Managing winter feed costs

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Approximately 60% of a beef cattle producers’ expenses are due to feed costs. Keep feed costs in check while keeping cows in an appropriate body condition score is a key strategy in enhancing an operation's profitability.

Especially over winter months, feed costs can pile up. Consider the following strategies to be most efficient throughout the winter.

  1. Determine forage quality. Forage intake differs based on palatability and quality. The higher the quality, the more cattle will tend to eat. Using forage testing results and working with a nutritionist to implement a strategic plan of forage feeding and supplementation will be important.
  2. Consider all expenses. When accessing the price of feedstuffs, be sure to consider the trucking costs, the supplementation costs, and the storage capacity of the feedstuffs. Although a low-quality feed is preliminarily cheaper, with the added cost of supplementation to meet a cow’s requirement it may not pencil out as well.
  3. Avoid wasting hay. This sounds simple, however, hay-feeder design will greatly impact the amount of hay waste. Research by Oklahoma State University and The Noble Foundation looked at hay feeder design and associated wastes. Four different feeder designs were evaluated: cone, sheet, ring, and poly. Hay waste for the feeders is as follows:
    1. cone (5.3%),
    2. sheet (13.0%),
    3. ring (20.5%),
    4. poly (21.0%).

Another potential strategy to minimize hay waste is through limit-feeding. By allowing cattle limited amounts of access to hay, it was found that hay loss and disappearance can be decreased while still maintaining performance. Explore more information on limit-feeding and hay feeder design on our Winter Feeding webpage.

  1. Group by body condition score. Cows in a BCS of 5 or 6 do not have the same nutritional requirements as a cow in a BCS of 3. Therefore, by sorting cows/heifers into groups will allow a producer to better manage individual health and feed costs.
  2. Explore alternative feeds. With a large majority of the United States experiencing a drought this past year, hay prices are likely to increase into the winter months. Therefore, feeding baled cornstalks, corn-silage, distillers, and even bakery waste can be profitable if well managed. As with all unknown feedstuffs, it is important to consult with a nutritionist to determine a best-fit ration.

The overarching idea here is management. With proper management, cattle producers can save money and be more profitable. Plan ahead and be prepared early. Consult with a nutritionist and take the time to calculate expenses before it is too late.