Efficiency. It's a word we are hearing with greater frequency in our everyday lives as virtually every cost we encounter in our everyday lives is increasing. Efficiency can be defined as the amount of a given resource we have needed to accomplish a given goal. One of the most common efficiencies we discuss is the fuel efficiency of our cars. These numbers are wide ranging. A small, compact car may have a fuel efficiency of 32 miles to the gallon of gas. At the same time a ¾ ton pickup truck may get 19 miles to the gallon of gas. A semi truck may only get 5 miles to the gallon of diesel. The fuel efficiencies vary quite a bit but at the same time we recognize that each of these vehicles has a different purpose and are engineered in a way to accomplish this purpose and have corresponding fuel efficiency.
In the cattle business we encounter much of the same thing. If a program is developed and managed correctly it has a much greater efficiency. While we can break this down into many different component parts (i.e. the feed efficiency of a growing calf on the cow or the amount of fertilizer required to produce a given amount of hay per acre), the bottom line is, overall, the cost to achieve a given level of performance or income level.
In Part 1 of this series we looked at taking a look at the basic resources of the cattle operation – soil nutrients and plant nutrients. These are the foundations upon which virtually every cow-calf operation is based. The more extensively a producer can optimize what can be produced on the operation – assuming it is done cost effectively – the fewer outside inputs (primarily feed or supplements) must be purchased. This part of the series will focus on some of these factors.
Matching Needs to Resources
As discussed in the first part of this series, a producer has to initially evaluate his resources, i.e. soil and plant nutrient levels. These resources have to be weighed against requirements. In order to do this the first question that must be asked is what type of operation do you have? Cow/calf, stocker cattle, etc. Let's start with a stocker cattle operation since it is simpler. If you are buying cattle to grow out on grass the requirements will be somewhat simpler in that you have one type or class of animal (growing cattle). Typically the producer is looking for the least expensive means of putting weight on these cattle in a given amount of time. What is ultimately achieved is commonly dictated by how the cattle are being marketed or if sales contracts are in place (i.e. contract specifies a given type of animal to be sold at a predetermined weight or weight range at a given price). This often being the case the producer knows that if he buys a certain calf (weight, type), and he knows when that calf must be marketed (days in the program) he then can calculate how much weight the calf must gain to meet the contract. In this case, the producer has to evaluate several things:
1) Type, size/weight and condition of calf he starts off with
2) Genetic potential of the calf
3) Initial stress level of the incoming calf
4) Health of the calf
5) Desired daily weight gain
Depending on these variables, it can be determined how the existing forage situation meets the needs of these cattle. The status of many of these factors will affect how well the forage base will meet the animal's nutritional needs in order to grow at the needed rate of gain and if any added inputs will be required to meet those needs. At the same time, other factors such as the initial stress and health of the calf can have long term effects on performance (gains) while in the program. An animal that does not get sick at the beginning or during the program will produce better and more efficient gains than one that does. Additionally, sick cattle incur more medicine and treatment expense and suffer more death loss than cattle that do not get sick. This has been shown repeatedly by the Texas Ranch to Rail Program and other similar programs in different states.
The size of the starting cattle has an effect on nutrient requirements as well. Smaller cattle have a requirement for a higher level of most nutrients than larger cattle. This is especially true of protein. A smaller, lighter calf that has more structural growth to achieve needs more protein in its diet than a larger animal. Energy requirements dictate rate of gains so a higher level of energy available will drive a higher rate of gain. Again, this must be matched to the forage base. The levels found in the forages (pastures, hays, silages) have to be compared to what is required. This will be discussed more specifically in the next part of this series.
Another factor that has to be considered is time of year, growth pattern of the forage and environmental effects. To best discuss this let's set up a scenario:
Take as an example a stocker cattle producer in Northern Mississippi. On April 1 he purchases 100 head of 400 lb. (average weights) crossbred heifers. He intends to sell these cattle on or about October 1 (183 days). He has a contract to sell these cattle on or about that date at 800 lbs. This means that over this period of time these cattle must gain 400 lbs. or an average of 2.18 lbs. per head per day. His pastures are made up of ryegrass and coastal bermuda and he has fertilized them for average production based on his soil test. Initially he has a good stand of the ryegrass and the Bermuda is coming on and should do well as the warmer months are approaching. Over the next couple of months the ryegrass will go dormant and the Bermuda will take its place.
One thing the producer has to understand here is that over the course of this production period (April – October) the level of nutrients provided by the forage will change. Initially he will have a fairly high protein content in the ryegrass, adequate energy and good digestibility. The mineral content of the forage will depend on soil types, fertilization and previous management. In the early stage of this program he should have little or no problem meeting the protein and energy needs for the cattle he has purchased. He will probably need to supplement minerals and vitamins since few areas are completely adequate. He should provide minerals and vitamins according to his forage analysis. This will insure he provides what the cattle require but prevent over-feeding other minerals which can create antagonisms to absorption of related minerals plus prove quite expensive. The mineral content of forages in a given pasture is typically fairly stable over a short period of time but forage digestibility changes. More about this in a bit.
Over the course of the next couple of months two main things are occurring, the nutrient content of the forage base is changing and the cattle are growing and as such their nutrient needs are changing. Early in the production period, with lush, rapidly growing forages, meeting the nutrient needs (especially protein and energy) of these cattle is not a problem and the gains achieved should be acceptable or better. As time goes on and moves into the hotter summer months forage quality typically deteriorates. This is largely true due to increasing plant maturity. Protein and energy levels drop, largely related to increased concentrations of less-digestible fiber components in the plant. So the forage base sees a reduction in concentrations of required nutrients as well as a reduction in digestibility of these forages. This results in a significant reduction in the supply of the nutrients necessary to support the needed gains.
At the same time the animal is growing so its protein requirements (in daily dry matter intake) are dropping but not a rapidly as the protein supply in the forage. At the same time, as the calf grows, the amount of energy required to maintain a given rate of gain (in this case a need of about 2.2 lbs of gain per day). So during this period:
1) Forage nutrient levels and digestibility are decreasing fairly rapidly.
2) Calf protein requirements are dropping but not as rapidly.
3) Calf energy requirements are increasing.
This creates a situation were over this period gain performance will drop. In some situations, if the circumstances are right, gains may halt altogether and a weight loss can actually develop. This is certainly very inefficient since this weight loss will have to be made up at some point in order to reach the necessary contract end-weight. Anytime during the course of this program that the calf is not gaining weight it is counterproductive and expensive.
This situation is amplified by certain contributory events. These can include:
a) Periods of low rainfall. Reduced moisture availability reduces plant growth and can accelerate the maturation process.
b) Summer months bring on heat and heat stress to both plant and animals.
c) Effects of heat stress on the animal include reduced dry matter intake – the animal does not want to get out into the heat to graze and will stay under or near shaded areas during the heat of the day.
d) Heat stress increases the energy required for the animal to cool itself. Energy taken in during these periods is directed to reduction of body temperatures and away from tissue gains.
e) In many cases, if rainfall is reduced at this period, water availability from stock ponds is diminished. This can create an increase in the concentration of sediment or suspended organic and mineral material in the water the animals consume. This can create a variety of health and nutritional complications.
All this said, it becomes obvious that in order to maintain the desired rates of gain during this period some degree of supplementation must occur. The producer is already keeping out a free-choice mineral supplement but now must add protein and energy supplementation as well in the most cost effective means possible. Since feed and grain markets are as high as they are, it becomes important to know what the nutrient levels of the forage base are so he knows what levels of what nutrient to supplement with.
As mentioned in the first part of this series, given the current economic conditions, and in an effort to maintain animal performance while keeping costs down, additional forage testing is more important than ever. The use of periodic forage analysis to determine plant nutrient levels will prove to be an excellent investment. This information will help the producer maintain his performance level by insuring the correct levels to feed and at the same time hopefully keep him from feeding excessive amounts of a given supplement or the wrong feed or supplement altogether. As mentioned previously we will discuss more specifics in the upcoming part of this series.
Back to this program. As time goes on and we get into early September it is not uncommon to see rainfall resume and that forage quality bounces back to a stage where it sill support the rates of gain needed for these cattle. An important point to note is that by this point not a lot of time exists for gains to be re-established if they have not been supported during periods when forage quality has not been at the levels necessary. Plus the fact that changes of this nature does not occur overnight. As with so many other things forage quality drops considerably faster in the early summer than it returns in the fall. All this said, a case can be made for summer supplementation and for careful evaluation and planning to keep this program as finely tuned as necessary.
Maintaining efficiency and performance will be a challenge but not one that is insurmountable. Time, effort and dollars will need to be spent in areas different than in the past and more, specific information is needed to insure good decisions are made. In the next part of this series we will look at the cow/calf part of the industry and the variables that must be considered. We'll also look at specifics in considering forage data, animal requirements and making these calculations to insure production efficiency is targeted.
Dr. Steve Blezinger is a management and nutritional consultant with an office in Sulphur Springs, TX. He can be reached at 667 CR 4711 Sulphur Springs, TX 75482, by phone at (903) 352-3475 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information please visit www.blnconsult.com.