The drought of 2012 impacted farmers and ranchers across the Great Plains in different ways. But few cow-calf producers who suffered through the struggles of keeping their herd fed through that grueling summer will ever forget it.
"The drought of 2012, combined with rising land costs and lack of pasture, caused us to look at confinement as an option" for cattle producers who are not able to locate forage supplies for an affordable price, said Karla Jenkins, Nebraska Extension Cow-Calf specialist. Speaking to producers at the recent Midwest Cow-Calf Symposium in Omaha, Jenkins said that recent developments in the beef industry, including the drought five years ago, led researchers to compare total confinement and partial confinement combined with grazing on cornstalks as options for cow-calf producers.
"Every producer will have a unique system, so you have to figure out what works best for you," Jenkins said. "Keeping cows in total confinement all the time may not be the most economically feasible method, but maybe partial confinement, when pastures need to be rested or there is not forage available, could help producers keep at least a core portion of their herd from being marketed."
While confinement feeding of cows is not a new concept, the idea of limit feeding them an energy-dense ration that is less than 2% of their body weight on a dry-matter basis for the purpose of keeping them in production is a system that is worthy of evaluation, according to Jenkins. She explained that younger cows have nutrition requirements for growth as well as gestation and lactation, and should be fed separately from mature cows in a limit-fed situation so they can consume enough feed to meet their needs. Frequent sorting may be necessary to prevent aggressive cows from overconsuming feed and pushing timid cows away, allowing them to become too thin.
For confinement feeding of cow-calf pairs, the needs of the calves must also be met, Jenkins said. "You have to figure out where the calf will get his feed resources," she said. "I like the idea of having hay available to the calf somewhere to meet the calf's nutrient needs, too." Nursing calves might nibble forages during their first three weeks of life, Jenkins added. By the time they are 3 months old, they can be expected to consume up to 1% of their body weight in forages.
"Calves will learn to eat at the bunk from the cows," Jenkins said. They may not consume much feed, but they should have access to creep feed or pellets at a young age. Nursing calves also drink water, especially when temperatures are warm. Free-choice water intake impacts proper rumen development in your calves, so they need to be able to reach the water tank and have free access to water supplies while in confinement.
"Evaluate your entire system to make changes when you need to," Jenkins said. "But if you make changes to the system, think about what the impact will be in dollars."
She noted that confinement systems may continually have to be re-evaluated as the prices for grass and feedstuffs change.
Learn more by contacting Jenkins at [email protected].