Underutilized feedyard space, low national cow herd populations and long-term drought drove Cactus Feeders to explore the feasibility of developing a year-around confinement cow-calf operation out of their Syracuse Feedyard in Kansas in 2012. The formerly 40,000-head feedyard was eventually converted to a cow-calf facility with a capacity for 8,500 breeding cows, including all the bulls and replacement heifers needed to keep the herd operating.
The process was not perfect, nor was it seamless, but Kelly Jones, Syracuse Feedyard cooperator and lease manager, says that cow-calf producers of all sizes can learn from their experiences. Jones, who spoke to producers at the recent Midwest Cow-Calf Symposium in Omaha, said that the goals of the new operation were to produce weaned calves with strong immune systems and the genetic potential to perform above average at their yards and at the packing plant. They also wanted to develop production protocols based on actual experience in confined calving. They hoped to find an alternative use for underutilized feeding facilities and to test feeding options to add flexibility to the system. They wanted to improve the genetics of the original herd by buying high-quality replacement heifers through a genetic program with ABS.
"We started out with smaller pens," Jones said. "But we learned that larger pens with less square footage per cow work better because pregnant cows can find a corner of the pen for calving." They began removing much of the cross-fencing of the feedyard in favor of larger pens.
Limit-feeding the cows in the confinement setting allowed the feedyard to cover nutritional needs of breeding females, growing replacement heifers and bulls during their different stages of production, while managing their body condition and reducing overall feed consumption.
"But not every cow thrives on limit-fed situations," Jones said. "We had a mixed set of cull cows to get us started, so we saw an average production life of eight years; however, the cows that adapt well to the confinement system can last 10 to 12 years if they are managed properly."
Bunk space is a crucial element, especially in limit-fed systems, he explained. "We feed twice a day, at 6 a.m. and 1 p.m.," Jones said.
"We would rather err on the side of too much bunk space than too little," he noted. "Calves start eating out of the bunk at one to two weeks. We also installed creep areas before calving begins, featuring lowered bunks and a hot-wire perimeter that is high enough to let calves go under while keeping the cows out," he said. "It's amazing how fast those calves go to the creep area."
While the confinement system is an option for cow-calf producers, Jones reminded the group there are specific challenges, including being able to meet the space and bunk requirements for the cow and calf. He also noted considerations like availability of shade and windbreaks, having a protocol for new born calves, and being able to handle lightweight calves in the system.
It takes a special labor force to meet those challenges, he said. "It's hard to find that person who can wear many hats, because it takes a combination of a cow-calf caretaker and a feedlot employee. We have 16 employees, and five of them are maintenance workers who continually improve the yard. We use day labor when we need them."