Reynolds is an extension beef program specialist with Iowa State University.

Beth Reynolds
With high feed costs and areas plagued with drought, cow-calf producers are looking at options like early weaning, early pregnancy diagnosis to market open females sooner, and other ways to reduce feed needs and conserve winter feed sources. On the flip side, feedlots face high grain costs and have a large incentive to source heavier calves needing fewer days on feed.

A logical option to market a larger, more desirable feeder calf is to retain ownership and put calves through a backgrounding or stocker program. The stocker/backgrounding sector of our industry is extremely diverse and can get generalized in daily conversations. What sets great programs apart from others is their ability to capitalize on whatever forage is available at any given time, whether low or high quality. Producers use their forage to take advantage of the efficient growth potential in a weaned calf.

Successful operations are flexible and can choose when to sell their calves based on market price or forage inventory. Here, we’ll outline some considerations for feeding growing cattle regardless of what forage inventory is available.

Consider forage quality

Programs with growing cattle on low-quality forages often utilize crop residue. Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres available to harvest in areas of drought, or where acres are coming out of CRP, can also provide an alternative low-quality forage source that may be worth exploring. These acres are diverse in composition and are often comprised of many plant species, some of which may pose a toxicity risk.

The variation in species makes it extremely difficult to assign a feed value without forage sampling and lab analysis. If considering grazing CRP options, there may be some regulation around supplementation that needs to be accounted for as well.

For all low-quality forages, a tailored supplement is necessary, and a lab analysis is crucial to make a supplementation program successful. A good supplement is formulated based on costs, target market date or weight, and performance goals. Keep targets realistic; performance above 2 to 2.5 pounds per head per day will help maintain marbling potential. While these gains can easily be achieved on high-quality forage and a mineral mix without a supplement, supplementation for the limiting nutrient(s) on low-quality forage will provide an economical performance boost.

Consider how the make-up of the supplement will impact performance. Growing cattle are in their peak need for metabolizable protein. This can be directly fed through rumen undegradable “bypass” protein, or created through bacteria turnover in the rumen, if enough energy is available. Protein supplementation on low-quality forage will boost performance partly because of higher dry matter intakes. The supplement composition’s impact on fiber digestibility should also be considered, especially on higher quality forage.

For high-fiber diets, feeding more than 0.4% body weight of a nonstructural carbohydrate (starch)-based supplement will hinder fiber digestibility. Instead, if supplementing over 0.4% of body weight, consider utilizing a digestible fiber supplement low in nonstructural carbohydrates such as soyhulls, corn gluten feed, distillers grains, or cottonseed meal.

Compared to a high-starch supplement, a 15% to 30% boost in performance per unit of total digestible nutrients (TDN) supplemented can be achieved. Also, consider adding an ionophore to the supplement. Ionophores fed with forage diets have shown to improve gains by 0.15 to 0.25 pounds per day without noted changes in dry matter intake.

Make it better

Low-quality forages are poorly digestible, so if mechanically harvesting, consider options like alkali treatment or ammoniation to improve fiber digestibility. For example, Nebraska research demonstrated more than a 15% boost in neutral detergent fiber digestibility when corn residue bales were ammoniated post-harvest. A protein boost due to added ammonia also occurred. If considering treating feeds, contact your extension specialist or nutritionist to ensure proper technique and follow safety precautions.

Grazing corn residue is a very effective option for stocker calves, but diet quality and how it changes over time needs to be accounted for. Upon turnout, cattle will select grain husk and leaf first, which are the plant parts with the most feed value. Therefore, supplementation strategy, grazing management, and stocking density should account for diet selectivity. For baled corn residue, harvesting to favor more leaf and husk versus stalks significantly improves the feed value as well.

Typically, high-quality forages like silage or vegetative forages are higher in crude protein and energy. A significant driver to the higher energy is fiber digestibility. The more vegetative the forage, the more digestible the fiber is. Ensiling forage generally improves forage quality, and utilizing an inoculant may add to that improvement. To be successful, harvesting and storing to promote good fermentation is essential.

Finally, consider utilizing implants to significantly boost performance. Multiple implants have been developed for growing cattle that are grazing or in confinement. The performance response of an implant is better described as a percentage rather than expecting a standard response. In other words, the better the feed that the animal is consuming, the larger the response from an implant. A reasonable expectation is a 10% to 20% performance improvement.

A common denominator for all beef producers, especially this year, is that getting the most out of available forages is crucial to operation profitability. Growing a feeder calf postweaning is an option to utilize less traditional forage options in a manner that produces more pounds to market.

This article appeared in the August/September 2022 issue of Hay & Forage Grower on page 25.

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