Like most cow-calf producers, the North Dakota State University Dickinson Research Extension Center has seen plenty of red ink lately in its beef enterprise due to high feed costs.
DREC lost $300 per head on yearling steers managed the traditional way. The steers were weaned and wintered on cornstalks and hay and were placed in a feedlot in the spring.
But the DREC lost only $30 per head on steers that went back out on cool grass in the spring, were moved to warm-season grass in the summer and only then went to the feedlot.
And on steers that went on to graze an annual forage after coming off the warm-season grass the DREC lost only $9 per head.
Kris Ringwall, director of the DREC, explains the program in more detail a recent Beef Talk column distributed by the NDSU Extension Service. Here's his report:
Doug Landblom, DREC animal scientist, has been managing yearling steers the last couple of years. The steers are overwintered on a growing ration that has kept gains to less than a pound a day.
Basically, the steers have had access to cornfields and supplemental forage. Their health and vigor has been excellent, but they're just not growing very fast.
One-third of the steers were sent directly to the feedlot in early spring and harvested in early fall. The other two-thirds of the steers were turned out to cool-season grass followed by warm-season grass.
The grass steers then were divided. Half of the steers were removed from the warm-season grass and sent to graze on annual crops until the end of the grazing season in late October. All the grass steers were shipped to the feedlot in November and essentially harvested in early winter.
The steers that grazed on annual forages where harvested about a month earlier than those steers that were on perennial grass. The thought behind the research was to evaluate the potential to keep steers on the home place longer than traditionally done, which is to background the weaned calves through the winter months and then send them to the feedlot.
In visiting with Doug, these past couple of years may have been a little tough on the traditional system because of escalating feed prices, but it is what it is.
The center lost about $300 a head on those early feedlot steers. Their performance was fair. They gained 3.8 pounds a day, had feed conversions of 6.9 pounds fed per pound of gain and an average yield grade of 2.4, and graded out at 65.6% choice quality or better.
The internal debate tends to center on the grass steers versus a traditional cow-calf system, which keeps all the grass for the cows and calves. In this case, some of the grass that traditionally would have been fed to the cows and calves was fed to last year's steers, which forced a reduction in cow-calf pairs.
Was that wise? The answer remains elusive for now because the more immediate question was the performance of the yearling steers on grass. Those steers that were on perennial grass averaged gains of 1.7 pounds per day for the grazing season. Once they arrived at the feedlot, they gained 4.6 pounds a day. They had a feed conversion of 6.2 pounds fed per pound of gain, with an average yield grade of 2.9, and graded out at 82.1 percent choice quality or better. These steers lost the center $30 per head.
The steers allowed to graze on higher-quality annual forage from mid-August until the end of the grazing season averaged gains of 2.2 pounds per day. Once they arrived in the feedlot, they gained 4.4 pounds a day, had a feed conversion of 6.2 pounds fed per pound of gain and an average yield grade of 2.8, and graded out at 86.5% choice quality or better. The center made $9 per head on this set of steers.
There was no difference in meat tenderness or sensory panel evaluations of any steers from the three management systems. What does it all mean? Grass works and steer calves make good yearlings.
If kept as yearlings, at least for this set of steers, the grass steers added about 140 pounds more live weight at harvest or just less than 80 pounds more hot carcass weight. The grass cattle also graded higher, with about 17% more choice grade or higher carcasses.