cows grazing in a drought

In Tough Times: Minimize Waste, Maximize Genetics through Management

Investments in superior genetics and prioritizing nutrition could pay dividends for the cattleman.

by Lindsay Graber Runft

April 5, 2023

Ranching brings rewards, but it’s not all “sunshine and rainbows.” With drought and high input costs in the balance, it takes sharp management decisions to keep black ink on the bottom line.

Knowing what to cut back or keep doing was the focus for Dusty Abney, beef cattle nutritionist for Cargill Animal Nutrition, during his Cattlemen’s College session at the 2023 Cattle Industry Convention.

“It’s easy to just walk out there and say, ‘What can I cut?’ And in this environment, with the kind of production that we demand from these cattle and the money we spend on genetics, I think that’s a grave mistake,” Abney said.

Even with increasing prices at the meat case, consumers continue to purchase high-quality beef. That’s why he cautioned against decreasing the bull budget. Investments in superior genetics could still pay.

When buying bulls, added carcass value helps increase your calf crop’s Certified Angus Beef (CAB) acceptance rate, proven to add premiums. To assist in bull selection this sale season, Angus bull buyers can look for the Targeting the Brand™ logo in sale catalogs. The logo signifies that a bull has a minimum expected progeny difference (EPD) for marbling of +0.65 and an Angus Grid Value Index ($G) of +55 or higher.

The proof is in the data.

Sire-identified carcass data from more than 8,600 records in the American Angus Association database show those EPD values are minimum thresholds to achieve an average of 50% CAB acceptance. But those numbers alone won’t get it.

“If you invest in genetics and don’t invest in your nutritional program, your animals will never express their full genetic potential,” Abney said.

cow licking mineral block

Make Nutrition a Priority
From a bull purchased during this bull sale season, to calves born and heifers retained this year, nutrition should be at the top of the list for management.

“Doing what you have to” in times of high operating costs makes sense, Abney said, but it should not turn into an excuse. Fetal programming implications say nutritional decisions on bred females affect a cow herd in the short and long term.

“If you short her, she will short you,” Abney said. “A cow never gets a day off, and what we provide that animal from a supplementary basis and from our forage base affects her and her calf.”

What and how you feed a cow matters, so Abney suggests building a nutrition plan. Consider ingredient sourcing, infrastructure and the balance of nutrients against requirements. Then look at the feeding process: quantity, time and method for feeding. Nutritionists can provide key advice on the “what and how” to achieve targeted gains, improved herd health and overall profitability.

Looking to a drought scenario specifically, Abney noted the first step of understanding what’s available for cows to consume. To keep rumens operational, cows need more than 1% roughage on a dry-matter basis. Supplement that with energy, such as corn, distiller’s grains or whole cottonseed, based on nutritional requirements.

Meeting those protein and energy needs are essential to rumen function.

“If the rumen ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy,” Abney said. “So, we’ve got to keep those bugs (rumen microbes) happy so they’ll feed the cow.”

Rising input costs on the ranch bring the temptation to buy the cheapest hay available. If you do, make the best of it ordering a forage quality test to learn the crude protein percentage and relative feed value. Then supplement if required.

High-quality beef production requires mineral supplementation. But through a drought, that supplement can vary greatly. Forage test results and other feed evaluation can show where to adjust mineral inputs for a better bottom line.

Wondering where it could make sense to cut back on the spend? If feed and forage tests show a compelling financial reason, it may be okay to opt out of ionophores and implants on calves and yearlings. Aside from skipping those typically-recommended technologies, remember that basic herd health practices, such as vaccinations, deworming and fly control, should be continued and prioritized.

Minimize Feed Waste
A better option could be examining what’s going to waste. Abney said well-run operations can suffer from 5-10% feed waste daily, depending on the type of ingredient and how it is fed.

Feed/ingredient cost: $300/ton
15% shrink
Feed/ingredient actual cost is ~$352.94/ton

$300 ÷ 0.85 = $352.94

Beyond feed delivery, Abney suggests looking at hay waste, including feeder type.

A 2015 University of Missouri study into fescue hay waste by bale feeder type found a 19.2% loss for open rings, 13.6% for those with a bottom sheet and 8.9% for cone designs.

Correct hay storage helps reduce waste, too, Abney said. Ensiled forages are susceptible to loss from poor fermentation or exposure to air after fermentation.

Planning for the Worst

Determining how and what to feed while reducing waste requires a plan. That doesn’t stop at feeding, Abney said.

Build an overall plan for high-stress situations like drought and high-input costs, he suggested. By managing what can be managed and examining consequences of decisions made, you can best target positive results.

“We have to make sure that we’re not giving into analysis paralysis where we just wait for something else to happen,” Abney said. “Not making a decision is still a decision.”

Navigating tough decisions while managing resources to meet your herd’s nutritional needs at least takes focus. When those things are complicated by conditions outside of our control, sharper management can still find the rewards in ranching.

On the other hand, a lack of focus on profit near the top of the cattle market cycle will make a greater impact later in that cycle.

“If you make wasteful decisions and those decisions come back to haunt us,” Abney said, “it’s not going to be in a time when prices are good.”

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