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Partial confinement makes economic sense when grass is tight

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

As grass supplies become tighter and producers continue to mitigate chronic droughts, some ranchers may have to think outside the box to remain in the cattle business. According to Karla Jenkins, University of Nebraska cow/calf specialist, limit feeding cow/calf pairs in partial confinement can be a practical solution.

Feeding cows and pairs in confinement is not a new concept, Jenkins said, though some may find it hard to accept since it isn’t the traditional way to manage cattle.

“With the increasing costs of production, the next generation may need to rethink the utilization of grass,” Jenkins explained. “We’ve always thought of grass as the cheapest place to maintain a cow, but we may need to think of higher quality grass as a place for gain instead of maintenance.”

Using a drylot

It is possible to maintain cows in a drylot by utilizing by-products, crop residues and different types and qualities of hay, and drylotting cows can be done economically.

Jenkins has calculated the costs and found it to be competitive with running the cattle on grass in some situations.

“Every producer will have a unique situation because of differences in resources,” she said. “Each producer will have to determine what works best with the resources they have. It may require some thinking outside the box.”

Cows can be maintained adequately in a dry lot, no matter what stage of production they are in. Jenkins has found total confinement of cows to be the most expensive system, but one of the most economical confinement situations she has found is placing cows on cornstalks for 120 days with distiller’s grain as a supplement, confining them the rest of the year and calving in March.

The costs were similar to a traditional March calving system, she said.

“It will be different for every producer,” Jenkins said. “Producers will need to consider what type of system is the lowest cost based on their calving date and the resources they have available.”

Feeding research

Ranchers will need to do their homework by finding out how much feeds and forages available to them will cost, how expensive it is to transport, and whether or not they have the equipment to mix and feed it.

A feeding location will also need to be carefully considered. If the cattle will be supplemented on pasture, they will continue to consume what grass is there, so producers may want to consider using pastures that can be sacrificed or easily rehabilitated, Jenkins said.

Options are circle corners, cropland, winter-feeding ground and a dry lot.

Limit feeding

“The cheapest way to use confinement or partial confinement of the cow is to limit feed,” Jenkins said.

She recommends limiting the amount of dry matter fed to the cow but still meeting nutrient requirements.

“Basically, we are limiting dry matter but not nutrient density,” she said.

This can be accomplished by mixing high-quality by-products with low-quality crop residue or poor-quality hay, assuming it’s cheaper than good quality hay. By meeting the cow’s nutrient requirements, she will maintain body condition, Jenkins explained.

The most important consideration of limit feeding cows is to understand the nutrient content of the feeds being used. 

Jenkins states it is important to get an analysis of each ingredient and not estimate.

Producers also need to remember that nutrient requirements will vary based on the stage of production. For example, a cow that has a nursing calf and is ready to breed will have significantly higher nutritional requirements than a dry cow with only maintenance requirements.

If producers are confining pairs, they also need to account for some feed for the calf. Once the calf is weaned, the diet will need to be re-evaluated.

Sorting cows

Jenkins said producers may need to sort their cows when limit feeding them because some will be more aggressive and eat more than others.

Producers will also want to have plenty of bunk space because the calves learn to eat with their mothers. She recommends at least 3.5 feet of bunkspace per pair.

Having plenty of water available is also crucial because the calves will learn to drink water from a trough earlier than pastured cattle. It is also important to make sure the calf can reach the bottom of the bunk and that water tanks are banked so the calf can get a drink.

“The calf needs a lot of water to aid in rumen function so it can eat,” she said.

Research conducted by the University of Nebraska has shown that early weaning is not necessarily an energy saving tool, but it might allow for more flexible management options, Jenkins said. 

“If the cow is no longer lactating, she has lower maintenance requirements and can be fed lower quality feeds that we might not want to feed to the calf,” she said.

Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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