This article first appeared in the December issue of Drovers CattleNetwork.

A friend called the other day and asked suspiciously what I thought about the confined-cow idea. He feared it could set up a pathway for true vertical integration in the beef industry.

I grant he could be right, but I see some advantages. Since per-cow land costs these days are running $13,000 to $17,000, this may be a viable way to expand a herd and/or bring young people onto an existing ranch. Even if we take my standard that you can at least double your stocking rate with well-managed grazing, that still suggests per-cow costs run $5,000 to $8,500.

Also, considering the energy demands of the modern, oversized and over-milked cow, partial or total confinement can meet these needs more easily — and with timeliness — than can be done on rangeland. At the Eng Foundation symposium on confined-cow production in September, nearly all the speakers with experience said confined cows can be kept with a 40 to 50 percent decrease in feed because they move about less to forage, and the higher quality nutrition allows a more restricted diet — actually limit-feeding — that still keeps the cows and calves very healthy and productive.

Even old, broken-mouthed cows can be fed effectively with succulent feedstuffs, such as a relatively high proportion of silage, these folks say.

Rabobank economist Don Close says under a variety of cattle-price scenarios the confined-cow operation should work. His figures for complete confinement operations selling 550-pound calves at $270 per hundredweight suggest net profits of $220 to $258 per cow per year. (See chart.)

Rick Rasby, University of Nebraska beef specialist, showed data from Nebraska studies that says confined cows, when also grazed in the winter on corn stalks, can be comparable to Nebraska Sandhills cost structure.

This partial-grazing, partial-confinement method has been used by Ron Crocker and his sons on their central Texas ranch. It has allowed them to increase stocking rate and improve the ranch and forage with a controlled, rotation-grazing system. The confinement facilities are for times of higher nutritional needs and for drought. It has also let the Crockers split calving into spring and fall seasons so they get to spread out labor needs.

The group of seasoned nutritionists and producers at the seminar said calf health has been much better than they all feared when they first started, although under total confinement it takes a little more effort. The Crockers, for example, like to actually calve on grass rather than in pens. But even under total confinement, a set of protocols can be worked out to create good calf health, according to Iowan Robert Bryant of Hoop Beef Systems, and to Roberto Eizmendi, who runs the confined-cow operation for Cactus Feeders.

After that initial period, all say the calves are above average in health and completely accustomed to the feedyard, which of course is where most will end up.