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Get compensatory gain on grass

01/11/2011 @ 2:25pm

Summer grazing can be a source of low-cost gain for yearlings, and aiming for rapid, compensatory gain will increase the profit potential.

“There are a lot of advantages in running a yearling program on grass, especially if you have light calves offering the potential for compensatory gain,” explains Terry Gompert, University of Nebraska Extension educator. “These light calves should gain at a rate of 2 pounds a day or more.”

If calves go on grass in early spring weighing 400 to 500 pounds, an optimal target marketing weight is 850 pounds in August, says Gompert. That rapid rate of gain on summer grass up to 850 pounds typically costs from 30¢ to 40¢ per pound.

“After cattle reach 800 to 900 pounds, their energy requirements tend to go up,” says Gompert. “Higher-quality forage is needed for fast gains from grazing in order to continue.”

The slower rate of gain on the heavier animals typically increases production costs, pushing these near the average feedlot cost of gain, which runs about 65¢ per pound. Thus, from a straight cost-of-gain perspective, the heavier-weight animals may be finished more efficiently in a feedlot.

Setting up a grazing program to achieve the most profitable compensatory gain hinges on two factors:

  1. Calving in late spring. 
  2. Overwintering weanlings with minimum inputs.

“By calving late, you get a smaller calf to overwinter,” says Gompert. “A smaller calf of a size big enough to handle itself is cheaper to carry over winter than a heavy calf.”

This strategy drives Greg Carlson’s 70-cow beef operation near Royal, Nebraska. As a relatively small producer with high land costs, maximizing marketing value of calves or yearlings and minimizing cost of production are both critical to profitability.

“I calve my cows in May and June, and run the calves along with the cows for most of the winter,” he says. “There is not much expense in wintering the calves, and they come into spring ready to gain on grass.”

Historically, Carlson has weaned calves still nursing by inserting plastic weaning rings in their noses. “These don’t bother the calves at all, but I may switch my system around,” he says. “I may let the calves nurse all the way through winter and wean them from cows in March.”

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