Wisdom to know the difference

By Amy Radunz, UW Extension Beef Cattle Specialist

As I sat down to write this post about focusing on the things you can control in these unpredictable times in the cattle industry, I thought the words of the serenity prayer put things into perspective:  “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to to know the difference.” In any segment of the beef industry, we have limited control over feed and animal prices, because the commodity prices are often determine by things that are beyond our influence.  Yes, we can use risk management, marketing, or purchasing strategies to have some control over this part of the enterprise, but there are other factors you can control which impact profitability.

Feed costs represent the largest portion of expenses in any beef operation, however this where I find most people could implement changes which could significantly reduce their costs.  In order to control feed costs, you should be in control of feed intake and not let the animal determine how much they should eat.  This holds true for both cow/calf and feedlot producers, however few operations have adequate control over intake.  Like ourselves, if cattle are given free access to feed, they will eat to meet their nutrient needs and then eat some more, and this strategy is not the most efficient use of our resources.  Controlling feed intake can require additional management, but benefits in feed savings and efficiency are in your favor.

How can you gain control over feed intake?  First step is know what are the nutrient requirements of your animals and most important are energy and protein needs.  The energy and protein requirements will vary with age, stage of production, body weight, and other environmental factors, however intake is closely related to animal body weight.  Second, you need to know what is the nutrient content of the feedstuffs available.   This sounds simple, but do you know how much your cows weigh?  Do you test your forages yearly?   This is just as important in cow/calf operations as feedlots, because even changes in forage quality can impact performance and digestive disorders despite only being a small portion of the diet .  When producers more closely match their cow’s needs to the feed available this results in more control over your feed costs.  Even in pasture management, you can have some control over intake and reduce feed losses through such practices as intensive grazing.

In finishing cattle, the goal is to gain weight (hence most focus on maximizing average daily gain), however we want to gain this weight efficiently.  Maximizing intake (feeding ad libitum) does not result in the most efficient use of the feed for growth or maintenance. Small restrictions in intake or ‘slick’ bunk management has been proven to result in similar growth performance but achieved with less feed than the management strategy of feeding ad libitum.  This slick bunk management strategy can also be used in managing forage intake in cows, in their decision when to re-fill the hay feeder.  Not only may the animal may use these feeds more efficiently with slick bunk management, but the feed losses are also reduced.

Another factor of feed efficiency is to calculate the feed losses from the time the feed is harvested or purchased to the time the feed is fed to the animal.  Feed losses can vary from 2 to 50%, depending on type of feed, storage methods, and feeding delivery.  How can you control your feed losses?  One of greatest areas of improvements can be achieved in providing better storage and feeding facilities for hay, which in some studies have shown up to 50% hay loss due to storage and feeding methods.  With increasing feed costs, how can you afford to loose this much of a feed before the animal even gets the chance to consume it? Although you may think it is a little early to think about next year’s winter feeding, the decisions you make this summer can have a tremendous impact on feed costs and availability next winter.

These are just a few of the factors you can control to reduce feed costs and improve efficiency.  Two tools you can use to identify areas of improvement in your beef operation are the following self-assessments:

  1. Iowa Beef Center has a Cow Winter Feeding Cost Assessment for cow/calf enterprises
  2. Wisconsin Beef Information Center has a Cost of Gain Assessment for feedlot enterprises

With the uncertainty of the commodity markets and rising feed and input costs, we should focus our efforts on the things we can control.  By focusing on these details and making changes to control costs this will result in a greater success of your beef enterprise.

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