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Streamline feed to offset cattle drought pains

Jeff Caldwell 12/12/2012 @ 8:58am Multimedia Editor for Agriculture.com and Successful Farming magazine.

If you raise cattle, you may want to block out the last year from your memory as soon as you can. High feed costs, severe drought conditions, and a tanking marketplace have all made life difficult for most in the livestock sector.

But by putting a premium on a few key factors, you can help ease some of the pains these conditions have caused, one expert says. Testing and maintaining high feed and forage quality, scoring cows and stocker cattle, and keeping up feeding efficiency are a few ways to keep costs under control.

University of Missouri Extension livestock specialist Daniel Mallory says the best way a cattle producer can control costs is through feed testing. Sampling hay, for example, both immediately after baling and just before feeding, can help paint a clearer picture of how much supplemental protein is necessary to maximize feeding efficiency and keep costs as low as possible. Also, look at ways to eliminate loss in any forage during storage; Mallory says up to one third of hay stored unprotected outdoors can be "compromised" by weather or wildlife and recommends bunk or covered storage to get the most from increasingly pricey hay supplies.

"Knowing the nutrient value of the forage can help producers make sure they don’t overfeed or underfeed livestock," according to a university report. "Farmers can save production costs by calculating the cost and nutrient value of each type of feed."

Once you can maximize your feed efficiency, the next thing is to know how that feed's affecting each animal's body condition score. Then, consider your herd's average body condition score in terms of your stocking rate, especially this year with hay and forage supplies shortened by drought.

"Those who ran out of pasture for grazing their herds may want to reduce their numbers. The rule of thumb for stock is one cow to 2.5 acres of pasture," the report shows. "Producers should always have a 30-day emergency supply of hay on hand."

Though this may not be the easiest thing to do for many producers, weaning calves earlier than normal can also help you get more out of your feed supplies and keep body condition scores on the higher side. If you wean calves earlier, cows have lower basic nutritional needs, and that reduces feed costs in general.

"It will save considerably on the need for dry matter, and cows cycle earlier," Mallory says.

Though it's not as typically linked to feed efficiency, environmental factors can also have an effect. The less energy a cow has to exert to reach feed, the less she'll need to keep up body condition.

"Producers also can manage dry-matter consumption by considering environmental factors such as shade, mud, crowding, and the distance a cow has to walk to the feeding area," a university report says. "Longer distances from shade and water to the feeding area mean the cow uses more energy and food supply in walking."

Finally, there is a benefit to a year like 2012 because it shows which animals can thrive under more adverse conditions. Culling those breeding animals that aren't in that category can have long-term benefits, Mallory says.

"One of the few positive things likely to be derived from the drought will be genetically superior cow herds in Missouri," according to a university report. "Producers will cull older and inferior cows from their herds."

Adds Mallory: "It was a perfect year for managing your cow herd."

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