As forage harvesting costs and feed-grain prices climb, beef producers are faced with some hard feeding choices. Throw drought into the mix and these issues become even more acute.

Western North Dakota has not been immune to any of the above, so researchers at North Dakota State University's Dickinson Research Extension Center (DREC) have been evaluating grazing options that offer lower-cost alternatives to more-conventional cow-calf feeding systems.

For beef researcher Doug Landblom, one promising system to emerge out of a joint DREC/ South Dakota State University study involves moving early weaned slaughter calves into green standing corn.

From the initial results, Landblom and associates identified several benefits: reduced pasture pressure (36% less consumed), higher weight gain in early weaned steers (2.59 vs. 1.95 lbs/day) and improved body condition scores in cows separated from their calves early.

“All these factors should translate into a better return for the producer,” he says.

The study involved 48 cow-calf pairs, half weaned early in the second week of August and the other half taken to a normal weaning date in the first week of November.

Ten days after being separated from their mothers, the early weaned steers were turned into green corn where they remained for approximately 70 days. The corn was planted May 12, half of each field to a 78-day maturity hybrid and the other half to a 95-day hybrid. Both were drought-tolerant, dual-purpose hybrids. Urea was applied at a rate of 90 lbs/acre and a conventional postemergence treatment was used at the appropriate time after seeding.

All the corn was no-till planted with 36” row spacings and population densities of 18,400 kernels per acre. The total cost to grow it was $164/acre, including all inputs, labor and land rental values.

The corn production expenses were more than offset by the benefits from the extra forage, says Landblom.

“When we compared the profit generated on the two systems after backgrounding, the early weaned steers brought a net return of $105 while the normal-weaned steers netted $88,” he says. “The early weaned, corn-grazed steers returned $17 more per animal than the conventionally weaned steers.”

The study also revealed a marked difference in body condition scores between early weaned cows and cows that continued to suckle their calves into November.

“By taking that calf away early, we allowed that cow to put on anywhere from 0.8 to 1 body condition score,” says Landblom, adding that research clearly shows that cows entering winter with low body scores are more likely to have difficulties breeding back after calving.

Body condition can be improved after the conventional weaning date. But a University of Georgia extension bulletin estimates that the supplemental feed costs involved in bringing a cow up one body score is $25-35 when forage runs $100-150/ton.

Landblom emphasizes that the studies took place under western North Dakota dryland conditions, which are very different from corn production where precipitation is higher.

“Our data clearly indicates that taking advantage of early weaning and corn grazing offers a range of benefits that cattlemen can capitalize on,” he says. “For those with the appropriate resources, it could be a viable option.”