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Stretch hay supplies, add cows, beware predictions

The easy thing to do is put a round bale in the place where you want the cows to eat and come back tomorrow and do it again. They’ll eat all they want and look fat and happy. But the reality is the more unrestricted access that animals are given to hay, the more they wind up wasting. In fact, they’ll waste about as much hay as they eat.

The hard thing to do is put that bale inside a ring, then come back eight hours later and lock cattle away from the feed. It takes more time, better fences, and a willingness to tolerate their hungry glares. But they’re not as hungry as they look.

If you’re sick of wasting so much hay, or you need to stretch supplies, this is the way to do it: Limit access to just eight hours a day. Let them eat only in a lot that has good fences and gates or put a good electric fence around your ring feeders
so you can lock them away.

All evidence says the cows will do fine, and you might actually double the carrying
capacity of existing hay supplies.

Study reveals savings

A study was done on this with developing heifers in Missouri. William Justin Sexten, Extension beef specialist at the University of Missouri (, made everything the same for two groups of heifers, except one group got unlimited access to hay in ring feeders while the other group was only allowed access to hay eight hours a day. Both groups of growing heifers were getting equal amounts of supplemental grain. Sexten ran the experiment for about 100 days in the winter and spring of 2008-2009.

The heifers on unlimited hay access gained a few pounds more, but they all ended up at an acceptable weight for breeding season (above 60% of expected mature weight). The heifers restricted to eight hours of hay-eating time consumed 100 pounds less hay in 2008 and 150 pounds less hay in 2009.

Restricted access to hay works just fine for heifers. It works even better for mature cows.

Two moderate ways to expand

It feels like the time is right to expand a cow herd. The U.S. has the fewest beef cows nationally in over 50 years, which is appropriate given what has happened with feed costs and the general economy.

With the economy slowly rebounding and at least some stability to feed costs, the stage is set for uptrending beef markets over the next few years. If you were able to hang on to the cows through this, you did more than many of your neighbors.

Your reward is coming.

Pick up some of that idle pastureland and expand. But do so modestly. Here are two ways to consider doing it.

Buy heifers

Purchase good stock, the kind that will upgrade your genetic base. You need to know and trust the health of purchased heifers. But once you’re satisfied Johnstonwith that, buy them and stop retaining your own. Through one of the professional heifer development programs, you can usually buy good bred heifers for $100 or $200 more than you can raise them yourself.

It is estimated that you can expand your mature cow herd by about 15% if you aren’t raising heifers. You can sell that many additional pounds of calves over the next few years.

Background your calves

It’s really not about how many mama cows you have, it’s about how many pounds of beef you sell. You can sell 500-pound calves from every cow in the fall. Or, you can plan your winter feed needs and pasture rotations to accommodate keeping those calves into the next summer and selling them at 800 pounds straight into a feedlot. Who doesn’t have extra grass in April, May, and June? Just keep the calves long enough to use it and you might not even need extra acres.

Predictions, predictions

I just stumbled across a college report, written six years ago, that said cattle prices in the latest down cycle would bottom sometime around 2012. Fed steers would bottom at $70/cwt; feeder calves would be $92.

They only missed it by about five years and $15/cwt or so. Of course, they couldn’t see the coming chaos in feed supplies and prices, and they couldn’t see this lingering recession either.

There is something coming in the next five years that will dramatically impact the beef business. Right now, no one knows what it is, just like ethanol and the recession were unpredictable.

But I predict this next surprise will be something positive to the cattle industry and beef prices -- something actually good for beef producers. You’re due.

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