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Chadron, Neb. – A lot of numbers can go into the cost of raising a calf each year. Unfortunately, keeping track of those numbers can become so overwhelming, many producers have no idea what it really costs to produce that 500-pound calf they sell each fall.

Determining unit cost of production, whether it is how much it costs to produce a calf, a pound of gain for a yearling or a ton of hay, can be the most important piece of the profitability puzzle. University of Nebraska Extension Educator Aaron Berger told ranchers it is an indicator of how things are working on their operations. 

Berger spoke about unit cost of production during the recent annual Upper Niobrara White Natural Resources District Range Day at Chadron State College.


From hosting ranching profitability workshops across the region, Berger finds that many producers are surprised at what their costs actually are. “Did it really cost that much?” producers frequently ask Berger. 

Determining the unit cost of production helps producers determine what the costs really are, and it gives them the value of making good financial decisions. 

Unit cost

“The thing I like about unit cost of production is it combines both the cost side and the production side. If I put something into the system, what do I get back? If I pull something out of the system, what does that cost me?” Berger said. 

When looking at costs, Berger said producers frequently have trouble distinguishing between direct costs and overhead costs. 

Berger explained that overhead costs are costs that don’t change much until a unit of labor is added. A stock trailer or a four-wheeler would be considered overhead costs.

Direct costs are ear tags, salt, mineral and protein supplements. These items increase incrementally for each cow that is in production, he explained. 

Hidden costs

In any grazing system, Berger said producers need to consider what their grass is costing them. 

“Here in Nebraska, we have some of the most valuable grass in the U.S. We have the highest cost to rent here on a per-pair basis,” he explained. 

Cow depreciation is another important cost that is often overlooked. 

“Did anyone buy $3,000 bred heifers a few years ago or sell cull cows for 45 cents last fall? Cow depreciation costs can be significant,” he said.


Identifying what things could be done to keep better records will help producers make better decisions, Berger stressed. 

“Whether we realize it or not, every decision we make influences our unit cost of production. If we buy a new pickup and expect the cows to pay for it, that impacts our cost of production,” he shared.

Producers who keep careful track of their costs also use unit cost of production to determine how much they can afford to pay for a bull. 

Berger told producers to ask themselves, “Will a $10,000 bull produce enough calves in its lifetime to pay for itself? What is the cost? What do we get back for what we put in?”


Distinguishing between enterprises is also an important part of determining an accurate unit cost of production for each enterprise. Most producers will have more than one enterprise, such as a cow/calf operation, replacement heifer enterprise and feed enterprise. 

“The challenge is to distinguish where the costs occur, where the value is generated and how these enterprises interact as one. Understand a different value is created by each enterprise,” he explained.

Typically, when ranchers think about the land on their ranch, they think of forage production. 

“Frequently, land will be priced above its forage production value because it has other uses,” Berger explained. “When enterprising a ranch, we need to recognize there is often value beyond forage production.” 

“We should ask ourselves how we can incorporate that to capture more value,” he added.

Profit analysis

Analyzing each enterprise for profitability is also important. 

“If it costs me $150 a ton to put up hay and I can buy hay for $100 a ton, should I be buying hay? Analyzing each enterprise separately helps us determine what we do well,” Berger said. “If we could rent our land out at market value, can our cows pay for that?”

“Don’t look at unit cost of production as a snapshot, but look at how each enterprise is doing long-term,” he continued. 

With calf prices up and down each year, producers would need more than one year of records to accurately determine how profitable each enterprise actually is.


Once they have accurate numbers, making hard decisions may come easier. 

As an example, Berger refers to a tractor that may be used for the haying part of the operation during the summer and feeding cattle during the winter. Producers have to determine a percentage basis of how much the tractor is used for each enterprise. 

If the producer decides to stop haying and grazes the land instead, the percentage of the tractor allocated to the haying enterprise will need to be reallocated to the remaining enterprises it is used for. 

“The value of enterprise analysis is knowing our cost of production, so we have the information to make decisions and understand our costs,” Berger said. “Use that information to make changes in the operation.” 

“Knowing our unit cost of production will give us confidence in our decision-making and a way to benchmark the operation so we can compare it to others,” he said. 

Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

“Late gestation is a time period many ranchers are very familiar with, and this is the time we often start to say, ‘That cow might be a little thin. We might get her bumped up before calving,’” says Janna Kincheloe of South Dakota State University.

During late gestation, 75 percent or more of calf growth occurs. 

At the same time, muscle fibers continue to grow, as well.

“Because they are lower priority, we can see an impact on fiber growth during late-gestation when we implement a nutrient restriction,” Kincheloe comments. “In addition, this is when most of our fat cells form and fill with lipid. There are lots of implications in this.” 

Nutrition restriction during late gestation may result in intramuscular fat.

Restriction studies

Several classic energy restriction studies have looked at impacts from nutrient restriction dropping to 65 percent of requirements. 

Work from the University of Wyoming laid the groundwork for systemic impacts. 

“Cora and others evaluated a 65 percent nutrient restriction in a group of first-calf heifers, again versus the 100 percent,” Kincheloe says. “There was a slight decrease in calf birthweight, but no different in dystocia, so providing 100 percent of energy requirements did not increase dystocia.” 

The research showed an increase in death loss related to energy restriction, and a decreased weaning weight was seen. However, no impact was seen on milk production as a result of restriction.

“There is some type of impact on weaning weights, and it’s not due to milk production,” Kincheloe explains. “Some mechanism causes this change not due to milk production.”

She adds, “There have been other studies since this time that have evaluated milk production and found differences in that production, largely in quantity of milk produced and quality and quantity of colostrum. There have been impacts seen, just not in this study.”

Maternal response

Another study from Purdue used mature cows fed at 100 percent and 70 percent of energy requirements. 

“I’m not focused on the calf response in this study but wanted to look at the influence in the cow,” Kincheloe comments. “This study laid the groundwork for body condition score at calving and subsequent reproductive performance.”

When looking at post-partum interval, cows with a body condition score of three or less took nearly 90 days to return to estrus. Those cows in moderate or high condition score took less than 60 days.

Kincheloe says, “These studies indicate to me that we could have a lot of potential impacts, not only on the calf but also on the dam’s ability to go on and be productive in the herd.” 

Protein supplement

Kincheloe explains protein supplementation in late gestation is a common management practice across the country, and many studies have highlighted the impacts of additional protein. 

A study on dormant range in the Sandhills of Nebraska compared cows fed no supplement to those fed a pound of 42 percent crude protein supplement daily.

“There were no differences in calf birthweight, but we did see an increase in percentage of calves weaned and a weaning weight advantage for calves from dams who were supplemented,” Kincheloe says. 

Heifer calves were followed through their reproductive cycle.

“There was no difference in age of puberty, but there was a higher percentage of heifers that calved in the first 21 days and an increased pregnancy weight,” Kincheloe explains. 

For steer performance, no differences were seen in hot carcass weights, dressing percentage, marbling score or Choice grading. 

Big trends

“Research shows there might be differences based on the sex of the calf and the metabolic environment,” Kincheloe says. 

“There’s a lot of data that has found different results,” Kincheloe comments. “Long-term research at the Fort Keough Research Center in Miles City, Mont. has looked at seven-plus generations.” 

Currently, Fort Keough research suggests heifers from supplemented dams are more efficient and tend to stay longer in the herd. 

“Research is definitely conflicting, but these are some things to keep in mind,” Kincheloe says. “We haven’t landed on any definitive about what will work in every situation.”

Kincheloe presented during the 2019 National Cattlemen’s Beef Association Cattlemen’s College in late January.

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

For many ranchers, the inability of a cow to birth a live calf and keep the calf alive is a selection tool for ranchers when it comes to culling decisions, according to University of Wyoming Extension Beef Specialist Steve Paisley.

However, Paisley notes there are benefits to grafting motherless calves to cows in the herd. 

Why we graft

Paisley explains ranchers often encounter situations where a cow is without a calf or a calf without a mother. Grafting calves is a useful practice to match cows to calves and avoid having to bottle feed. 

“Some of the reasons we may graft a calf to a new cow is if the mother dies,  is injured or is too old to nurse,” says Paisley. “Sometimes, we might have a cow who loses a calf to neonatal sickness or other issues. 

“We need to look at whether or not the death of the calf was an issue with the mother. Cows producing poor colostrum or little mothering instinct may need to be culled as opposed to paired with a new calf,” Paisley explains.

He notes some ranchers will purposely breed older cows to have extra calves to match up to able cows that lose a calf. 

“Grafting to a new cow allows calves to meet their nutritional needs better than if they were bottle-fed,” Paisley says. “People have yet to be able to replicate cow’s milk.” 

He comments having the calf on a cow as opposed to bottle feeding also allows him to eat their normal five to seven times per day. 

With bottle-feeding, calves will generally eat less and wean lighter than if they were on a cow. 


“A lot of times, the knee-jerk reaction when we lose a calf is to run to the sale barn to pick up an orphan calf,” Paisley explains.

“I always caution producers against going straight to the sale barn and purchasing a calf for the sake of a cow having a calf to nurse,” Paisley stresses. 

Paisley explains calving season and the subsequent breeding season are a very volatile time for cattle producers. 

“When we bring a calf from the outside into the herd, we run the risk of introducing outside diseases into the herd,” Paisley cautions. “Young calves are really susceptible to diseases anyway, and we don’t want to add to it.” 

He notes if a rancher feels it absolutely necessary to bring in an outside calf, they should look into the vaccination schedules and health of the herd the calf is coming from. Private treaty sales amongst neighbors or other familiar parties is better than purchasing a random calf from the sale barn. 

“If we can get a calf from within the herd, that is the best-case scenario with grafting,” says Paisley. 

“We also need to remember that not every cow is going to be willing to take on a new calf right off the bat,” he says. “Keep in mind, it’s all about the smell and getting her to start licking the calf.”


“There are a lot of different ways to get a cow to nurse an orphan calf,” Paisley notes. 

“The method I use personally is pretty old fashion and, in my opinion, is pretty bulletproof,” Paisley says. “If the cow lost a calf, skinning the dead calf and affixing the hide to the new calf will give the cow a familiar smell, and she will begin licking the new calf and allowing it to nurse.” 

Paisley says the idea is to get the cow to start licking the new calf and giving him attention as she would her own. Aside from the labor-intensive process of skinning the dead calf, there are other methods to introduce the orphan calf. 

“Some ranchers will put finely ground cornmeal on the calf’s back to attract the cow to start licking it off,” Paisley explains. “There are also commercially available products to assist in the process.” 

Commercially available products include O-No-More™, previously Orphan-No-More™. This product consists of 95 percent animal protein and five percent ammonia. According to their website, the product is designed to mask the smell of the calf and replace it with a highly desirable scent to the cow. 

On the same basis of hiding smells, Paisley explains using Mentholatum can also be an effective method. 

“Mentholatum has such a strong smell it covers up pretty much all smells,” Paisley comments. 

Callie Hanson is the assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

With no two production systems the same, producers may have to explore what works for them when backgrounding calves. More producers are backgrounding to add more gain to their calves, if cheap feed options are available. 

According to University of Nebraska Ruminant and Nutrition Specialist Jim MacDonald, ranchers may be able to add some value to their calves by feeding them through the winter.

Benefits of backgrounding

One of the biggest benefits of backgrounding calves is the flexibility it gives producers in the marketing process. If they choose to background, ranchers must first decide what product they want to market, MacDonald says. 

“System optimization may differ for a cow/calf operator who is backgrounding through the winter months, a stocker cattle operator who is marketing to a feedlot or an integrated operator who owns the calf from weaning until it is marketed to the packing plant,” he explains. 

For many ranchers, backgrounding allows them to utilize forage resources they may have on hand. 

“There are many macro-level benefits,” MacDonald explains. “For example, yearling cattle increase the amount of beef produced per cow exposed, which is a critical measure of efficiency in the system.” 

A prior study showed that long-yearlings produced 50 pounds more carcass weight, compared to fed calves, while consuming 77 percent as much feed during the finishing period, MacDonald shares. 


One of the most important parts of backgrounding cattle is nutrition. Since many programs are forage-based, MacDonald encourages producers to think about the best ways to optimize the forage, since they can vary in quality and price. 

“When evaluating different forage options, it is beneficial to compare their cost per unit of energy, which can be accomplished by converting the price to dollars-per-pound on a dry-basis and dividing by the total digestible nutrient (TDN) content,” MacDonald explains. 

Feed sources

Depending upon where they live, producers can utilize crop residues like cornstalks, feed forages like grass hay or grain sources like corn silage, cracked corn and distillers’ grains. 

One option becoming more popular is cover crop grazing, which involves planting some sort of annual forage into crop residue like harvested wheat, rye or corn silage. 

In Nebraska, producers have successfully been able to grow high-quality forages for backgrounding calves by planting grains like oats into harvested crop residue. 

Oats were planted into a field harvested for corn silage, and the calves had an average daily gain of 1.29 to 1.3 pounds per day, which is similar to using high moisture corn or grazed residue during supplementation. 


With the cost of range steadily increasing during the last 10 years, many producers renting grass no longer find it feasible to background calves by grazing them during the winter. MacDonald says producers can rent cornstalks for about $20 an acre in Nebraska, compared to more than $40 for range. 

The key to utilizing cornstalks is the stocking rate. Typically, eight pounds of forage is available for every bushel of corn produced. Since cattle primarily utilize the leaf and husk, grazing efficiency is figured at 50 percent. 

If a producer has 225 bushels of corn at $20 an acre and a TDN of 55 percent, it would cost two cents per pound of TDN. 

“I would compare the forage resources I have available and if I have flexibility in a forage program to a dollar per unit of energy or TDN,” MacDonald says. “Dollars per TDN gives us a common basis to compare forage resources.”


“The key is getting the right nutrients into the calf, so where should we invest our money?” MacDonald asks producers. 

Getting a forage supply at the cheapest unit of energy may require providing the backgrounded cattle with a supplement, he explains. 

“In a young calf, the first limiting nutrient is protein,” he continues. “In newly weaned or very young calves, intake of forage will be limited.” 

“We can also increase the risk of acidosis from fermentability by feeding something like too much corn,” he explains. 

“The amount of bacterial protein supplying a newly weaned calf is going to be limited by intake of forage or because we supplied them with a readily fermentable carbohydrate, which puts them at risk for acidosis,” he further explains. “They won’t be able to get enough bacterial protein to meet their requirement, so from a supplementation standpoint, producers will need to provide a bypass protein.”

MacDonald says distillers’ grains can be a good source of bypass protein, but other alternatives, like soy pass, are available. He recommends looking into what is available, while keeping in mind that calves need a balanced diet so they can have optimal gain.

Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

New Orleans, La. – Fetal programming has been a topic of conversation in the beef cattle industry for the last decade, and Amanda Blair of South Dakota State University’s Animal Science Department commented, “This evolving area of research has highlighted the fact that what mom eats matters.”

Blair continued, “The concept is generally called fetal or developmental programming, but it centers on the theory that what the cow eats and what she encounters or endures during pregnancy can affect the lifetime performance of the calf she’s carrying.”

Recent research has highlighted the importance of the gestational environment in a number of factors, including health, reproductive performance and quality, added Blair.

Blair and colleague Jana Block of North Dakota State University’s Hettinger Research Center presented during the 26th Annual Cattlemen’s College, held during the 2019 National Cattlemen’s Beef Association Cattle Convention and Trade Show.

While the term fetal programming may be relatively new, she added, “We’ve known for a long time that what moms do during pregnancy can affect the baby. What we are beginning to understand more and more about are the mechanisms for how this works.”

Programming primer

Blair noted the environment and genes within an animal combine to result in the outward appearance and its physical characteristics, known as phenotype.

“We are often told this is a 50-50 relationship, meaning 50 percent is attributed to the genotype and 50 percent to the environment,” she said. “If we sit and think about the genetics on the cattle side, many are much less than 50 percent heritable, so the weight of the environment in this equation can’t be overlooked.” 

After the cow has been mated and pregnancy has been established, 

Blair said the genotype has been set, which means producers at that point are responsible for making sure the environment is able to maximize the potential of the phenotype.


As an example, Blair said increased marbling is a trait commonly sought by producers. 

“If we think of some of the strategies we might utilize to ensure the environment maximizes the marbling potential of the individual, we might think of strategies such as optimizing nutrition at critical points during growing and finishing or extended time on feed,” she said. 

Producers might also utilize technology to maximize potential. 

“If we think about all these things together, they’re all post-natal strategies and things we think about after the calf hits the ground,” Blair explained. “We often forget about the genotype-environment interaction prior to birth or during gestation.”

Uterine environment

Insufficient placental development, compromised nutrient transfer, limited nutrient availability or stress events can all alter the uterine environment, which can alter gene expression.

“We can think about the expression of the gene as a dial, in some cases, where we can turn things up or down with different signals,” explained Blair. 

Changes in the uterine environment can also result in epigenetic changes, which are heritable changes.

She said, “These are changes that are not encoded in the DNA but are stable and can be passed on to the next generation.” 

Changes in gene expression cause a change in the phenotype without changing DNA, Blair said.

Long-term influence

“If the gestational environment can influence lifetime productivity in cattle, think about some of the highs and lows our cowherds have seen during gestation,” Blair said, marking changes in forage quality and quantity, weather extremes or changes in diet as examples of things that impact the cow. “As researchers, we’re focused on how these changes affect the calf.” 

In particular, the timing during gestation that a cow experiences stress influences the developing calf.

During its lifetime, the cow should never be eating just for herself, said Block. 

“She should always be nursing a calf or pregnant,” Block explained. “If she’s ever eating just for herself, she should probably be culled.” 

Feeding requirements

Underfeeding is a common situation encountered during production, she continued, noting underfeeding impacts fat and muscle development, the cardiovascular system and a variety of organs.

“Many cattle producers are fairly dependent on forages as theirmain feed sources, and we know there’s a wide range between forage quality and quantity,” Block mentioned. “Nutrient deficiencies in a forage-based program are pretty common.”

During pregnancy, in addition to feeding their growing calves, cows must also maintain themselves, which makes them more sensitive to changes in nutrients, Block said.Growing evidence suggests cow nutrition impacts everything from calf health to feedlot performance and carcass characteristics in cattle. 

“There are critical windows of develop where different processes are forming the fetus, which changes the way a fetus responds to the treatment we’re giving them,” Block continued. “How we manage cows during pregnancy affects our bottom line.”

In next week’s Roundup, Block and Blair will discuss the critical windows of development and how nutrient restriction at those stages impacts growing calves.

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..