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Using Drylots to Expand Herds

Most cattle ranchers wish they had more cows and calves. Who wouldn't, given these prices? The problem is, available (or affordable) pasture is limited in many areas. Consider these numbers: 

  • Pasture lease rates in Kansas' Flint Hills are up at least 15% in the five years leading up to 2013, to over $150 per cow-calf pair for a season of grazing. 
  • In Nebraska, pasture lease rates went up about 25% in the last two years alone, according to the annual land survey. In some counties, they are now $50 per cow-calf pair per month.
  • Census numbers say that Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, and Texas each lost at least 1 million acres of pastureland in the last five years, presumably to corn or other tilled crops.

Where can you expand? Think smaller, says Don Close, a cattle industry expert from Rabobank. He created a stir with a proposal to put cows and their calves in drylots using excess feedlot capacity. 

It makes some sense. Many commercial lots are only feeding at 50% to 60% of capacity because of the feeder cattle shortage. Smaller farmsteads with perfectly good barns, fences, waterers, and bunks sit vacant across the Midwest. 

Feed would have to be mixed and delivered daily to a drylot herd, but hay, grain, and gluten or distillers' grains are plentiful in many regions. These daily chores will take more time and labor, but that's the trade-off for less capital invested in land. Close sees drylot cows as an opportunity for young people with excess labor and limited land to get a start in livestock. 

John Jaeger, Kansas State University beef cattle scientist, has looked at the specifics of drylot brood cows. He believes producers are warming up to the idea. "I've been surprised at how receptive most producers are,” he says. "I've had several ask if I thought confined feeding would work in their production systems and, in some cases, if it could be used in developing replacement heifers. 

"Producers have followed up over the phone, which suggests there may be a paradigm shift, and some producers are willing to implement confined limit-feeding,” he says.

Mostly, he says, producers want to know about feed costs of year-round drylot cows compared with normal pasture and winter-feeding conditions. "This depends on the feedstuffs available and the cost of those ingredients,” he says.

A confined cowherd might lend itself best to a situation where cows and calves are under more intensive management. 

For instance, if you're synching estrous, AI'ing, and putting cows through a chute repeatedly, there's an advantage to keeping them in a pen. Or, if you early-wean calves, you can more easily limit feed to dry cows in a confined pen. 

"We've done some experiments with early-weaned calves and confined limit-feeding,” Jaeger says. "We haven't analyzed all of the data, but I feel it is more economical to limit-feed a dry cow in confinement. The added feed that would have been required for lactation is more than that required for an early-weaned calf to gain 2 pounds per day.” 

Plus, he adds, the early-weaned calves tend to have better quality grades and consume less total feed during finishing than conventionally weaned calves.

There are other management issues to address with a drylot cowherd. One is calving in a confined space. "Have some grass paddocks or pastures nearby where the cows could be turned out during the calving season,” says Jaeger. "Then you could bring them back into the lots after the calves are 2 to 4 weeks old.”

Cows in confinement also need more bunk space (about 3 feet each) than feedlot steers, he adds, and they need more space to spread out, in general. 

"It looks viable to me,” Jaeger says. "In my opinion, more operations will go that way, only taking cows out of confinement for the calving season.” 

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