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Managing Feed Costs To Improve Profitability

07 December 2009

US - Many factors, such as markets and prices, feed costs, fertiliser costs, and feed efficiency affect the profitability of a beef operation. Some of these factors can be controlled, or managed, and others are uncontrollable, says Carl Dahlen, Eric Sonnek and Grant Crawford from the University of Minnesota Extension team.

Feed cost is the largest cost to any operation, accounting for approximately two-thirds of the expenses of raising and maintaining beef cattle. With some wise adjustments in feed cost management, producers can cut feed costs and increase overall profits.

One of the first things that should be done is to know the nutritional needs of cows and the nutritional content feed. Different ages and size of cattle have different needs. For each 200 pound increase in body weight, dry matter (DM) needs increase by 3 pounds. This means that a 1,400 pound cow will need almost 1,100 pounds more feed per year than a 1,200 pound cow.

Visually evaluating the cow herd is another great way to control feed costs. Body condition scoring (BCS), particularly at weaning, allows producers an opportunity to gauge the relative nutritional needs of their herd. If cows are thin or have a BCS of less than five, they require added dietary energy to increase condition and energy stores for winter months and calving in the spring.

Body condition scores (BCS)are also correlated to reproductive cycling of cows. Research from Kansas State University reported that just 25 percent of cows with a BCS of 3.5 began cycling at normal first service breeding.

As BCS increases, more cows will be cycling. In the same study, 71 per cent of cows with BCS of 5.5 were cycling.

Cull cow marketing is another area that producers can manage to increase the income of their operation. November is typically the lowest month for prices on market cows due to a large supply of cull cows coming to market, so one should try to avoid selling in that month.

Also, evaluate cull cows and see if they are thin or lame. Thin, sick, and lame cows will result in a drastically reduced market price.

Nutritional requirements of cows are at their lowest immediately after weaning, and this is a great time to put low-cost gains on cull cows to increase their weight prior to marketing. Even simple tasks like a hoof trimming can increase cull cow value. Cull cows can be fed very aggressively and ionophores can also be used to increase weight gains prior to marketing.

This fall was not good for drying down corn for harvesting as grain. Many acres of corn are still standing in the field. Harvesting high moisture corn (HMC) is one good and viable option. High moisture corn can be stored in a silo or an ag bag. The optimum moisture for HMC is 24-33 per cent for optimum fermentation while minimising seepage loss.

To prevent mould from growing on the corn, it must be packed tightly to create an anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment to allow for fermentation.

Rolling or grinding the corn prior to ensiling will allow for tighter packing in the silo or bag, and will also allow for improved nutrient utilisation when fed to cows.

Grazing of standing corn is a viable option as well, particularly in cases where corn cannot be harvested and feed is limited.

Because corn grain is a high-energy feedstuff, cows should not be allowed unlimited access to standing corn. With unlimited access, cows can gain too much condition, increase waste, and possibly encounter problems with bloat, acidosis, and founder.

A more sensible option is to strip graze standing corn to control intake. This may require intensive labour to move the fence often - especially once the ground freezes - however, it will help control cow intake and maximise feed use. Fifty cows need about 1/2-acre per day if the corn is about 150 bushels to the acre.

Corn stalk residue grazing can also be a simple, low-cost method of feeding cows in the fall. A 150 bushel acre of corn will produce approximately 2,400 lbs of residue. About half of this can be utilised for grazing.

For a 1,400 lb cow consuming 35 pounds of DM per day, one acre will provide enough feed for approximately one month. Because corn stalk residue is very low in protein and energy, supplementation with feedstuffs such as distillers grains, corn gluten feed, alfalfa hay, or corn grain may be necessary in small amounts (generally less than five pounds per head daily).

Grazing alfalfa after a killing frost is another great option for feeding a beef herd. To preserve the stand for future years, the condition of the field should be monitored closely. If it is wet, wait until the ground freezes to allow cows to graze.

Bloat is also a concern when allowing cattle to graze standing alfalfa. A good rule of thumb is to wait for two weeks before allowing cows on the field to graze.

Some people start their beef herd as a hobby or to control some pasture area, while others see it as a full-time career and a profit center. No matter what the reason, using some simple management tools can increase the profits of the herd. Controlling feed costs, evaluating cow condition, and thoughtfully marketing cull cows are just a few of the ways to control expenses and income.

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