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CATTLE TODAY

"GET OUT OF THE BOX" TO PAINT PROFIT PICTURE

by: Clifford Mitchell

Creative concepts are often left to artists, sculptors or for some television aficionados “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.” However, when cattlemen go to work on their own canvas, creativity takes on a whole new meaning.

It's not about making abstract designs or hitting the local art gallery for some gala presentation based on a motif conjured up by the curator. Cattlemen must get out of the box built by tradition, to paint the profit picture. With margins declining every year, producers must get inspired to increase revenue wherever possible in the management scenario.

Designers, engineers and artists are always looking for innovative ways to make something more efficient, put a new twist on something so it's not cookie cutter or dream up some style of artwork that finds its place in every urban home. Cowboys are realizing it takes more than a good horse, a trusted dog and green pastures to keep the profit margins of generations past. Defining options, based on different management techniques, may be the only way for producers to depict a sound bottom line.

“Anything that can give cattlemen more options is worth investigating. Producers need to get creative with marketing practices to open up more profit potential. For most to do this, they're going to have to become better managers,” says Dr. Jason Rowntree, LSU Ag Center, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

“There are a lot of options out there. Producers must understand everything that can happen during any given time period,” says Dr. David Sanson, Rosepine Research Station, Rosepine, Louisiana.

For each producer, the image is going to be different as he paints the portrait that will carry the operation through the year. Unlike an inanimate object hanging on the wall, a cattleman's work of art keeps changing. Mother Nature will take up her brush and with a few quick strokes could change the whole outlook.

An unusually wet spring and continued moisture has given producers more opportunity. Increased forage supplies and high feed costs could make many calves candidates for grazing after weaning. The highly liquid class of cattle allows producers to maintain flexibility within the framework of their management program.

“We are blessed this year with tremendous forage production. Most people will have additional grass. Retained ownership through some form of a grazing period is a good option for most producers because of the high cost of gain (COG) in the feedyard,” says Dr. Dave Lalman, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, Oklahoma. According to recent forage reports, this is true for much of the Gulf Coast region except for Alabama and Georgia.

“Right now we have a lot of forage quantity, but the quality is pretty marginal,”

Sanson says. “Depending on when you wean there is a 30-, 60- or 90-day window before rye grass. Those calves have to be grazing something. Weaned calves are not going to gain well on tough bermuda grass, unless they are supplemented.”

“We have a lot of great candidates for rye grass, because of the calving season and when producers wean their calf crop,” Rowntree says. “This could be a good opportunity for producers, if they have grass and facilities to handle calves through the grazing season.”

Health is becoming a critical component to widening producer's options. Animal health companies and industry acceptance have educated cattlemen to the worth of pre-conditioning programs. These programs are often the beginning of a successful transition for a very difficult time in a calf's life.

“Before weaning if producers will put out some feed to try and train calves to eat while they're still on the cow, it can be very beneficial during the weaning period,” Rowntree says. “Heat is a big factor for most producers this time of year. A clean available water source and providing some shade to those calves is very important.”

“You have to have a solid herd health program to consider retaining calves for grazing,” Lalman says. “We recommend two rounds of modified live and, especially this year, some form of de-wormer. A timely application will help the immune system and you will get a better response to the vaccines.”

“For producers to consider retaining calves, they have to have facilities that will allow them be successful,” Sanson says. “Weaning is a very stressful time. Most of the stress on that calf is from removing it from its mother.”

It seems most pre-conditioning programs come with a strict 45-day time period attached to the vaccination schedule. However, what makes this such a magical number? Producers must decide how long to retain calves after this period and if calves are good candidates to hold through some form of extended grazing period. A “plan of attack” will go a long way toward the ultimate goal of increasing profit.

“When you look at true levels of performance, pre-conditioning may not always be profitable. It puts a lot of pressure on calves to gain and get healthy in 45 days on low quality forages,” Sanson says. “Look where you're going. If producers plan to pre-condition that calf and move him, if there's profit in a four weight they'll be profit in a six weight. If extended grazing is the plan then most six weights won't work. Be aware of the market. We wean in September, at 45 days that puts us in a November market, which is typically depressed.”

“Weaning cattle 45 to 60 days could be a profitable opportunity this year for producers who have the resources. Historically, most people wean in October and that's the worst time to sell. If producers can hold calves until January, the market trend will usually go up,” Lalman says. “If a producer can hold cattle longer than 45 days, there will be an increase in market price. Buyers aren't scared of calves that have been weaned for 60 or 90 days.”

“Just with the stress of weaning calves might lose 10 to 12 pounds, especially if they aren't adapted to feed. They'll spend the next week or two just trying to gain that weight back,” Rowntree says. “Producers must account for increased labor and medicine costs associated with the pre-conditioning period, which could amount to $28 per head in some cases. Four and five weight cattle are the best candidates for rye grass in our country.”

Retaining calves through an extended grazing period may be extremely new for some operations. This conversion could be very beneficial to the bottom line. An open mind and adjustments to management come with the territory.

“Longer pre-conditioning periods can be used very affectively to help manage financial risks. There is a lot of value in each additional pound of gain,” Lalman says. “Cattle that stay in their own environment have better chances of staying healthy than a high risk stocker. There will still be some that get sick. Producers need to learn to identify sickness and have the facilities to treat those cattle.”

“If you get past 45 days, it becomes more of a backgrounding program than a pre-conditioning program. Make sure the market is going up during whatever time frame you plan to retain those calves,” Sanson says. “Producers have to know they are going to get paid. A 10 cent change in market can wipe out a lot of good management.”

Once the decision has been made to retain cattle for a certain period, producers must change hats and become marketers. Identifying the best opportunities and marketing cattle will make cattlemen “price makers” instead of “price takers”.

“Producers with economies of scale can readily increase profits just by sorting the calf crop and either sending the big end to town or the feedyard. Producers will have more opportunity if they retain the light end to graze,” Rowntree says. “Heavyweight cattle have so much value there is incentive for producers to graze at least part of the calf crop. Structure the program where you have rye grass to graze and the management to handle them. Good rye grass grown from a prepared seed bed can stock a lot of cattle, especially if it's used in a rotational system.”

“The larger group of uniform calves a producer can put together the better they will sell. Cattlemen spread out their risks if they market the big end and then sell lightweight cattle in a different market,” Lalman says. “Pre-condition the calves through a designated period and then evaluate the market situation. At this time, producers can decide how much risk they can stand and what to retain.”

Rye grass and wheat pasture are common winter annuals that most producers in different regions of the country take advantage of to get cheap gains on cattle. With proper rainfall both are excellent forages and can be grazed sometime between Thanksgiving and mid December in most years. Alternative feed sources are available to keep costs down as producers prepare calves to graze winter annuals.

“We need to keep some nutrients in front of them. Commodity feeds are a real good option for producers who can handle them in bulk form. If they have to feed them out of a sack, I am not sure that's profitable,” Sanson says. “Producers need to adjust their feeding program based on the quality of the available feedstuffs. Soybean hulls, Rice bran, corn gluten are all really good alternatives. Distillers' grains are worth looking into if they are available in your area.”

“We recommend our Oklahoma Gold and Oklahoma Super Gold programs to producers for this time of year. Even though pasture is not good enough quality, when managed right calves can still gain 1.5 pounds per day. With high feed costs as pasture quality declines producers are going to have to endure higher COG,” Lalman says. “Commodities are usually a better buy in the marketplace. As time goes on distillers' grains will become more competitive and DDGS are great feed for weaned calves that have access to high quality hay or forages.”

“Producers have to be aware of the availability of bi-product feeds. They are certainly a very cost effective option for supplementing weaned calves,” Rowntree says. “A real challenge with these commodities is producers have to be able to handle them.”

As producers work with feed sources they are unfamiliar with, consulting a nutritionist will help avoid pitfalls and make sure a ration with adequate nutrition is provided to the growing animal. All are key in keeping the future source of profit healthy and gaining at the expected level.

“Producers can come back and graze hay fields that were harvested earlier in the year; this will provide a higher quality forage source. Because of the window of time between weaning and the availability of rye grass some supplemental feed is required,” Sanson says. “Producers need to decide if they can handle commodity feeds and feed a ration that will allow for a 1.5 pound per day gain with the lower quality forages.”

“Be aware of nutritional imbalances. This could be pretty costly. If you found a cheap feed source that is high sulphur consult a nutritionist. You have to be really careful at what level you feed high sulphur feeds,” Lalman says. “If the feed stuff is high in phosphorus there is no need to feed high phosphorus mineral. A mineral that is high in calcium would take better care of that calf.”

The profit picture always seems hazy and unclear for most producers. Unfortunately there usually are no cut and dried solutions, only choices. For each cattleman, his version of a masterpiece may be drastically different from his neighbor.

The beef business is just like an art gallery. Creative thinking, making the right choice and using every piece of information to carry out a vision defines success. For most cattlemen, the challenge is not making the right or wrong decision, but to become innovative enough to know it takes more than one color to create a true “magnum opus”.

“Producers who are considering retaining ownership for grazing is relatively high, compared to the last few years,” Lalman says. “If you can get them big on grass at home and keep costs down, there is a lot of opportunity for producers to pocket more dollars. Producers supplementing cattle early with low cost feeds need to be careful not to over feed them and sacrifice their gains on wheat pasture.”

“We have to get some people thinking about ways to increase profit. There is real potential to graze these calves to higher weights if producers understand the process and can manage a grazing program,” Sanson says. “People need to make sure they don't over feed and get too much starch in these weaned calves. Education will help producers understand all the variables so they can define some profitable options.”

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