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Alternatives to winter range can be economical for cattle producers backgrounding calves

Written by Gayle Smith

With tougher decisions looming whether to market weaned calves, producers may want to look at backgrounding as an alternative.

Mary Drewnowski, beef specialist with the University of Nebraska, shares some economical ways producers can background calves through the winter months without utilizing winter range.

Wintering systems

When producers look at wintering systems, they are typically looking at corn residue, winter range and harvested silage or hay, Drewnowski explains.

“A lot of producers use their yearlings as a flexibility in their programs. If they don’t have enough grass, they can sell the calves earlier, or if they do, they can make use of it,” she says.

However, Drewnowski sees pasture rent becoming too expensive, when combined with the low market producers are currently experiencing.

With pasture rent averaging $64 a month per pair in many areas of Nebraska, Drewnowski says even figuring that a producer can run two yearlings for one cow, it is still a dollar a day.

“That is really pretty expensive when we consider winter range quality and that we will need to add in a supplement,” she says. “I would encourage producers to put a pencil to the numbers. Corn residue could be purchased a lot cheaper.”

Some cattlemen shy away from corn residue because of fencing, location and the ability to watch the cattle, but these are issues Drewnowski says producers should be able to overcome, if they are willing to think outside the box.

“It could be a good opportunity for a young individual looking to get into the business,” she says. “Why not rent some corn residue fields and take in cattle to watch through the winter?”

Analyzing gain

For producers considering wintering their calves, the beef specialist says they need to look at how much they want the calves to gain.

“Rate of gain during the winter affects summer gains,” she says. “If we are going to do a long year lease system, the rate of gain we select will influence gains on summer grasses.”

An easy way to determine stocking rate is two 500 to 600 pound calves for every 100 bushels per acre for 40 days.

“They will primarily utilize the leaf and husk. A good rule of thumb is 50 percent utilization,” she notes.

Supplementation

Drewnowski also believes supplementing the calves with distiller’s grain is necessary with either corn residue or winter range, so producers can get reasonable gains.

She shares a study where calves were supplemented with corn, corn and urea, distiller’s grain and no supplement. The calves failed to gain if they didn’t receive some type of supplement, she emphasizes. The calves gained the most on the distiller’s grain supplementation.

“I would urge producers to put a pencil to it, but even if they are located some distance from the distiller’s grain, I think with shipping, producers can still get distiller’s grain cheaper than a corn urea supplement,” she tells producers. “Distiller’s grain is cost-effective for calves because they are usually deficient in rumenally un-degradable protein, and it is a great source of that.”

“Distiller’s grain is a true protein that can bypass the rumen, be absorbed by the animal and used to grow,” she states.

“I’ve seen great performance with distiller’s grain,” she continues. “Most vegetative and high-quality grasses limit performance because of the lack of un-degradable protein. Distiller’s grain is a great source of that, which is why we recommend it.”

Comparing supplement

Drewsnowski discusses a second study where performance was measured between distiller’s grain and a corn urea supplement.

Distiller’s grain came out on top because of its ability to bypass the rumen, she says.

While urea is a rumenally degradable protein source, cattle depend fully on bacteria in the rumen to process and utilize it.

“In feedlot cattle, wet distiller’s grain is recommended, but in calves, we don’t see much difference in performance between modified, wet or dry distiller’s grain in forage-based systems,” she says. “I would recommend pricing it on cost and cost of transport.”

“Wet gets expensive if it has to be transported very far, but the other two options can be pretty economical,” she adds.

Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..