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Feed Costs Computer software helps ranchers analyze feed and gain costs

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Riverton – “A lot of beef ration software is available,” commented Scott Cotton, University of Wyoming Extension educator.

Using a variety of computer programs, producers can input data from their operation to analyze the economics of feed efficiencies.

Data intensive

“Most university software is basically designed to benefit people, so even though there is sometimes a fee, the programs are usually unbiased, based on research and don’t target any specific feed, mix or feed brand,” he noted.

Commercial software is often a variation based on the university designed programs and may encourage the use of a specific company’s products.

“Some of our research projects are funded by a company, but when a producer comes into an Extension office, we don’t care what brand they are using. We are going to work with whatever they choose to use,” he added.

Program options

There a number of programs producers can use, depending on the data accuracy they want and the time investment they are willing to commit. Some of these programs include Nutrition Balancer (Nut-Bal), Standardized Performance Analysis (SPA), Beef Ration and Nutrition Decision System (BRaNDS) and Feed Cost Calculator.

“Nut-Bal, created by Texas A&M, is a really good comprehensive program,” Cotton said.

USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) currently advocates the use of Nut-Bal, although it is expensive and time-intensive.

“To do it right, we have to go out, crawl around, get a less than one hour-old fecal sample and get it analyzed at $40 per sample,” he explained.

The test results are based on residue in the fecal matter, determining what the cow has actually been ingesting.

“It is probably the most accurate test,” he continued, “but it is also the one that most producers get involved with and, after about six months, say they just don’t have time to go out, follow the cows and take manure samples every week.”

Other choices

SPA is an elaborate program that was developed by a group of economists to analyze cow production.

“It can tell us what our average cow profitability is on a five- and ten-year basis,” he stated.

Calculations from the program, after a few years of input, make predictions such as how many live calves a single cow will produce over her lifetime.

“The problem is, it almost takes an economist to run the software. It is very detailed, and it requires a lot of input,” he commented.

Cotton predicted that it could take a producer 20 hours of data entry to submit all of the specifics for their operation into the program.

User friendly

“I like BRaNDS. It is one of the two programs I use,” Cotton stated.

It was developed through Iowa State University and the University of Nebraska and analyzes data about specific animals, location and feeds.

“Producers can also put in what their weather conditions are, downloaded from the National Weather Service,” he added.

Once all of the data is entered, producers can adjust input levels to determine the ideal combination of feeds and supplements.

Excel options

Cotton continued, “Feed Cost Calculator software is an Excel program. If we have Microsoft, we already have Excel.”

It is available as a free download from the website, which also offers other free programs that calculate data such as cow/calf shares and corn field carrying capacity.

“We can compare up to 10 different feeds or 10 different sellers,” he added.

Data can also be entered for the transportation costs, to help a producer determine how mileage effects the cost efficiency of particular feeds.

“It also tells the producer feed costs per pound of crude protein or per pound of Total Digestible Nutrients (TDN),” he said.

Using these software programs, producers can look at their beef rations and nutrition decisions to design the optimum feed schedule for their operation.

“It really should be based on an individual’s livestock, feed and conditions, and we know that feed and conditions change,” he commented.

Ranch statistics

Cotton believes that producers should know their livestock but acknowledges that many guess on some of the important data about their animals.

“Producers will know what their calves are because they weigh them across and sell them, but they don’t always know what their cows actually are in terms of frame size, body condition or weight. We really need to get to the point where we know what we’re working with,” he explained.

Feed tests

This goes for the nutrition of feeds, as well, such as the quality of alfalfa or range grass that cows are consuming.

“An average test costs $17. If we tested our range grass, our hay and our supplement, we might be in for $50 of testing per year,” he noted.

Extension offices have price sheets and information available to producers who are interested in obtaining nutritional values on their feeds.

“It’s really worth the money just to do those tests every year. It helps us know our cost at the mouth of the animal,” he stated.

Cotton believes that producers should know what should be expected from a typical ration and how to vary from it. They should know how quickly their animals are gaining weight throughout the season, not just when they are put on scales at the end of the growing season.

“We always hope for the 1.5 or two pounds of gain, but we don’t want to guess that much,” he added.

The cost of gain per pound, he noted, is an important economic consideration, no matter what the conditions of the livestock and environment are.

“We want to look at the cost of nutrition, or more specifically, cost per pound of gain, and that is what I am talking about when I talk about these nutrition decision software systems,” he said.

Natasha Wheeler is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be contacted at,

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