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Confine Cattle to Help Pastures Recover

Although we had some significant rains this past spring and summer, consecutive years of drought have taken a toll on rangeland, especially those acres with cattle grazing. Not to mention, the high corn prices a few years back drove farmers to convert much of their pastures to cropland. All in all, there are fewer acres of good rangeland for cattle producers to feed their growing herds.

“Cattle producers need to think outside of the box for ways to capture premiums they are receiving from the calf market now,” says Jaymelynn Farney, K-State beef systems specialist.

There are a few options for producers to take part in while pastures are recovering. One of these is moving cattle to a confinement situation. Although confinement can lend its own expenses, culling the right cattle and following a few guidelines can make it a profitable decision.

Culling the Right Cattle

One of the most daunting decisions for producers is choosing which cattle to keep or cull.  To make the task easier, remember to cull the four O’s: old, open, ornery, and oddball.

Old – Some farm management data has shown that after cows are about 10 years old, they tend to not be as productive, says Farney. Now is a great time to focus on improving genetics by purchasing some young heifers.

Open – Rather self-explanatory. An open heifer is losing you money, not gaining.

Ornery – Mean-spirited animals can hurt you physically, mentally, and financially. Who wants to deal with that?

Oddball – “Oddballs are those females that don’t quite fit into your management scheme,” explains Farney. Examples of these can be cattle with a different coat color or calving schedule.

Early Weaning

Weaning calves before putting them in confinement can provide many benefits for producers. Not only does early weaning enable cows to rebreed sooner, estrus synchronization can take place, shortening the calving season. 

“(The cows) are already contained, and most times your working facilities are right there, too,” says Farney. “It’s not hard to bring your cows in, set them up for synchronization protocol, use artificial insemination and maybe infuse some new genetics into your group.”

The little ones can benefit from confinement as much as the cows. Calves won’t have to compete for bunk and water space with bigger, older cattle in confinement. Those extra head in a confinement space can increase disease and respiratory risks, especially if the area is dry and dusty.

In order to adapt calves to eating out of a bunk, producers should start calves (especially those weaning early) on a creep feeder a few weeks before weaning.

An option to consider with calves – semi-confinement.

“Semi-confinement is where you can keep your pairs together, but put up a creep gate so the calves can get out on grass,” Farney says. “You’re still keeping your pairs together but minimizing the dust and potential respiratory issues for those calves.”

Feeding Cattle in Confinement

The key to feeding cattle efficiently in a confinement situation is limit feeding with a nutrient-dense diet, Farney states. This can boost efficiency and decrease excrement, which, from a waste management standpoint, is an advantage.

Farney recommends limiting cattle to 1.5 to 2 percent of their body weight for daily feed intake.

It’s best for cattle’s digestive systems to ease them into a high-concentrate diet. Switching them over too quickly can cause metabolic disorders including bloat and acidosis. Producers need to keep watch on cattle during the transition. Along with a high-concentrate diet, producers should provide mineral supplementation and roughage, such as hay or silage. 

Be sure to keep protein and energy in the back of your mind. These are needed for numerous bodily functions and comfort. 

Confinement Areas

There are three potential options to consider for confinement areas: a drylot, a make-your-own-own feedlot with bunks, or a portion of pasture that is sacrificed to allow the rest of the pasture to grow, lists Farney. 

But how much space will I need? That depends on if you’re confining dry cows or pair, and if the conditions are wet or dry. Dry cows need less space that pairs, and cattle need more space if the conditions are wet.

In dry lots with good drainage, cows to need at least 125 square feet each, pairs 400 square feet. Put those cattle in muddy conditions and the number jumps to 700 square feet. Make sure each cow needs 24 to 30 inches of bunk space (more for horned cattle) and 15 to 20 gallons of water per day.

“Water is the number one nutrient for cattle,” Farney stresses. “It doesn’t matter how good of a diet you have, if you don’t have enough water, your cattle are not going to perform the way you need them to. You need to make sure, whatever water source you have, it can continually supply water for the number of head you have.”

Finally, always provide plenty of shade and implement a waste management program for optimum comfort and efficiency. 

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