Low-Cost Cow Calf Ranching Strategies

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In part one of this four-part article about low-cost cow calf ranching strategies I explored calving strategies. Part two focused on genetics selection, culling, and breeding strategies.

In this third part I will look at how to increase cattle weight gains, how to reduce the cost of those weight gains, and how to minimize expensive hay, grain, and silage in your beef production strategy by making your pastures work harder for you even long after the weather and winter snows have put an end to the growing season.



Low-Cost Cattle Weight Gains

Image Credit: Department of Agriculture, Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Raising Beef Cattle For Profit

Image Credit: Department of Agriculture, Flickr, CC BY 2.0

It's no secret that weight gains on pasture are MUCH cheaper than weight gains attained by feeding hay, silage, or any feed ration.

Yet despite this common knowledge most farmers focus the majority of their planning efforts on how to make better hay or silage and on improving their cattle feeding programs while never really bothering to learn how to EXTEND their grazing season so they can use less of that expensive stored cattle feed in the first place!

To become a low-cost beef producer, it is crucial to set up your ranching strategy so the majority of your cattle's weight gains are achieved on cheap pasture. 

In the grazing section of this website I explain how to create high quality winter pastures and how to manage a winter grazing program. These skills are key to keeping your cattle out grazing for more of the year. Some low-cost ranchers even perfect their winter grazing skills to the point where they can graze year-round, even in northern climates with long winters and deep snow! 

But winter grazing cannot occur safely with just any cow-calf herd. If you expect your cow/calf herd to continue grazing frozen pastures without affecting their health and fertility you also need to prepare your cattle herd for winter grazing. These preparations are explained in detail in my article about raising beef cattle on grass.

And my article about training cattle for winter grazing explains how to teach your cattle to continue to graze grass that's buried under deep snow (it's easier than you think!).

Using body fat to reduce winter feed costs

Many cattle producers believe that cattle need to continue to gain weight (or at least not lose weight) during the winter months. This is true if your cow-calf herd calves before the growing season begins. But it is not true if you calve in the summer. Nor is it true for steers and meat heifers that will be fattened for slaughter rather than being bred.

One of the most powerful ways to reduce costs is to let cattle supplement themselves off the fat on their backs during the winter months, effectively letting you use the summer grass (stored as fat) to keep winter feed costs low. If you don't expect your cattle to maintain the same amount of body fat all winter, then the grazing season can extend much longer into the winter months even as the quality of frozen pastures slowly deteriorates.

And when winter pastures deteriorate to the point where you do need to switch your herd over to winter feed, feed costs are kept to a minimum. It takes a lot less feed to coast through the winter while the cattle continue to tap into their body fat reserves, than to feed them for maximum weight gains all winter. 

Winter body fat reserves in summer-calving vs spring-calving herds

Why does this strategy work with summer calving programs, but not with traditional calving programs that calve in the spring before the spring grass arrives?

Cows must be in top form when they calve (maximum body fat reserves), not just to provide milk for their calves but also to ensure that they are fertile in time for the next breeding season.

Cows that calve before the spring grass arrives must be kept in top form all winter long so they have sufficient body fat reserves when they calve. But cows that calve in the summer have time to fatten up again on cheap pasture before they calve, which means they can coast through the winter and safely tap into their body fat reserves.

This difference means that it takes much less feed to winter a herd of summer-calving cows. Summer-calving cows can even safely continue to graze deteriorating winter pastures long after their spring-calving peers must be switched over to a prime feed ration to keep protect their body fat reserves. 

You can learn more about this concept in my article about the benefits of summer calving.

How to safely monitor body fat reserves in your cattle herd.

Tapping into body fat reserves is quite safe. Starvation is not. And while losing some body fat is fine, too much will do serious damage to the health and fertility of your cattle herd.

You need to know what's safe and what's not. And you need to know when to intervene with vitamin, mineral, protein, and energy supplements to make up for nutritional shortfalls in the winter pasture quality, when to adjust the supplement program to keep up with changes in pasture quality, and when winter pasture quality deteriorates sufficiently to require you to switch your herd over to a feeding program.

There are two tools - body condition scoring and working with a livestock nutritionist - that allow you to safely monitor body fat reserves and manage your herd's nutrition requirements while you let your cattle tap into their body fat reserves . 

In my book, Grass Fed Cattle: how to produce and market natural beef, I explain how to work with a livestock nutritionist to monitor your pasture quality and design an appropriate supplement program. I also recommend reading my cattle nutrition tips article, which explores five safe and very powerful tips that you can use to reduce your herd's nutritional requirements during the winter months. 

The other tool, body condition scoring, is the skill of reading cattle body fat levels using a very simple visual appraisal system. This tool allows you to monitor cattle body fat while they are out on pasture so you can keep fat reserves within safe parameters, gauge if fat reserves are being used up too quickly, verify if your supplement program requires adjustment, and recognize when it becomes necessary to switch over to hay or silage to keep your cattle healthy and safe.

Compensatory gain

Letting cattle lose a little fat over the winter has an added secret benefit. 

When cattle begin to lose body fat, their metabolism begins to slow. It's nature's first response to protect against starvation. A calorie-restricted diet leads to a slower metabolism. Anyone that has tried starvation dieting to lose weight knows how this works.

A slower metabolism reduces feed requirements. But that slow metabolism is also nature's secret weapon to make up for lost time!

Metabolisms don't just rev back up as soon as food becomes plentiful again. It lags behind by several weeks, which is why weight gain is so incredibly easy after a diet. That's why many dieters are able to regain all of the weight they lost (and more) not long after their diet ends. In the cattle world, we call this compensatory gain.

Studies have shown that calves kept on a calorie-restricted diet throughout the winter (with little to no weight gains) were able to catch up to calves that continued to be fed optimal rich feed throughout the winter. This period of compensatory gain lasts 3 to 4 weeks or more, during which the calves are able to pack on the pounds at incredible rates, far exceeding the weight gains of their fatter peers until their metabolic rates normalize.

By the end of the summer there was very little weight difference between the calves wintered on a calorie-restricted diet and those wintered on optimal feed. But the costs to produce those calves was dramatically different. And these trials were conducted in feed pens. They haven't even begun to account for the extra cost savings of grazing cheap winter pastures while the cattle feed truck stays parked. The longer they cattle graze, the less hay you need to make in the first place.

So you can see that there are huge cost savings to be reaped by learning how to safely let body fat reserves to fluctuate during the winter months. And thanks to the help of compensatory gain, after a few months of summer grazing your cattle will have caught back up to their more expensive peers! How's that for win-win!

My article about compensatory gain explains how to safely use this incredibly powerful tool to allow cattle weight gains to play catch-up on cheap summer pastures after a long winter grazing season.

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