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Managing those stock(er) investments

Dr. Cathy Bandyk Published on 21 May 2012
Cattle in pasture

As anyone involved in the stocker business can attest, they are operating within a new market reality. With grass and calf prices historically high – along with every other input cost – summer grazing programs are going to tie up a lot of capital ... and carry the resulting high level of risk.

Darrell Peel, livestock economist with Oklahoma State University, talks about equally significant changes in the relationship between cattle numbers, grain prices and feeder cattle pricing.

In the past, the industry has dealt with two basic scenarios, with markets cycling between them:

  • Low cattle numbers + cheap corn = pressure for higher prices for calves, and lower prices for heavy feeder cattle.
  • Large cattle numbers + expensive corn = pressure for lower calf prices, and increased prices for heavy feeders.

But today we find ourselves in a new paradigm – the smallest cowherd since the 1950s coupled with really expensive corn. The result is high prices for both calves (due to limited supply) and heavy feeders (as feedyards try to limit the number of days they have to feed an animal a high‐grain ration). Peel warns, however, that demand probably won’t be as strong for the weight classes in between.

So what are the take‐home messages for grass cattle in 2012?

  • Forage‐based weight gains will be highly valued.
  • Calves need to be grown to the larger size that feeders will prefer.
  • Practices that support increased gains and minimize the chance of death losses represent opportunities to increase profitability and reduce risk.

In grazing situations, the simplest feeding program consists of whatever is growing in the pasture. And this also carries the lowest out‐of‐pocket cost. But additional investment is justified in those areas where research and experience lead us to expect added returns that are greater than the additional expense. Key among these are preventive health, parasite control, stress reduction and improved nutrition.

A targeted supplementation program can play a role in all these areas. Mineral status, in particular, directly impacts animal health and immune function. Additives are available to help manage parasites, or moderate the impact of anti‐nutritional factors found in some forages. And, of course, weight gains are driven by the calories and other essential nutrients the calf consumes.

Cost‐effective feeding strategies:

  • Provide the needed balance of nutrients
  • Effectively meet the animals’ requirements for maintenance functions
  • Promote intake of additional nutrients, to be used for bodyweight gain (through increased dry matter intake, through increased nutrient density of the diet, and through increased digestion more thorough utilization of the feed consumed)
  • Deliver additives with proven results under similar conditions.

Mineral supplementation is an entire topic to itself, and I am not going to address that here. Just remember that a good mineral program (a salt block does not qualify here, even if it is red!) will pay dividends.

But for now, I want to focus on the concept of incremental response. Remember that no matter what a calf is eating, its body is going to funnel all available energy and other nutrients toward completely meeting critical needs first. These are what we lump together as “maintenance requirements” and include things like bodily functions (breathing, digestion, etc.), movement and defense systems.

On a low‐quality diet, this might take up nearly all the energy that is available, leaving very little to be directed toward growth. And even when a calf is grazing good green grass, a significant portion of what he eats still goes towards maintenance. But – and this is the critical point – once those needs are met, essentially everything else can be used for weight gains.

So every bite of supplemental feed, every increase in forage intake, and every calorie that is released by improved digestibility or spared by a reduction in maintenance requirements, is used 100 percent for production. That is why even a small amount of an appropriate supplement can be expected to make a meaningful impact.

The response to nutritional supplementation naturally varies with forage quality. But economic gains may be made even on green grass. In an extensive trial done at Auburn University, impacts of a 35 percent protein liquid supplement, offered in lick wheel feeders, on digestibility and performance were evaluated.

Early in the grazing season, total digestible dry matter intake was increased 3 percent by supplementation. Then, once the bermudagrass dropped below 7 percent protein, the supplemented steers took in over twice as much TDN as the control animals. This translated into a 114‐lb improvement.

These results are similar to a study conducted on native grass pastures at Kansas State University.

Again, a 35 percent CP feed was offered to stocker cattle, from mid‐June through July. Daily gains were improved a full half‐pound.
Additional gains can be expected when growing cattle receive ionophores.

Review of the historic research shows consistent (and economic) improvements of roughly 0.2 lb in ADG. Individual operations will have specific concerns or situations that should also be considered when planning their supplementation programs.

Fertilizer prices

Recent work at Oklahoma State looked at the value of feeding supplemental nitrogen (protein) to stockers vs. pasture fertilization. They found that supplementation supported increased stocking rates and gain per acre at or above the levels seen with fertilization. Providing nitrogen directly to the animals rather than the bermudagrass also improved N‐use efficiency by 24 percent.'

Horn fly control

Research suggests 0.2 lb per day is a conservative estimate of the potential gains lost when stocker cattle are infested with horn flies. At current prices, that represents about 30 cents lost per animal, per day. Altosid‐IGR, a feed‐through bio‐pesticide that is effective in controlling horn flies, can be delivered in a supplement for a fraction of that.

Fescue toxicosis

There are huge numbers of stocker cattle grazed on endophyte‐infected fescue. But if nothing is done to allay the impacts of the toxins produced by the endophyte, every one of those animals will perform below potential.

A recent paper from the University of Missouri discussed research evaluating the effectiveness of simply diluting infected fescue with warm‐season grasses.

Since these species are inherently less nutrient‐dense than the fescue, the net effect is not necessarily positive. The authors instead recommended appropriate supplementation, and utilization of a toxin-adsorbing additive.

It is clear than an investment portfolio made up of stocker cattle and grazing resources demands careful management. Producers need to evaluate all the potential benefits of the tools available to them and consciously choose a supplementation program designed to increase their return on investment.  end_mark

—From Quality Liquid Feeds Cattle Sense newsletter, No. 139, May 2012

PHOTO

Today's new paradigm – the smallest cowherd since the 1950s coupled with really expensive corn – is resulting in high prices for calves and heavy feeders but demand probably won’t be as strong for the weight classes in between, says livestock economist Darrell Peel. Staff photo.

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