemented cattle reached finishing weights with 18 fewer days on feed.

At the packing plant, researchers found no significant differences in carcass merit between the two groups.

Distillers’ grains increase stocker returns

As pasture rents and forage prices increase, distillers’ grains could provide cost-effective supplementation and additional gains for stocker cattle.

The University of Nebraska’s 2007 beef research report summarizes eight grazing experiments in which researchers supplemented yearlings with 4 or 7.5 pounds of dried distillers’ grains. The report notes that prices for distillers’ grains at ethanol plants averaged about $70 to $85 per ton in 2006, while summer pasture prices ran about $27.31 per AUM (680 lbs. dry matter) or about $80 per ton. Assuming distillers’ grains could be delivered to yearlings on pasture for about $138 per ton dry matter, the DG would be about 166 percent of the price of grass, but offers 200 percent the energy value of grass.

Three of the trials used yearling heifers and five used yearling steers, and they covered a range of grazing environments in Nebraska and Kansas. Lengths of trials ranged from 54 to 196 days.

Averaged across the eight trials, supplementing 4 pounds per day of DG in-creased daily gains by 0.53 pounds, and feeding 7.5 pounds per day added 0.89 pounds gain per day compared with forage alone. Over an average grazing period of 100 days, these gains resulted in an additional 50 pounds and 89 pounds of weight per head. Each pound of DG decreased forage intake by one-half pound, and supplementation during grazing did not affect subsequent feedlot performance. The researchers calculate that each $1 spent on DG yielded returns ranging from $1.41 to $1.94.