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Get compensatory gain on grass

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

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.”

Calving in May and June
gives cows time to regain body condition while grazing spring grass.

To feed cows and calves over
winter, Carlson stockpiles cool-season grasses for late-fall and early-winter
grazing, as long as snow depth permits. He also grazes 5 acres of standing


Later in winter, he feeds
round bales of low-quality purchased hay by bale grazing. He places these 50
feet apart in areas of fields and pastures where poor soils can benefit from
concentrated livestock manure and surface residue from modest amounts of wasted

Using portable electric
fencing, he gives cows access to a week’s worth of hay.

“The more snow and ice there
is, the more they seem to break into just one or two bales and eat them right
down before moving on to the next bales,” he says.

Because the quality of
forage fed to the cows is low, Carlson gives calves access to round bales of
higher quality hay in an enclosure fitted with a creep entryway.

To the entire herd he
limit-feeds a protein supplement by feeding it free choice mixed with salt.

Doable Cows

It takes doable cows to
carry calves over winter without getting too thin, and Carlson culls those that
lose too much body condition.

“I’m selecting for small- to
medium-frame cows that are easy fleshing,” he says. “My goal is to have a whole
herd of little efficient cows that don’t cost much to keep.”

Weaning weights of calves in
March typically run from 450 to 550 pounds. “Once they hit the grass in April,
those lighter calves just start gaining, and they seem to make up a whole
winter’s worth of gain,” Carlson says. “I shoot for a target marketing weight
of 800 pounds in August.”

Late summer typically
presents a good market for an 800-pound yearling.

Yet marketing flexibility is
a benefit of Carlson’s system. “If I were to run out of grass and had to sell
calves before grass time, there’s always a good market for light calves in
April and May,” he says. “Buyers know that big gains are possible from green
calves going to grass.”  

Learn More

Terry Gompert

402/288-5611 |

Greg Carlson


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