by: Stephen B. Blezinger
Ph.D., PAS

Part 4

In Part 3 of this series we discussed grouping of cattle by production status and age to better manage their nutrient demands. By focusing these groups we create a narrower range of nutrient demands that can be addressed more accurately and more efficiently and reduces variation a great deal. In other words, there is much less “feeding on the averages.”

But along with managing the nutrient demand of the animal we have to manage the nutrient supply. Since most breeding cattle operations are built on a pasture system of some type this is where our discussion will be focused. Managing the pasture and forage program to best provide for the nutrient needs of the various production groups established.

As we have discussed on many occasions, each operation is different not only for biological or environmental reasons but also for management reasons and farm/ranch configuration or logistical reasons. Even when using a limited breeding season such as described in Part 3 of this series this can be varied based on the management cycle. Using the calving period as an example, it can be varied from month to month or on a larger scale set as a spring calving or a fall calving season. Regardless, each change in timing modifies the nutrient supply-demand relationship to some degree and must be adjusted accordingly.

Selection of how the production cycle is timed is a decision not to be made lightly. In many cases, commercial producers may choose to calve in the fall since when these calves are ready to wean and potentially sell in the spring or early summer when the overall numbers are somewhat lower (i.e. overall supply of weaned calves is down since the majority of producers still market calves late in the summer or early in the fall). However, calving in the fall also results in the cow herd having the heaviest nutrient demand. This is also when forage supplies may be lower in quality. This will depend on hay or harvested forage type, management (including fertility, timing of harvest, etc.) and the resulting quality of the end product. For the discussion here, quality is defined as nutrient density, particularly protein content as well as fiber components. The understanding being that older, more mature or more poorly managed forage crops will be higher in fiber components (ADF, NDF) that reduce digestibility the higher they get. It may also depend on what the actual forage varieties are that are available on the farm or what can be readily or economically purchased.

It may make economic sense to time the management cycle when the heaviest demand is “centered” over when the greatest supply (with the best quality) is available. Typically, in many parts of the country, this means that the period of heaviest demand – generally 30 days post calving through breeding and the early part of the second trimester when calves are getting bigger and nursing heavily – should be centered over the period from mid spring through early summer when forage growth is most aggressive and quality is highest.

As mentioned previously, often producers will choose to calve in the fall since this results in calves reading for weaning and marketing in the spring or early summer when calf numbers in general are somewhat lower. This generally results in a stronger sales price per pound for the calves themselves. A couple of important points that must be considered with this scenario:

1) Fall born calves are raised on cows that are maintained on largely harvested, stored forages which can be lower in quality in general when compared to growing forages. Because of this protein and/or energy supplements will be needed to insure the nutrient demands are met. However, research and practice has shown that the weaning weights of these calves are commonly lower, in some cases statistically lower than calves of the same breeding but born in the spring and raised on cows maintained on fresh, growing forages.

2) With fall calving herds, use of supplements is typically necessary to insure that nutrient demands are met. Obviously these supplements come at a cost. These costs can vary greatly depending on supplement type. Since the cow, who is nursing a reasonably small calf at this point and are in the process of being rebred or are in early stages of pregnancy, has the highest nutrient demands at this point, her supplementation need and subsequent costs will be higher than if she is in the same production stage after calving in the spring. Thus, the cost of producing the fall-born calf may be higher. Once of the biggest benefits of this is that the gap between the demand and the supply is the narrowest and lower levels of supplementation are needed.

So the results of this situation is that the fall born calf may be smaller at weaning and may also come with a higher production cost. But as discussed, this calf may very well be sold into the market for a higher cost per pound. Adding these three factors together will provide the net profit for that calf in a given year.

Subsequently, a spring born calf, weaned in the early fall when the large calf runs are common will bring, in some situations, a lower price. However, because they were born at a time of the year when forage availability and quality was higher since forage plants were fresh and growing, traditionally these calves wean at a higher weight. Also, because nutrient availability is greater from forage sources, there is a lower supplementation demand and related cost. So a larger, heavier weaned calve produced at a lower cost but which may sell at a lower cost per pound.

The challenge here is to compare the two systems and determine which is more profitable. This is a highly complex model because additional factors also come into play. These factors include:

1) Genetics and breeding

2) Breed or cross breed selections

3) Weather and environment

4) Cattle markets

5) Grain and feed markets

6) Management capability

7) Farm/ranch set-up, arrangement, logistics

8) Location

9) Resource availability

The complicating factor is that because of these variables, a system that is more profitable in one situation or in a given year with a given set of circumstances may not be as profitable the next year.

So given this discussion how does the cattle producer, who is focused on being profitable make the proper decisions to maximize that profitability on an on-going basis?

1) First, refer back to the initial part of this discussion. Which system best suites the producers existing operation as well as cash flow and revenue generation needs. Does a spring or fall calving program work the best? Is a combination of the two advantageous? Are there changes in the operation that could be made at reasonable expense to take enhance performance and profitability within an acceptable time-frame?

2) Take inventory of forage supplies and availability. Work with an agronomist and a nutritionist to estimate and forecast forage supplies and nutrient availability and compare this to herd demands given the production program and timing. Estimate when greatest demand period may be and how these nutrient demands will be met most cost effectively.

3) Look at options in the event that weather conditions do not support optimal forage production. Have a plan in place to procure the necessary forage supplies (hay, silage, high fiber by-products) in the event that the on farm supplies are not adequate. Keep in mind that if you are not in a period of low moisture and forage growth at this time – you will be at some point. And there is no predicting durations. Also remember that purchased forage supplies are less expensive at the beginning of a drought than once it has gone on for some time. Make sure forage supplies with appropriate surpluses are well planned. Taken the time to learn how to buy hay. Buying hay by the bale is never a good idea even though for many beef cattle producers that is the standard way it is done. In buying hay by the roll the buyer never knows exactly what he is getting, there is a lot of variation bale to bale and the nutrient content is seldom known. Look for a hay supplier that will work with you to sell hay based on weight and nutrient value.

4) To optimize performance (breeding, calf growth, health), supplementation of nutrients to appropriate levels is critical and may be necessary at any point. Mineral supplementation is always required and should match the forage base. It can change so the mineral may need to change periodically. Consider first the estimated forage supply and layer this over forage demand. Determine where the gaps are and this will show you where supplementation may be needed for both protein and energy. Look at the various supplementation types and methods and work with a nutritionist to determine the most cost effective means to meet these requirements. Protein and energy are the two nutrients in greatest demand and cost the most. What methods can be used to provide these two nutrients in the most cost effective manner? Take nutrient cost into consideration initially followed by labor costs, needs for feeders or equipment and other logistical considerations that may require an initial (or sustained) cash layout.

5) Look at past performance. Is the operation where it needs to be? Can improvements be made? Where – breeding, weaning weight, health, etc.? Outside of the performance parameters some of this can become subjective. Always seek to improve and become more efficient. In general, with improved efficiency comes improved profitability.


The concepts and ideas discussed here were not just for the purebred operation although that is what the title implies. Every operation needs a good idea of its costs (what does it cost to produce one pound of beef?) and its income (income-cost = profit). These numbers can be a challenge to quantify bit if a producer is serious about his business, these numbers are necessary. Nutrition is the number one variable expense on the cattle operation. Developing a clear means of estimating your total supplies, along with the variations along with your total demand is an important first step to recognizing and improving profitability.

Copyright 2015 – Dr. Stephen B. Blezinger. Dr. Steve Blezinger is a nutrition and management consultant with an office in Sulphur Springs, TX. He can be reached at (903) 352-3475 or by email at For more information visit Livestock Concepts.

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