There are 31 million fewer acres in grazeable land than there were just a decade ago.
Most of that is land that was shifted from pasture into corn and soybeans, to take advantage of the high prices. With feed prices now much lower and calf prices at near record highs, producers are looking at breeding alternatives that have been made feasible by this economic environment.
In a report by agricultural lender Rabobank, senior analyst Don Close said a couple of those alternatives involve confined cow-calf production, either in Southern Plains feedlots that have been abandoned or reduced in use due to the industry’s excess capacity, or in linear slant or hoop barns erected in the Corn Belt.
While all the forage would have to be brought in, Close told Ozarks Farm & Neighbor the operator can match the nutritional needs of the cow to the pregnancy/post-calving stage, and sort cows and adjust feed requirements based on their body condition scores in a way that isn’t an option with open grazing.
“What makes this work is better nutrition to the cow, and as a result the pre-natal health of these calves is unbelievably good,” Close said. “They’re getting conception rates at the very high end of, or a touch better than, a lot of conventional breeding programs.”
The extreme drought has contributed to an increase in confinement cow production over the last few years, according to Dr. David Lalman, professor of animal scientist at Oklahoma State University.
“In western Oklahoma, New Mexico and southern Colorado, rather than just marketing their entire cow herd or a good portion of them, a lot of folks would just put them in a feedyard, a receiving yard, a sacrifice pasture or something like that,” he told OFN.
Lalman said confinement requires very intense management of the animals’ diet.
“If you turn a cow out to graze, she gets to consume all the forage she wants, but it’s a very safe diet so there’s not much risk of digestive upset,” he said. In contrast, when cows are receiving primarily concentrate feed with some level of roughage, “Feed has to be delivered in the correct amount at about the same time every day, if not twice a day.”
With no clean grass for calves to lie on, there is also elevated risk of disease. Lalman said they’re getting mixed reports, with some producers claiming no trouble at all and others saying they are having significant health issues.
Lalman has been studying confined cow/calf operations with colleagues from Texas A&M and the University of Nebraska. One system he’s looking at involves only partial confinement. During the winter, cows are confined to a dry lot and fed hay most of the week, but are allowed out three to four hours two or three days a week to graze wheat. After their allotted time, the cows are already at the gate, ready to come in and drink water.
“By limit grazing, we can really stretch an acre of wheat and get a lot of nutritional benefit out of it,” he said. “Also, those cows are off our native rangeland and they’re giving it a nice, long winter rest.” During the summer, the cows are allowed onto the same land to graze a cover crop two hours a day for 30 to 45 days.
The next studies will involve the nutrition level in the dry lot. Lalman noted a cow will quickly become overweight if allowed an unlimited diet that’s 75 percent concentrate and 25 percent roughage.
“You can really lower the amount of concentrate that’s necessary to keep a cow in healthy body condition,” he said. “It’s just amazing how little feed they need to maintain themselves.”


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