by: Clifford Mitchell

The positive market outlook has most cattlemen looking for alternatives to boost production. Higher costs and weather patterns may have limited producers in recent times. Current trends show a little different scenario from a cost of production standpoint with adjustments to feed and fuel prices that provide opportunity.

Nutrition is one of they key determinants of performance in the cow herd. Without a proper supplementation program, most production goals are unattainable.

“There is a little relief when it comes to feed prices. This will allow producers to consider where their feeding program is and provides opportunities for improvement with positive returns,” says Dr. Matt Hersom, Extension Beef Specialist, University of Florida.

“With a good market and lower feed costs it is a good time to look at alternatives. We can look at things like the feeding program to create opportunity for more profit. Think out of the box even though returns are good,” says Dr. Jane Parish, Extension Beef Specialist, Mississippi State University.

The break in feed prices opens the door for cattlemen to look at different protocols from a nutrition standpoint that have not been available in recent times. Knowing costs and having records still fuels the thought process into making good decisions

“There is room for improvement in most feeding programs. Current feed prices justify doing the math to see what the returns are for more pounds or pregnancies. Shop around and find the best deal on feed resources that suit your operation,” Parish says. “Sometimes things like tubs, which bring a convenience aspect to the feeding program, priced on a per pound of protein and energy basis, can be a great alternative. Especially, when reduced labor costs are factored in.”

“We have the opportunity to positively affect cow production this year. Experiment a little to see if you can incorporate management practices long term,” Hersom says. “Producers need to have a sharp pencil to know costs. This will allow operators to know what they can and can't do from a feed resource standpoint. A strong calf market makes these decisions a little easier to make because there are less risks involved.”

Forage quantity and quality will always be the basis of any supplementation program. Keeping efficiency and practicality into the nutrition program is a must for any operation.

“Look at your forages from a quality and availability standpoint and ask yourself if you can increase some production goals with extra nutrition,” Hersom says. “There is an opportunity to bring the tail end up, especially if it is improving body condition score (BCS). The price of one calf will pay for a lot of extra feed.”

“I would rather spend the money on fertilizer than feed. Cows harvest forages we don't have to invest time and money feeding it to them. Paying a little extra upfront to increase forage quality and availability means producers don't have to pay as much for feed,” Parish says. “A good forage programs tends to help a lot of other management practices. A little extra feed may allow for some expansion to have cattle to sell in the future to take advantage of the good market.”

Genetic improvements are well documented across the board. Advantages in heterosis also help pay the bills. Extra nutrition may allow for expression of genetic improvements that could pay big dividends in the near future.

“In this market the upside is there from a financial standpoint. We always are looking in terms of optimum, but look at your genetics. Those cattle may have the potential to perform at a higher level,” Parish says. “Extra nutrients are needed to allow cattle to reach a different level in terms of performance.”

“Strategically utilize those resources and pay more attention to certain parts of the cow herd. If you have just been giving those cows enough, there may be an opportunity to increase performance,” Hersom says. “Extra milk production or a percentage of the cow herd that has not been allowed express genetics may produce an extra five or ten pounds of weaned calf. Doing a better job of meeting those nutritional requirements to allow those cattle to perform at a higher level may produce the results we have expected.”

It is well documented that advances in reproductive efficiency have a positive affect on the bottom line. Slight increases in pregnancy rates could make a major difference in the profit margin for years to come.

“If your pregnancy rates are on the lower side of acceptable, spending a little money on feed to improve pregnancy rate a couple of percentage points could provide big returns in this market,” Hersom says. “Even if you are at the top end on pregnancy rates, it is still going to provide a positive return to management.”

“Taking better care of those pregnant cows starts a chain of events that can carry out long term. The short term benefits from a one to two to three percent increase in pregnancy rates, which starts to make a difference with more calves,” Parish says. “Fetal programming is also starting to tell us there are long term benefits in increased performance of the next generation.”

Focusing on the cow herd may not be the only place improvements can be made to increase pounds at weaning. Other alternatives exist that may not necessarily be new, but become viable options in the current market price/cost equation.

“Creep feeding is an option because there is upside to more pounds. Pencil it out see if it works in your operation. There is plenty of data out there to help producers to know what to expect from this protocol,” Parish says. “Death loss is there due to sickness in every operation. Vaccinations help, but nutritionally sound cattle are usually healthier. In this market, if you lose one calf it is a big hit.”

“Creep feeding is an option if you know what it costs the operation. There are certain times feed costs get low enough to justify the potential for extra pounds,” Hersom says. “Sometimes this will produce more of a seasonal response in some areas, you have to know your cow herd and what to expect.”

Improving genetics could also pay dividends now and in the future. Other improvements to the operation during high revenue low/cost periods allow producers to position the herd for profit in a lot of market scenarios.

“Invest back into the business. Most producers have made it through the tougher times. Now is the time to invest in better herd bulls to benefit the herd generations in advance,” Parish says. “Take advantage of a break in production costs to position the herd to be profitable 10 years down the road.”

Thinking outside of the box has sometimes stifled beef producers ability to get the most out of their product. When market prices are trending upward it is easy to get complacent on the ranch. “Status quo” takes over and dollars are left on the table.

Efficiency is still the profit driver in a commercial cow herd. Producers have done a great job of putting efficiency back in their operations during tough times. Just because the paychecks are a little fatter when calves are taken to town, it does not mean opportunity does not exist for improvement. Greater returns to management are still on the horizon if cattlemen study their lesson.

“Producers have to get away from the mental block that allows them to rest on their laurels when times are good. Returns come to every aspect of management,” Parish says. “Market prices are so much greater now than they have ever been and there is a break in production costs. Take advantage of this to do everything right from a management standpoint, because the profit potential is so much greater today.”

“Maybe it's time for cattlemen to get a little greedy. Beef producers tend to only have sharp pencils when margins are thin. Benchmark data and sharp pencils could mean more profit in today's environment,” Hersom says. “There are some underpinning principals we can never lose sight of; efficient use of our forages, high pregnancy rate, as many live calves as we can produce and the most pounds of weaned calf. We can't sit back and let profit go by because we are afraid to try something new to achieve our goals. In times of good market prices and lower production costs, it is less painful if we miss the mark.”

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