Intensively managing cows as part of a system with limited grass
Karla H. Jenkins, Cow/calf, Range Management Specialist
Panhandle Research and Extension Center
Several factors threaten the available forage supply for maintaining beef cow herds. Previously high commodity prices encouraged the conversion of pasture land into crop ground. Cities and towns continue to sprawl out into rural areas, creating subdivisions where historically cattle grazed. Drought, fires, hail, and insects periodically deplete forage supplies.
When forage supplies cannot be located or are not affordably priced, cattle producers must either sell their cattle or feed the cattle in confinement.
Producers wanting to join the family operation need to bring an income source or add an enterprise to the operation, because current income usually will not support another family. Land prices often prohibit the returning family members from expanding by acquiring more land.
Developing an intensively managed beef cattle operation, which includes some confinement feeding, may allow producers to increase an enterprise while utilizing their land for both crops and livestock.
Systems utilizing intensive management will look different for each producer, because each has unique resources. Systems may include grazing annual forages, grazing crop residues, grazing forages planted into crop residue, possibly some native perennial pasture, and typically some period of confinement. Confinement feeding is best managed with the most inexpensive feed resources, and may include combinations of crop residues or poor quality hay and high quality by-products such as distillers grains or sugar beet pulp.
People not familiar with the beef industry often question if confining cattle for a portion of the feeding period is humane. Interestingly, Anne Burkholder of Cozad, Neb., a feedlot operator and blogger on ag and food issues (https://feedyardfoodie.wordpress.com/), did some calculations to help explain the space allotments for confined cattle. Finishing cattle are allotted 125-250 square feet per animal, while confined cow-calf pairs are recommended to have 350-400 square feet per pair. Following these guidelines would result in about 17,700 finishing animals per square mile. To put this in perspective, New York City has approximately 27,700 people per square mile and Manhattan has 70,800. Therefore, cattle in confinement actually have more space than people in our larger cities.
There are management practices to consider when confining cow/calf pairs. Typically, when cows are out grazing grass, the green, growing grass meets the changing needs of the lactating cow and the growing calf. In confinement, these nutrient requirements need to be carefully balanced in the diet provided. Young calves must be able to reach a source of feed and water, which may mean a feedlot pen intended for older cattle needs to be modified to allow access for these smaller calves. Diets must be evaluated carefully, not only for nutrient content, but also for expense.
Including some intensive management for cow-calf pairs can be an effective way to increase land utilization while adding another enterprise to the operation. For more information on best management practices for beef cattle, visit beef.unl.edu.