The author is an assistant professor and extension beef specialist at the University of Missouri - Columbia.
Resiliency is the ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change. Weather occurrences such as drought are never welcomed, but there are proven strategies that will help cattle producers get through them without life-changing consequences. In the January issue, we discussed how managed grazing, haymaking, and nitrogen fertilizer applications impact the bottom line and can make farms more (or less) resilient during a drought. Now, let’s take a look at big cows and stocking rates.
Big cows eat more
Cows have gotten bigger over time, and many producers have not adjusted their stocking rates. I am convinced that is a major factor why producers are feeding hay for more days year-over-year.
Increasing cow size within a beef herd from 1,200 pounds to 1,400 pounds will boost feed requirements by at least 10%, according to the Nutrient Requirements for Beef Cattle model. In many cases, the land’s carrying capacity does not expand when the total pounds of cow in our herds do; thus, we have to procure feed from off-farm.
Here is a hot take: I would rather have 40, 1,200 pounds cows than 30, 1,600-pound cows. If you look at data from multiple universities, there is a very weak relationship between cow size and weaning weight. In a study from the University of Georgia, 1,200-pound cows weaned a calf that weighed an average of 552 pounds, whereas the 1,600-pound cows weaned, on average, a 592-pound calf.
A 40-pound improvement in weaning weight sounds great, but what if the feed resources were constrained such that we could only feed 48,000 pounds of beef cows per year? That is 30, 1,600-pound cows or 40, 1,200-pound cows. With 40 of the smaller cows, you would wean 34 calves (assuming an 85% weaning rate) for a total of 18,768 pounds (34 calves x 552 pounds). If you only had 30 calves from the bigger cows, you would wean 26 calves for a total of 15,392 pounds (26 calves x 592 pounds) of weaning weight.
Do not assume that it will be profitable to buy hay or acquire additional hayfields. It might be, if you can find more grazing land, but it is time to reconsider stocking rates with today’s cow. Another option is to make genetic selection decisions toward a smaller cow.
An uneven match
A drag on cow-calf profitability is selective overstocking. This occurs when forage demand and forage availability match up sporadically. In Missouri, we often joke that there is more grass than we know what to do with from April 15 to June 15. Historically, the excess spring forage is harvested, stored, and fed back to cows during the winter.
What if we grazed that forage while it was at its peak quality, rather than waiting for spring rains to subside before getting into the hayfields and pastures to cut mature, low-quality tall fescue hay?
I firmly believe that a farm that devotes 100% of its carrying capacity to one class of livestock is a brittle business model, especially when that class of livestock requires feed 365 days per year like a beef cow does. Many producers are reluctant to sell cows during drought, but it becomes expensive to keep those animals around.
A more nimble model
A better path is to keep some portion of your carrying capacity in reserve. Successful cow-calf operations have incorporated flexible grazing units into their grazing plan. Flexible grazing units are cattle easily marketed regardless of pasture conditions.
One idea is to retain calves after weaning to gain flexible grazing units. The ranch I was raised on in New Mexico marketed long yearlings most years. This meant fewer cows than the land could have supported but more valuable calves at sale. Calves were weaned in the fall and grazed dormant range over the winter, continued to graze through spring, and were marketed in July.
We were not set on selling a 900-pound steer in July. If forage availability was a problem, we sold calves at weaning or soon after and reduced mouths to feed. We did not feed purchased calves or raise feeds. Imagine how your drought feed bill would change if you had 25% more acres to graze during the lean times.
I am not sure there is a perfect mix of cow-calf and flexible grazing units. A good place to start is about 20% to 30% of the carrying capacity being used by flexible grazing units.
Retaining calves after weaning is not the only flexible grazing unit. A heifer development business could work as well if there is demand for bred heifers. Custom grazing someone else’s cows could be a win-win, but often you and your neighbor are long in grass at the same time.
The strategy I really like is custom grazing calves that have been backgrounded for 60 to 70 days before arrival to the farm. These calves have overcome the stress of weaning, marketing, and transport. They are less likely to bring disease to the farm. When they arrive, they’re ready to eat and grow. Grazing the spring flush of growth with a growing animal allows you to harvest that feed at its peak quality.
Reducing the number of cows and growing your calves after weaning can also generate additional dollars. If cows go into calving and breeding seasons in better body condition, they are more likely to rebreed and calve early in the subsequent calving season. Calving early in the birthing season is an important component of cow longevity.
Drought is likely to be a part of our livestock production systems moving forward, and we should account for it in our business plan. An old cowboy told me a long time ago that the best cattle producers do not make the most money in the good years, but they lose the least money in the bad ones.
This article appeared in the February 2023 issue of Hay & Forage Grower on pages 26-27.
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