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Less feed = healthier cows and calves?

Jeff Caldwell 08/27/2013 @ 10:38am Multimedia Editor for Agriculture.com and Successful Farming magazine.

Keeping a cow-calf herd both fed and productive in the last year has been a bit of a tall order, especially in the face of drought-shortened feed stocks and high prices for available feed and forage.

But has the industry had its own role in the equation of tightening feed and herd margins? One specialist says the movement between extremes in cattle sizes and weights over the course of generations and the way that change affects feeding and body conditioning has had a lot to do with what he says could be a waning focus on a couple of areas critical to the growth of healthy calves.

"In the 1930s and '40s, we had small-framed cattle that were excessively fat. In the '70s and '80s, we swung right through the pendulum in that change and wound up with extremely large-framed cattle. Today, we're back to a moderate frame-sized cow," says Oklahoma State University beef specialist Dave Lalman. "The suggestion here to commercial cow-calf operations is, from a milk production standpoint and the genetic potential for postweaning growth and maybe even muscle, we may be reaching too far if you consider the ability of a commercial cow to make her living primarily on your forage resource."

Lalman suggests a renewed focus on a time period critical for both cows and their calves. However, the action accompanying that change in focus may not sound rational at first. With today's massive input costs -- namely for feed -- it's almost mandatory that every cow produce if a profit margin is to be maintained. But there's also an optimal level at which feed costs and efficiency are in balance with calving numbers and calf health. So instead of bolstering feed rations, Lalman suggests that a move in the opposite direction could serve you better down the road.

"Probably what we have done is gradually modified the environment. We have gradually increased the length of the hay-feeding season, the amount of supplement we've provided. We may have gradually increased the stocking rate so the cows can select a better quality diet," he says. "What producers probably need to consider is resisting increasing those inputs. Maybe not be as afraid for cows to fail from a reproductive standpoint. You couldn't afford to have only half of your cows bred in a year. If you remove so much of the supplement or hay so they're too thin and don't breed, that would be too extreme. But if you just reduce the hay-feeding season somewhat, or back off a little on supplement so cattle have to rely only slighty more on the forage resources and less on the expensive inputs, there will be a few more cows that fail because they can't cut it.

"If we were to do that over a period of time, I think eventually we'd get closer to the type of animal that's closer to optimal."

There is one danger in taking this course of action, Lalman warns. Doing so can sometimes kick-start the pendulum like the one from smaller, fat cattle in the '30s and '40s to the larger-framed animals of the '70s and '80s. That's why it's important to scale back on feed grain and supplements gradually.

"I don't think people want to go out and yank the rug out from under them and wind up with a drastic situation. Don't allow that pendulum to continue to swing. With the 'never-ending arms race for growth' the cattle industry is in right now, there are some potential drawbacks from a commercial cow-calf standpoint. It appears that may increase those animals' maintenance requirements over time. I think we need to resist the temptation to let the pendulum swing and aim for the hat band again, and we maybe use more moderation in the cows in terms of growth and get the growth from the bull."

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