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UNL analysis shows drylot feeding of summer-calving cows may be a cost-competitive production system when grass prices are high.

July 11, 2016

3 Min Read

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln has conducted research studies for cow-calf production systems to evaluate profitability. In Nebraska, pasture rental rates have increased rapidly over the last several years due to numerous factors. At the same time, availability of crop residue and ethanol co-products has encouraged evaluation of year-round or seasonal drylot feeding of beef cows as alternative production systems.

In a recent analysis, "An Economic Analysis of Conventional and Alternative Cow-Calf Production Systems for Nebraska," seven cow-calf production systems were selected to represent various production systems across Nebraska.


Four represent conventional cow-calf production systems and use data from the Gudmundsen Sandhills Lab (in west-central Nebraska) and the Dalbey-Halleck Research Unit (in southeast Nebraska). The Gudmundsen Sandhills Lab systems included March-calving, June-calving and August-calving cows grazing Sandhills range in the summer. The fall and winter feed program includes cornstalk grazing, distillers grains supplement and hay. When calves are weaned, the level of distillers grains supplementation and hay feeding for these systems varies with the calving date. The Dalbey-Halleck system is a March-April calving system with summer pasture grazing and cornstalk grazing, as well as hay being fed during calving. These four systems were compared to one another as well as three alternative production systems.

The first alternative system examined double stocking of summer pasture and replacing half of the grazed forage with a combination of distillers grains and crop residue fed as a supplement. The second alternative system uses intensive management, where summer-calving cows are fed in a drylot year-round. The third intensive management system uses summer-calving cows where drylot feeding occurs in the summer, with cow-calf pairs grazing cornstalks supplemented with distillers grains during the fall and winter.

The results of this study showed year-round intensive management of beef cows in a drylot to be the most expensive production system. However, the intensive management system using corn stalk grazing along with distillers grains supplement and summer drylot feeding was very cost-competitive with conventional production systems. This was especially true as grass prices increased from the base price level of $40 per pair per month for summer grazing, and distillers grains prices held constant at $200 ton or decreased.

The analysis indicates that drylot feeding of summer-calving cows may be a cost-competitive production system when grass prices are high, distillers grains prices are comparatively low, and cornstalks are readily available for grazing. This is the scenario in much of Nebraska under current market conditions. This system complements spring-calving cow-calf production systems. Late-calving cows from spring-calving herds could be moved to a summer calving program, and terminal bulls used. Cow-calf producers in areas where crop residue and ethanol co-products are readily available could develop seasonal drylot feeding systems that are cost-competitive with cow-calf production systems using summer grass and cornstalks. 

Berger is a Nebraska Extension beef systems educator at the Panhandle Research and Extension Center.

Source: UNL BeefWatch

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