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Feeding options: Drylots may be an alternative

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

As the drought intensifies, stockmen are pulling out their calculators and doing research to create viable management plans. If liquidating the herd isn’t an option, University of Nebraska Cow/Calf and Range Management Specialist Karla Jenkins said limit-feeding cattle in a drylot could be an answer.
    Feeding cattle in confinement is not a new concept, Jenkins said, adding that it may become more common in the future, as grazing land continues to be gobbled up by more valuable crops and urbanization.
    “We need to think about how we can raise cattle without grass,” she explained.
    During a recent University of Nebraska webinar, Jenkins discussed ways to raise cows in confinement using byproducts, crop residues and different qualities and types of hay.
Dry lot feeding
    It is possible to maintain cows in a drylot, Jenkins said, and do it efficiently, but it requires some homework on the part of the rancher. Ranchers need to find out what feeds and forages are available and at what cost, including transportation, as well as whether or not they have equipment to mix and feed it.
    Jenkins also encouraged stockmen to carefully select their feeding location. If the cattle will be supplemented on pasture, they will continue to consume what grass is in the pasture causing the conditions to further deteriorate. Instead, consider using a pasture that could be sacrificed, meaning one that can be easily reseeded or has been planted in the past to an annual forage. A circle corner, cropland, winter feeding ground or a drylot are also good options.
    Jenkins referred to several studies showing cows can be maintained adequately in a drylot, no matter what stage of production they are in. In a University of Nebraska study at Mead, Neb. non-pregnant, non-lactating cows were fed 1.3 percent of their body weight per day. Some were limit fed a 41 to 59 ratio of bunkered wet distillers grain (WDGS) to cornstalks ration. Another group was limit fed a 41 to 59 ratio of distillers’ solubles and cornstalks. A third group was not limit fed and ate a ration of 43 percent bromegrass, 34 percent cornstalks and 23 percent alfalfa haylage.
    The interesting fact about the study was all three groups of cows gained weight, said Jenkins, but the average daily gain on the WDGS ration was 0.82, compared to 0.68 on distillers’ solubles and cornstalks and 0.44 on the unlimited fed group.
Late gestation cows
    In a study at Scottsbluff, Neb. Jenkins said late gestation cows were limit fed ground alfalfa at 1.8 percent of their body weight (20 pounds dry matter) on a ration of 30 to 70 WDGS and wheat straw at 1.7 percent of their body weight (18.3 pound dry matter). Limestone was also added to the latter ration at 0.3 pound per day to offset the amount of phosphorus in the diet.
    “The target was 11 mega-calories per day, or 60 percent TDN (total digestible nutrients), which is the recommendation for cows in late gestation,” she explained. “Under both systems, the initial body weight and body condition score was the same,” she said.
    In fact, their final body condition score was 5.8, which was an increase over the 5.5 and 5.4 they started at.
    The cows gained weight, with a 144-pound gain for the group fed a hay ration, and 167 pounds for the WDGS group.
    “The change in weight was not due to gut fill because the cows were limit fed alfalfa five days before the trial started, and they were weighed for two days and those weights averaged,” Jenkins said. “The same thing was done at the end of the trial. Either way, our study found the cows maintained acceptable body weight with some added body condition.”
    Jenkins said many ranchers are concerned about whether their cows will eat byproducts and residues if they spend the money to buy the feed. Jenkins showed many examples of cows consuming different combinations of these products, and said they fit quite well into the diet.
    “They do not leave feed in the bunk,” she said of the cows.
Hay possibilities
    For producers who don’t have access to distillers grain, Jenkins said producers using alfalfa can still make a balanced drylot ration for their cows.
    “I think the concept of limiting feeding in confinement, even if it is alfalfa, is viable if people feel liquidating the whole herd is not the best option,” she explained. “Those gestating cows limit fed 20 pounds of alfalfa, on a dry matter basis, maintained weight. The ones limit fed 17 pounds lost less than half a body condition score in almost 80 days.”
    Jenkins added, “The key is to balance for their nutrient needs.”
    If producers can purchase some dry distillers grain, they can also use low quality meadow hay (50 percent TDN) and feed it with the dry distillers grain, Jenkins said. The distillers grain can be fed in the bunk, and the hay on the ground.
    “A ration like this will work and can allow you to limit feed with the resources you have,” she said.
Feedlot options
    Jenkins also encourages producers to not rule out sending their cows to a feedlot. Although yardages and feed charges may vary, she encouraged ranchers not to be afraid to call and see what they can do.
    “Commercial feedlots have more access to byproducts and residues like corn and hay,” she said. “They also will have plenty of bunk space and way to mix the feed.”
    “If they are just feeding the cows, feedlots may charge less yardage,” she continued.
    For more information on confinement feeding, Jenkins can be reached at 308-632-1245. Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

Jenkins figures cost to drylot
    University of Nebraska Cow/Calf and Range Management Specialist Karla Jenkins figured a ration of wheat, distillers grain and straw could be fed for $1.35 per cow per day plus some equipment for feeding. She figured a cost of $252 for WDGS per ton, including $10 per ton for trucking, and wheat straw at $85 a ton, including trucking and grinding. The cost breakdown for this ration is considering 5.7 pounds of WDGS fed per day at $0.126, for a total of $0.718 per day, and 13.3 pounds of straw fed per day at $0.048, for a total of $0.635 per day.
    Comparatively, Jenkins figured feeding 20 pounds of alfalfa at $185 a ton would cost a producer $2.08 per cow per day.
    This cost may need to be adjusted depending upon feed costs, cow size and stage of production.
    “This shows that are viable options out there,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to go through some economics to see if there is an alternative in feeding cattle, rather than having to sell them.”

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