10 Tips for managing high feed prices

There is no secret to profitability in the cattle business, it's everything coming together to make a profit.

May 18, 2022

10 Min Read
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We have all heard the phrase, “it’s the little things”. The saying applies to the beef industry as well. There is no single management practice, feed ration, or genetic trait that drives profitability. Profitability is really a summation of lots of little things coming together to create a profitable system. Whenever profitability is challenged whether from greater input prices like we are seeing now, or lower calf prices, I start to get questions about decreasing feed costs. This should come as no surprise, as feed costs are one of the biggest expenses facing beef cattle operations. Below is a list of some of those little things, that can really add up!

1) Preg checking:

Our cows should be working for the operation. Thus, an open cow is one that is not pulling her weight on a cow-calf operation. Today producers have more options than ever before for preg checking their herds. New chute side blood tests can be completed right on the farm in about 10 minutes, there are also commercial labs that will run blood tests giving you results in just a couple of days, and of course there is always ultrasound which gives you a real time answer but does depend on scheduling and availability. Culling open cows not only decreases purchased feed costs but can also make our available forage resources go farther as well.

2) Buy in bulk:

The ability to buy purchased feeds in bulk can allow producers to take advantage of bulk discounts offered by many feed retailers. Also having the ability to store feed on the farm can allow producers to purchase feed stuffs at the time that they are most economical as opposed to waiting until it is needed to be fed.

3) Get your hay tested:

When talking with cow-calf producers about feed costs, one of the first things I ask them is, “Did you get your hay tested?”. Getting hay tested allows us to make strategic decisions about hay feeding. Cattle’s nutrient requirements fluctuate throughout the year, so making sure that hay with the highest energy and protein concentrations is fed to the cattle on our farm with the highest energy and protein requirements can go a long way in decreasing our supplemental feed costs. For example, hay test results from two different lots of hay are shown in the table 1.

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Assuming that we are feeding 1250 lb cows with a body condition score of 5, table 2 shows the amount dried distillers grains that would be required to meet the energy and protein requirements of these cows in either mid-gestation, late gestation, or lactation.

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Now, assuming that DDGS cost $280/T, table 3, shows the cost to supplement 30 cows per day.

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These calculations show the importance of feeding the right hay, to the right cow, at the right time. Feeding Hay A during mid-gestation and saving hay B to be fed during lactation can have a drastic impact on the cost of supplementing the cow herd while also maintaining adequate body condition score. This calculation was simple and does not take into consideration things like environmental factors or age that can impact the energy and protein requirements of the cow herd. In Kentucky many of our county extension offices of hay testing probes and may offer assistance with submitting hay samples to the lab. Work with your county agent, or use the University of Kentucky Beef Cow Supplementation tool online to help make management decisions based on your hay test results

4) Compare costs based on nutrients:

When comparing feed stuffs, it is critical that comparisons are being made apples to apples. It is not enough to just look at cost per lb or ton. There are many factors that can impact the cost per lb or ton of a feed ingredient. One of the biggest things to remember is that feed stuffs can have vastly different moisture contents, so how much of the feedstuff is actually water? For example, in Kentucky, stillage is a widely available feedstuff and has a moisture content of about 90-94%, whereas dried distiller grains would only have a moisture content of about 10-12%. It’s reasonable to expect the price per ton for those high moisture feeds. to be less than drier feeds, but is it a better deal? To answer that question, we must compare the price of feeds on a cost per lb of protein or energy basis.

For example, consider dried distiller grains at 90% dry-matter, and 28% crude protein for $280/T.

First calculate the lbs of CP in one ton of dried distiller grains (on a DM basis).

2000 lb * 0.90 = 1,800 lbs of DM in a Ton; 1,800 lb DM * 0.28 = 504 lbs of CP in ton.

Now calculate the cost per lb of nutrient. Divide the cost of the feed by the lbs of the nutrient in one ton.

$280 ($/Ton)/504 (lbs of CP/T) = 0.56/ lb CP.

Use this value when comparing feed stuffs to one another. Another important consideration is that sometimes we can’t take full advantage of a feed stuff in a ration. For example whole cotton seeds are high in protein (~24%), but it is also very high in fat (~18%). Recently I was working on a ration for a producer, and whole cottonseed what less expensive than other protein sources when comparing them on the cost per lb of protein. However, because of the high fat content, inclusion of whole cottonseed in the diet must be limited. At the end of the day, the low inclusion level of whole cottonseed, prevented it from being a truly more economical option in this situation. Working with a nutritionist can be beneficial when evaluating the economics of feed ingredients.

5) Improve record keeping:

The best cattle managers are often the best record keepers, and that is not coincidence. We can’t manage what we do not measure. Record keeping allows us to truly track feed costs, it can be a great way to subjectively identify those less efficient cows in the herd. You know the one, she’s had a few calves and she gets rebred, but a closer look at records might show that her calving interval is more like 425 days vs. the goal of 365 days. For example, if we had two 7-year-old cows and one had an average calving interval of 370 days and the other 425 days, the cow with the shorter calving interval would have had 5 calves vs. only 4 calves for the cow with the longer calving interval.

Luckily, technology has allowed record keeping to be easier than ever! Many of these programs help producers track performance metrics, that can help to identify those less efficient or productive animals in the herd. The University of Kentucky has recently launched X10D, which is a new program that encompasses whole farm record keeping along with educational resources from University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension, and forums to connect with other producers. For more information about X10D, visit www.X10D.org, or ask your local county extension agent.

6) Cut the fluff:

I’m talking about body condition score (BCS). Body condition score highly correlated to reproductive performance. Cows with a body condition score of less than 5, have a much lower chance of being bred. What about those heavy cows? Each BCS equal to about 75-100 lbs of live body weight. When cows’ BCS increase their maintenance requirements increase, feed intake increases, and even their susceptibility to heat stress increases. Thus, the cost to maintain that cow at a BCS of 7 or 8 will be greater than if she were maintained at BCS 5 or 6. One solution for managing BCS of the cow herd is to sort cows by BCS. Keep those cows that are thinner or heavier separate from the rest of the herd. This allows us to feed those cattle either more or less energy and protein to increase or moderate their BCS.

7) Prevent feed waste:

Feed wastage is just money wasted. Now, understand that we will always have some feed wastage but there are ways to limit this wastage and thus, limit the economic impact it has on the operation. Preventing feed wastage starts long before we start feeding. Storing hay under roof is one of the first things we can do to prevent wastage. For a 5 x 5 bale, 33% of the weight of that bale is found in the outermost 6”. When bales are stored outside and on the ground, we can easily see weathering of that outer 6”. Feed waste can also occur when feeding hay, using hay rings can help prevent some losses, but not all bale rings are created equal. Designs that have solid metal skirting around the bottom are better than those that are open.

8) Keep back only what you need:

Developing heifers can be a pricey undertaking. Keeping back only the number that you need can help to decrease the overall cost of developing heifers on the operation. However, sometimes it can still be advantageous to purchase bred heifers. I think about this, especially in years where forage resources may not be as abundant. We have truly been blessed here in the mid-south over the last several years, with at times having too much rain. However, years like 2012 are still in recent memory. This is a scenario that might require a little pencil pushing, but I encourage you to consider the costs of developing heifers on your operation vs. purchasing bred heifers. Also remember, that especially when input costs are high, keep back only what you need for your operation.

9) Extend the grazing season:

Finding ways to extend the grazing season (efficiently), can be a great way to decrease your feed bill. One of the easiest ways to this is taking advantage of tall fescue’s ability to stockpile. One common misconception when it comes to stockpiling fescue is that it requires nitrogen application. With today’s nitrogen prices, that might sound like a deterrent. Although fescue responds well to nitrogen application, it will still stockpile (to a lesser degree) even without this step. Use strip grazing to efficiently utilize stockpiled tall fescue and extend the grazing season.

10) Don’t cut the minerals:

Minerals are a required nutrient, just like energy and protein. It can be easy to forget about minerals or cut back on mineral supplementation when feed costs increase. The problem with this is that many feedstuffs are deficient in at least one or more minerals. In Kentucky we are especially concerned with selenium and copper. These are the two most common deficiencies observed in cattle in the state. Supplements like white salt blocks and even trace mineralized salt blocks, simply do not have enough of these (and other) minerals to ensure that the animal’s requirements are being met. Minerals are extremely important for optimal reproductive performance, and growth. Unfortunately, early mineral deficiencies can be difficult to diagnose. This is because at first symptoms of mineral deficiency are what we call sub-clinical. This means that we aren’t losing cattle to mineral deficiencies and lab tests are not sensitive enough to detect these sub-clinical deficiencies. However, when herds have sub-clinical mineral deficiencies, we are undoubtedly leaving performance on the table. To avoid, sub-clinical mineral deficiencies provide a good quality complete mineral supplement to the herd 365 days of the year. The University of Kentucky Beef IRM mineral recommendations are developed to give producers across the entire state a good starting place for selecting a good quality mineral supplement. Dr. Lehmkuhler and I meet at least once a year to discuss the mineral recommendations and take into consideration the latest mineral research, as well as economic and supply chain considerations when revising these recommendations.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of strategies to manage feed costs, but it is a start and should give producers some things to evaluate on their own operation. Remember the small things and manage the things that we can control on our operations to help improve profitability.

Source: University of Kentuckywhich is solely responsible for the information provided and is wholly owned by the source. Informa Business Media and all its subsidiaries are not responsible for any of the content contained in this information asset. 

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