Low Input Cattle Production

Low Input Cattle Production

The Challenge

Ranchers live and work in a production driven sector of the economy. Historically, cattle producers have been motivated to maximize the weaning weights of our calves since our commodity, beef, is sold by the pound. The heavier the weaning weight, the bigger the paycheck. Ever increasing input costs for labor and supplemental feed are driving producers to take a harder look at the cost of production. Sustainability in the business requires that we consider profit as well as production.

The largest single annual input in the cow-calf enterprise is forage. A cow consumes approximately 3% of her body weight each day. An 1200 pound cow, which these days is a small cow, requires about 36 pounds of forage a day regardless of whether she harvests it herself of if it is delivered to her in the form of a hay bale. A cow’s nutritional requirements increase incrementally as calving season approaches and it peaks right at calving. The post-partum period requires that the cow be in good condition to produce milk for the calf, recover from calving and prepare to rebreed in three months. To accomplish this with the traditional February/March calvers in Montana, the cows require a large amount of good quality hay before and after calving. A low input herd calves in May and June and can harvest the required nutrients during this critical period directly from green grass, which happens to be in its most productive and nutritious stage of growth. The trade off is younger calves and lighter weaning weights. For a low input program to be successful, these reductions must be offset by more calves weaned for every cow exposed to the bull and less input cost for each cow.

When considering the viability of becoming a low input producer, a variety of factors weigh into the decision an individual producer must make regarding calving dates and resulting inputs. The large amount of forage available in the higher country of Montana is only available as summer forage. In order to make use of this forage while accomplishing herd management objectives, operators have been motivated to have the cows “calved out” and “bred up” prior to moving to the mountains. A breeding season in April, May and June means a calving season in January, February and March. Another significant challenge comes in providing adequate amounts of nutritious “standing” forage for the winter months. The allocation of available labor and the wise use of ranch assets and infrastructure must also be considered.

The Project

For the past three years, we have run a small herd of cattle on the Woodson Ranch. They have been grazed year round and received no harvested forage (hay). The cattle calve on-their-own beginning May 15th. In the fall of the year the herd receives the recommended vaccinations, the cows are pregnancy checked and the calves are separated from the cows (weaned). The labor, equipment, infrastructure and supplemental feed inputs are kept to a minimum.

The 15 mature cows, which were late calving cows from two separate “traditional” herds, came to the ranch in the early spring of 2005. These cows were exposed to bulls for late spring calving in 2006. When the cows were pregnancy checked in the fall of 2005, 5 of the 15 cows (33%) were not pregnant. It was believed that the exceptionally poor conception rate could be attributed to the age of the cows (older), and an inability for some of the cows to adapt to the new situation. Additional late calving cows from the control herds replaced these open cows. The cows did not receive any harvested hay or other supplements in the winter of 2005/06.

Every cow delivered and raised a live calf in the spring and summer of 2006. However, when the cows were pregnancy checked in the fall of 2006, 5 of the 15 were once again found to be open. Inherent fertility problems in the late calving cows from the control herds and in the bulls used, were considered as potential contributing factors, as was the lack of supplemental mineral in the diet. Cows from the control herds once again replaced the open cows. The calves were weaned on Dec. 12th and the steer and heifer calves combined averaged 567 pounds. The calves were retained with the steers destined for an intensive grazing program on the Woodson Ranch and eventual slaughter and the heifers for herd replacements.

The herd was wintered on the Woodson ranch over the 2006/07 winter and did not receive any harvested hay but did have the benefit of a mineral supplement. All of the cows once again delivered a live calf. One cow/calf pair was removed from the program due to a case of mastitis but they were replaced with another pair. Two bulls were fertility tested and found fertile prior to introducing them to the herd in late August. When the cows were pregnancy checked in December of 2007, all of the mature cows and all of the replacement heifers were confirmed pregnant. The calves were weaned and weighed on December 31st and the steer and heifer calves combined averaged 512 pounds. One poor doing steer calf significantly affected the weaning weight average.

The Results

Pounds of calf weaned per cow exposed to the bull is a generally accepted standard of performance in the beef industry. In the tables below, this statistic, together with the annual expenses per cow is calculated.

Table 1 reports the actual results of the two full cycles detailed above.

Table 1

  Low Input Herd 2006 Low Input Herd 2007
% calves weaned/cow exposed 66% (5 of 15 open) 60% (5 open & 1 mastitis)
Pounds of average calf weaned/cow exposed 567#x66%=374.22 512#x60%=307.2
Average steer/heifer calf price * $1.2165/lb for 567 lb calf $1.244/lb for 512 lb calf
Income/cow exposed $455.24 $382.16
Value of grazing inputs/cow 12mo.x$20/mo.=$240 12mo.x$20/mo.=$240
Value of hay inputs/cow none none
Value of annual labor inputs/cow (1 full time employee with associated costs)** $40,000/1000 cows =$40 $40,000/1000 cows =$40
Value of breeding inputs/cow $25 $25
Vet expense/cow $15 $15
Mineral expense/cow none .05/dayx365=$18.25
Annualized investment in cow (depreciation & interest) $120 $120
Expenses/cow exposed $440 $458.25
Net Income/cow exposed $15.24 -$76.09

The Control herds are operating under more traditional late winter/early spring calving scenarios beginning February 20th. The Projected herd is what we hope for and anticipate now that the cows are adapted to the program.

 

Table 2

  Low Input Herd 2008 Projected Control Herd Ave.
% calves weaned/cow exposed 90% 86%
Pounds of average calf weaned/cow exposed 540#x90%=486 610#x86%=524.6
Average steer/heifer calf price * $1.23/lb for 540 lb calf $1.195/lb for 610 lb calf
Income/cow exposed $597.78 $626.90
Value of grazing inputs/cow 12mo.x$20/mo.=$240 7.5mo.x$20/mo.=$150
Value of hay inputs/cow @35#/day none 4.5mo.=2.3625tonx$85=$201
Value of annual labor inputs/cow (1 full time employee with associated costs)** $40,000/1000 cows =$40 $40,000/500 cows=$80
Value of breeding inputs/cow $25 $25
Vet expense/cow $15 $15
Mineral expense/cow .05/dayx365=$18.25 .05/dayx180days=$9.00
Annualized investment in cow (depreciation & interest) $120 $120
Expenses/cow exposed $458.25 $600
Net Income/cow exposed $139.53 $26.90

 

*The price is based on the average value of a steer and a heifer weighing 500# for fall delivery at $1.25 per pound. To adjust this price for heavier calves, a “slide” of .05 cents per pound for every pound over 500 has been imposed.

**The value of the labor inputs is difficult to calculate, but the basic assumption here is that the summer calving cows will require about one half of the labor per cow as the control herd.