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Troubleshooting poor gains in stockers

Gilda V. Bryant for Progressive Cattle Published on 24 March 2021
Herd of cattle in a pasture

Weight gain in stockers on native pasture is not always a given. Producers may have expected 2 pounds per day gain on calves, only to get 1.4 pounds per day, which is far more common.

Animals may not put on weight as anticipated due to poor pasture management, inappropriate stocking rates or livestock health issues.

Jim Gerrish, grazing lands consultant at American Grazing Lands Services, says one of the most common causes of poor weight gain in stocker calves is leaving them in the pasture too long. Besides losing pounds during longer grazing periods, cattle degrade the native grass resource, lowering the productive potential and opportunity for next year.

“In many situations, the majority of gain you put on stockers occurs in the first 75 to 90 days of grazing,” Gerrish observes. “If stockers graze for 120 to 150 days, you may lose all the money you made in the first three months. Either cattle slow down their rate of gain or you have to supplement them. I prefer to run two turns of cattle 75 to 90 days in a year, rather than one turn of cattle for 150 to 180 days.”

Another cause of low gains in stockers is: Operators think their pasture is better than it is. For instance, managed native range is much more likely to have good soil and adequate mineral levels than reseeded cropland. Mineral nutrition can be an issue, especially if animals graze on cropland abandoned because the ground was too poor to grow a crop. There may not be enough mineral nutrition in the forages to support livestock performance.

In Gerrish’s experience, weight gain issues are more commonly due to the pasture side. However, several problems can occur on the animal side. In wet climates, such as the southeastern U.S., the parasite load may interfere with weight gain, although producers can deworm cattle. “Leaving taller residuals as animals graze can almost eliminate parasite problems with stockers,” Gerrish explains. “Parasite infection comes from grazing the pasture too short.”

Gerrish argues that 80% of poor weight gain comes from the pasture side. Twenty percent might be animal health problems or a combination of these. Inadequate grazing management along with parasites or mineral deficiency issues makes the problem worse. Sound grazing management is crucial.

Occasionally, custom graziers complain that mediocre cattle quality means poor gains. “I’ll take superior grazing management and average genetics any day of the week over superior genetics and average grazing management,” Gerrish advocates. “You can take cattle with average genetics and still make money with effective grazing management.

“Don’t be afraid to waste grass,” Gerrish advises. “Always leave extra grass out in the pasture when you’re moving cattle onto the next pasture. Proper rotation management is a key part of grazing management that ensures good performance and productivity per acre. Cattle producers often overlook that ranch profitability is driven far more by your output per acre or performance per acre than by individual animal performance. The first thing we must do is to take care of the grass and soil. If your management focuses on caring for grass and soil, animal performance comes along as a free ride. If you’re always obsessing about animal performance and ignoring the underlying soil and grass conditions, it’s hard to be profitable in the stocker business.”

David Lalman, extension beef cattle specialist at Oklahoma State University, suggests producers consider three primary factors:

  • Animal health

  • Previous plane of nutrition

  • And a mismatch between nutrients required for the target gain versus the forage’s ability to supply those nutrients

“The greater the animals’ health risk, the longer those calves should be weaned before turning them out on grass,” Lalman says.

Previous plane of nutrition matters. “It’s well documented that fleshier calves coming out of a winter program going into summer grazing gain less compared to cattle that are in moderate condition, by as much as 0.5 pound per day,” Lalman explains. “If you plan to retain ownership during summer grazing, don’t overfeed a grain supplement through the winter. That’s expensive weight gain. You might not lose it all, but you’ll lose a good bit of it when you turn them out on grass.”

Lalman reports that in most situations without management intervention, cattle performance declines as the summer progresses. Heat stress, flies, pinkeye, foot rot, advanced maturity of the cattle, diminishing forage availability and quality all interact to influence late-summer performance.

“If producers rotate cattle to fresh, abundant native pasture and supply a small package protein supplement, 2-pound-per-day gains can be maintained for an additional 30 to 60 days,” Lalman reveals. “We refer to this cost-effective supplementation strategy as the ‘Oklahoma Gold’ program, specifically designed to boost performance of stockers grazing native range during late summer. Likewise, when soil moisture conditions allow, rotating cattle to a summer annual forage, such as crabgrass or sorghum-sudangrass, can keep cattle gaining 2 pounds a day.”

Gary and Andrea Woolley operate W and W Farms, a commercial cow-calf operation in the Texas Panhandle, near Spearman. They raise registered Black Angus bulls and cows. When calves hit the ground, Andrea Woolley wants them to develop into the best replacement heifers, stocker feeders or herd bulls possible.

“We strive to raise top-quality calves that produce weight for us as well as our buyers,” she shares. “We use proper management strategies to increase our stockers’ value, such as deworming and vaccinating all calves. Dehorning and castrating also increase the calf’s value by several cents per pound at sale time.”

Woolley feels maintaining proper stocking rates on her native grass pastures is critical, particularly in the drought-prone Texas Panhandle. Overstocking reduces gains, while understocking decreases the pounds of beef produced per acre and increases production expenses. Old-world bluestem and other native short prairie grasses grow in her pastures. The Woolleys control weeds, including large yuccas with their sharp leaves that can irritate cattle and invasive mesquite, which use large amounts of groundwater.

“You need to know your pasture and how it contributes to your stockers’ growth,” Woolley advises. “A good pasture should supply the energy and protein levels required for 2 pounds of gain per day. The stocker needs specific amounts of energy, protein and water. Most cattle have genetic potential. If they don’t make the expected gain, it’s usually because they didn’t get enough of one or more of these nutrients from the pasture and water.”

Woolley adds, “Know the condition of the stockers you put into your program. The primary value added to these cattle is weight gain. Producers need to be flexible to respond to changing conditions, such as drought, so they can enter and leave grazing quickly. The length of time stockers graze depends on your location. Move the cattle before they overgraze most of the grass. Pay attention to forage yield. Making the decision to move animals to a new location depends on the pasture size, the average bodyweight of the herd, and forage quality and quantity.”

Grazing management is crucial for stocker programs to be profitable. Producers may visit with their county or area extension educators for additional information.  end mark

PHOTO: Stocker cattle on native pasture can gain 2 pounds per day when producers utilize grazing management strategies, provide parasite control and maintain current vaccination programs. Photo by Cassidy Woolsey.

Gilda V. Bryant is a freelancer based in Amarillo, Texas.

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