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Recent U of I research shows beef producers have other options for raising cow-calf pairs if pasture isn’t available.

Sierra Day, Field editor

February 18, 2022

6 Min Read
cow in field
DRYLOT: Drylot management of cow-calf pairs provides comparative results to pasture management with cows that better maintain body weight and calves that are less stressed at weaning. Sierra Day

It’s no secret fewer pasture acres are available in the Upper Midwest, where folks like to grow row crops. That makes it tough to expand a cattle herd on grass, but it turns out, beef producers have more options than they may think.

New research out of the University of Illinois has shown that beef producers can use alternative management systems throughout the summer and get comparative results to traditional pasture grazing.

The alternative management strategy? Keeping pairs on drylots, says Dan Shike, associate professor in animal science and lead researcher on this work, which was funded by the Iowa Beef Industry Council.

“We wanted to compare a traditional cow-calf grazing operation to a situation where we kept those cows in a confinement scenario,” he explains. They used a drylot at Orr Agricultural Research and Demonstration Center typically used for keeping cows in the winter. Drylot facilities tend to vary, but this one consists of a concrete lot with open-front sheds.

Spring-calving cow-calf pairs were used throughout the project — from May to August, repeated over two years, Shike says. These pairs were wintered in the drylot facility. At breeding time, half of the pairs went to pasture and the other half stayed in the same drylot.

From there, management between the groups changed.

The cows in the drylot were limit-fed a total mixed ration (TMR) formulated to fit maintenance requirements while their calves could nurse and had free access to the same ration in a creep pen, Shike says. The pasture pairs were rotationally grazed on cool-season pastures, primarily tall fescue. Those calves were able to nurse but didn’t receive creep feed until the final three weeks prior to weaning to help facilitate a smooth weaning transition.

They collected data throughout weaning and transfer to the feedlot.

Then they brought all pairs back to the drylot facility and fence-line-weaned both groups, Shike says. They sent calves to feedlots at the U of I campus and entered the receiving phase — a 42-day period of cattle being introduced to the feedlot.

What they found

The drylot pairs produced as well or better than the pairs on pasture. Shike shares seven key findings. In relation to the cows:

1. Body condition. The two years of the study were relatively good years for weather with typical dry stretches but nothing extensive. Drylot cows maintained their body condition score (BCS) of 5.9 from midsummer to weaning because they were being fed TMR for maintenance. The pasture cows went from a 5.9 BCS in midsummer to a 5.7 BCS at weaning. The loss of condition is due to weather and the decline of forage quality as summer went on.

2. Reproduction. Both groups had similar body weight and BCS at the time of AI, which occurred at the beginning of the study, but the weight of the pasture cows was slightly lighter when clean-up bulls were put in with the groups. Even so, pregnancy rates were similar. Drylot cows and pasture cows had an overall pregnancy rate of 92.6% and 95.9%, respectively.

3. Milk production. Milk production was noticeably different between the two groups, and the drylot cows outperformed the pasture cows. Why? Those cows had a slightly more consistent and higher nutritional plane due to their TMR diet.

Here’s what they discovered between the two calf groups:

4. Weight gain prior to weaning. The drylot calves with free access to creep feed had greater gains up until weaning — almost over half a pound a day higher in average daily gain (ADG).

5. Weaning response. The team hypothesized the drylot calves would transition more smoothly into weaning since they had already been in a drylot setting and had more experience eating TMR out of a bunk. And the drylot calves did seem to eat better than the pasture calves during weaning. The drylot calves also showed less stress to the weaning transition, which was determined by indicators such as vocalization, walking the fence line and lying down.

6. Transition of weaning to receiving. Shike says they were surprised at how the calves responded when they moved into the feedlot. The pasture calves showed less stress than the drylot calves. While this came as a surprise, they could reconcile it: The drylot calves had always been near their mothers, even during weaning, which made entering the feedlot the first real change for that group.

7. Performance during receiving phase. For 42 days after the calves arrived at the feedlots, the team tracked feed intake and weight gain to determine feed efficiency. Through these recordings, the pasture calves had an ADG of 4.65 pounds while drylot calves had an ADG of 4.14 pounds. This was due to compensatory gain, or faster-than-normal rate of gain, which occurs after a transition from eating less feed to eating more feed. However, the pasture calves didn’t completely catch up at the end of the phase. The drylot group averaged 812.4 pounds per calf, while the pasture calves averaged 759.9 pounds.

But the work also showed potential feet and leg concerns with drylot management.

The dairy industry has seen feet and leg issues due to more intensive, confined operations, Shike says. Beef producers considering drylots must be cautious.

“We did see a trend for some issues. Part of it was locomotion,” he explains. “It was primarily due to some foot issues — more foot rot and incidents of digital dermatitis in the drylot group.”

These concerns didn’t affect productivity. But Shike says they will help direct future research into the best bedding for a drylot and the best stocking rate.

You may wonder how drylot and traditional pasture management compare economically. Every situation varies greatly in terms of costs such as feed and pasture rent, Shike says. Plus, labor resources could be a factor.

Key takeaways

The good news is that the research clearly showed beef producers have other options for raising cow-calf pairs if pasture isn’t available.

“We can run a cow-calf operation in a variety of different settings. If you have pasture and available grazing acres, we know we can run cows there,” Shike says. But if you want to expand your herd and can’t find pastureland, then there are still alternative systems to meet your goals.

And drylot management could be the answer to help you expand your herd.

“The feasibility is there because if Midwest operations have some grazing acres, they probably also have some drylots they use in the winter and may sit empty in the summer,” Shike adds. “That might be a way to run a few more cows using that part of the facility year-round.”

About the Author(s)

Sierra Day

Field editor, Farm Progress

A 10th-generation agriculturist, Sierra Day grew up alongside the Angus cattle, corn and soybeans on her family’s operation in Cerro Gordo, Ill. Although she spent an equal amount in farm machinery as she did in the cattle barn as a child, Day developed a bigger passion for the cattle side of the things.

An active member of organizations such as 4-H, FFA and the National Junior Angus Association, she was able to show Angus cattle on the local, state and national levels while participating in contests and leadership opportunities that were presented through these programs.

As Day got older, she began to understand the importance of transitioning from a member to a mentor for other youth in the industry. Thus, her professional and career focus is centered around educating agriculture producers and youth to aid in prospering the agriculture industry.

In 2018, she received her associate degree from Lake Land College, where her time was spent as an active member in clubs such as Ag Transfer club and PAS. A December 2020 graduate of Kansas State University in Animal Sciences & Industry and Agricultural Communications & Journalism, Day was active in Block & Bridle and Agriculture Communicators of Tomorrow, while also serving as a communications student worker in the animal science department.

Day currently resides back home where she owns and operates Day Cattle Farm with her younger brother, Chayton. The duo strives to raise functional cattle that are show ring quality and a solid foundation for building anyone’s herd.

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