BEEN THINKING ABOUT…
…what our cattle go through to make it as seedstock. In past updates (if you are ever interested in reading what I’ve written in the past you can go to the https://www.icecattle.com/blogs/ ) I’ve described our system. To make it ultra-simple, we graze (not feed) our cattle (bulls and bred heifers too) year-round and they get nothing but grazing forage, water, salt and mineral. Though there may be (very few) seedstock producers who do that with their cow herd I don’t know of any that do that with their bull development program. Based on programs I’m aware of, the bulls are fed-developed, at least for a portion of their development. The feed could be as simple as alfalfa hay (which in essence is a protein supplement) or could be non-starch protein pellets from Progressive Nutrition in Norfolk, NE…or something else. In conventional systems, corn of some sort is typically part of the development process. Do your bulls get fed protein pellets or alfalfa hay or corn once they are on your place? If they need these things to maintain condition you might not have found premier grazing genetics. Premier grazing genetics will always do well when fed corn but cattle that have been developed using corn may not thrive in a grazing only environment.
Cattle need the same types of nutrients that humans do: energy, protein, fat, carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins and minerals. For a ruminant animal, they can get these nutrients from grazing forages (plants), feed or from supplements. A “miracle” of the bovine species is that they can turn plant forage into the best tasting meat in the world! When grazing high quality, green forages cattle will (well, should) excel because their energy, protein, fatty acid and carbohydrate needs are met in abundance. In these situations they should gain body condition. (If you’re not familiar with compensatory gain you should give it a Google, another “miracle” of the bovine species.) With that being said, May through September is a GREAT time to be a cow/calf/bull/heifer at ICE. During the growing season we are rotating through cool and warm season pastures and typically have some cover crops growing that we use to graze multiple times. The cattle explode (well, not literally)! However, we, and you, must deal with the other 7 months (adjust for your environment) of the year. How we, and you, do so significantly determines profitability. Some producers will feed a lot of hay and provide a lot of supplements because from October through April (adjust for your particular situation) there isn’t much of anything growing. This is costly. I maintain that grazing stockpiled, dead forages is the most cost-effective way to get cattle through the non-growing season. However, you must have the type of cattle that can handle it, many don’t.
Our cattle are bred and developed to survive on nothing but grazing forage, water, salt and mineral. If they don’t pass our standards they don’t become your seedstock; they become food. That means in the winter-time they are only getting what we have available for grazing and that is mostly corn stalk residue. For others that might mean dormant stockpiled grass. In my opinion, it is primarily during the non-growing season that the profitability of a herd is determined (though other factors do determine profitability) because of feed costs. Since summer grazing rates are pretty much standardized for any particular area, you’re not likely to “save” significant money for those months. However, if you can find an economical way to carry your cattle through the non-growing season you are onto something! In order to be able to capitalize on the non-growing season you must have cattle that can survive and thrive on low-quality feedstuffs.
If you are paying $5000, $10,000, $15,000 for bulls, THAT is how your seedstock producer is getting their bulls developed during the non-growing season. They are paying for feed/supplements to do so, expenses you can’t afford for your own herd. In addition, these fed-developed cattle are not siring heifers that will become efficient momma cows.
Why do I talk about stalks so much? It’s not because of crop residue in particular but because for several months out of the year we can run cows at a cost of $.50 to $1/day depending on who we get stalks from. Crop residues are our competitive advantage. Compare crop residue costs to the cost of hay/supplements…I don’t know how feeding breeding cattle can be profitable if necessary for long stretches of time. Sometimes we have dormant stockpiled cover crops which are better nutritionally than crop residues but from October to April it’s mostly corn stalks.
So, what nutrients are available in corn stalks? Corn stalks have a protein content of 9-11% in the grain, 6-8% in the leaf, 3-5% in the husk and stalk and 2-4% in the cob (UNL Extension Guide EC278 Grazing Crop Residues with Beef Cattle). There isn’t a printed cattle nutrition table in existence that would claim corn stalks provide all of the nutrients a cow needs once the grain is gone. We not only have cows grazing stalks but have their calves at their side (have you seen that, with or especially without, supplements?), in addition to the bulls and bred heifers we sell in our March sale. No one in their right mind would do that…and that tells you something about me! But I can be crazy when we have the kind of cattle that can handle it. If we didn’t keep the calves on the cows during the winter the cows would be hog fat come spring because they can do really well on low quality forage without a calf.
WHAT ABOUT SNOW?
Excellent and important question. We rely on mostly open winters to run our program as we do so that cattle can graze crop residues. Though a 12” snow is unpleasant, cattle can still graze through this to get to the nutrients they need. However, thick ice or crusted snow could require attention if those conditions are going to persist. As anti-hay as I am, we do keep hay around for emergencies like this. We use hay for the A.I. project, for weaning calves, for the sale and for situations where grazing is nearly impossible. We don’t use much for the last reason, but I acknowledge there are places (because of challenging winter weather) that keeping costs low year-round, every year is going to be quite difficult. You might want to consider shipping the cows to a better climate during the winter months, especially if the cost is favorable.
THE END OF THE MATTER…
Our bulls and bred heifers are not going to look like what you will typically see at a production sale on sale day. We are constantly putting pressure on our cattle to perform; corn stalk grazing is one of the toughest tests. However, our cattle are going to look exceptional once they get some green grass while fed animals are going to start falling apart. Most seedstock producers are motivated to have their cattle over-conditioned so they look good on sale day. Our entire program is focused on cattle that look and perform as they should when they should, not for a snapshot on one day. Bulls and bred heifers that have been over fattened could have semen and dystocia problems come breeding/calving time. I guarantee the yearling and 2 year-old bulls that look fat in March have been fed…a lot; they can’t put on that kind of condition grazing dead plant residue with no supplementation. Interestingly enough, we’ve had winters where we’ve grazed dormant, multi-species cover crop mixes and the manure was as green as the spring and good condition was put on…so I guess it is possible. I don’t think any other seedstock producers are doing this, however. These mixes had a good portion of green wheat and/or rye in addition to dead sudan and millet (along with dozens of other species) and that would indeed make it possible.
Apart from making the point about what our cattle go through to become seedstock I want to emphasize another: Find your competitive advantage! Is it access to cheap grazing during any part or all of the year? If so, you’ve hit the cattle production jackpot. Maybe it’s a friend or family member who simply wants the satisfaction of seeing cattle in their fields without compensation. Maybe a neighbor wants to trade labor for grazing or is willing to let you graze crop residues or put up hay on shares for their waterways or road ditches. Don’t stop thinking about possibilities. Dividing up your current grazing areas into paddocks and rotating is an excellent way to increase carrying capacity…even possibly saving some stockpiled forage for the dormant season. Sometimes learning how to save money, though not always easy, is better than figuring out how to produce more income. It’s often a life simplifying decision as well.
Grace to you.