The concept of managing cows and calves in confinement operations has gained attention in recent years, both as a drought-mitigation strategy and as a routine year-to-year production option. By relying on harvested feeds, confinement sacrifices some of the economic benefits of grazing cows and calves. However, with proper management, confinement could offer improved control over animal nutrition, health and reproduction.

Cactus Feeders, one of the country’s largest cattle-feeding companies, currently is engaged in confinement cow-calf management, working to develop practices that could make the enterprise viable over the long term. Veterinarian Roberto Eismendi, general manager of Cactus Feeders Cow-Calf Division, recently updated veterinarians on what his company has learned through its experience in confinement-cow management. Eismendi presented the information during the recent Academy of Veterinary Consultants summer conference in Kansas City. 

Following a smaller test of drylot cow-calf production, Cactus recently converted its 40,000-head Syracuse, Kan. feedyard into a cow-calf facility with capacity for 8,500 cows. The company now uses the facility to test feeding and reproduction-management options, develop production protocols, produce weaned calves with strong immunity and genetic potential and improve the genetic composition of the cow herd.

Eismendi says managing drylot cows and calves takes a different mindset and skill set than finishing cattle for slaughter, and Cactus hired a team of employees with a range of ranching and cattle-feeding experience.

To control feed costs, the operation uses a limit-feed system, managing females in three production phases: middle gestation, pre-calving and calving through breeding. They feed a high-roughage diet consisting of alfalfa, corn stalks, corn, wet distillers’ grains, ionophores and supplements.

Challenges in feeding and nutrition include adapting to nutrient and bunk-space requirements for females at different production phases, modifying feed mixing and delivery equipment for forage-based feeds and providing calves with appropriate access to feed. The team has, for example, designed a system using electric wire to create creep-feeding areas within the former feedyard pens. They also have added portable wind breaks, shades and water tanks accessible to calves.

One goal in the enterprise is to improve reproductive efficiency, and the team moved the cow herd from a 67-day to a 45-day calving season. Pregnancy rates dropped off slightly, from 94% to 92%, but 80 percent of females now calve during the first 30 days of the calving season. Heifers calve at about 24 months of age, and the team is testing a breeding schedule that would move heifers to 20 months at calving. With tight, early calving seasons, the group hopes to build a herd with an average of 8 years of productive life. They aim to feed cows to a body condition score (BCS) of 6 at calving and heifers to a BCS 6 at breeding.

Eismendi and his team use fixed-time artificial insemination, followed by clean-up bulls, across the herd. They use an MGA + prostaglandin protocol for heifers and a 7-day Co-Synch + CIDR protocol for cows. The operation currently manages cows in three breeding groups to calve in different seasons and expand marketing opportunities. One group is bred in late summer for spring calving, another in late winter for fall calving and a third group is bred in the spring to produce bred females for sale. Besides marketing flexibility, the system allows more efficient use of bulls and, when cows remain open after one breeding season, they can move to the next calving group and given another opportunity to conceive.

In terms of health, the group focuses on avoiding reproductive diseases and neonatal diarrhea and respiratory disease in calves. They test all imported bulls and heifers for BVD-PI status and test bulls regularly for trichomoniasis. Cows receive a full schedule of vaccinations against reproductive diseases and to maximize maternal antibodies in colostrum. Calves are vaccinated at birth, early weaned and fully preconditioned before moving to backgrounding or finishing programs.

A major challenge with the system, Eismendi says, is in maintaining calf health when inclement weather coincides with the calving season. The team is working to fine-tune breeding seasons to minimize weather risk at calving.

Currently, Eismendi says, production costs in the system produce a breakeven calf price that results in some loss at the calf stage. Good health and performance during backgrounding and finishing help make up for the shortfall. In the future, the company plans to utilize advanced genetic and reproductive technologies, along with management technologies such as remote sensing and individual behavior monitoring to increasingly build efficiencies into the system and increase calf values.