Cutting Cow Feed Costs - Do or Die for Ontario's Cow Herds

Is your winter feeding program the same today as in the winter of 2002-2003? The dry summer of 2012 has many producers thinking about their feed options. With feed being the major portion of the total cow/calf annual operating cost, changes may be required to feeding strategies. What can you do?

Below are five strategies to reduce costs, which are given in order of the time required for implementation, from short to long term.

  1. review mineral formulation
  2. substituting feeds/restricting hay
  3. reduce days of conserved feeds
  4. change calving season
  5. address cow factors

Review mineral formulation

Although ensuring proper mineral nutrition is critical to cow and calf health and performance, making sure the required minerals are actually being consumed in the correct proportions is also important to monitor. The first thing that must be done is to reconcile the recommended intakes provided by your feed supplier with what is actually happening. Your cows may be eating too much mineral overall, and even if they aren't, they may be over consuming several specific mineral elements. Then, based on your forage tests, expensive mineral constituents such as phosphorus may be excluded or reduced, creating a custom mineral which matches your feed. While it may be more expensive per bag to go this route, it will likely be less expensive per cow per day due to a reduced delivery rate per cow per day.

Another benefit of fine tuning mineral intake and composition for your cows is ensuring that the required amounts of critical trace elements such as selenium are being supplemented. To better understand this opportunity you need to reconcile requirements and intake using all sources on a mineral-by-mineral basis. "Meeting Mineral Requirements at Pasture" a Virtual Beef article in July of 2009 (Volume 8, Issue 23) explained how this might be done during the pasture season, but keep in mind the conserved feed usage period will likely require supplementation of Vitamins A and E. Also keep in mind all of this is dependant on feed testing for mineral levels; book values or averages are simply not good enough.

Substituting feeds/restricting hay

Feeding hay is expensive! In most cases it is no longer a "cheap feeding strategy", and it may actually be less expensive to pull other feeds like corn silage or commodities into the cow ration, with hay limit fed. Presently, corn silage is less expensive to produce per unit of dry matter than hay in many parts of Ontario, and certainly cheaper per unit of TDN (energy). However, corn silage or any other grain commodity or by-product must be used with limit-fed hay or in a TMR (total mixed ration). The beef cow does not have a tremendously high nutrient requirement, but she does have a great appetite! Unlimited access to high energy feeds will result in over fat cows, wasted feed dollars and calving problems. Since appetite is not necessarily a measure of need, we need to restrict overall feed intake when offering high quality forages, corn silage, or high energy opportunity feeds. What this means is that if feed access is restricted to the herd, sufficient bunk space has to be provided for all cows to get the opportunity to eat their share. Limit feeding of hay in conjunction with other feeds may reduce winter feeding costs in beef cows compared to free-choice hay.

Image of Mixed Ration

Figure 1. Total mixed ration containing 60% grass haylage, 40% chopped wheat straw and 0.5% vitamin/mineral premix. (photo courtesy of Katherine Wood)

Reduce days of conserved feeds

Going forward, this may be the most important strategy of the five! As mentioned above, feeding hay is expensive business and that is a function of harvest cost. The best way to avoid harvesting cost is to let the cows do the work. The effectiveness of a farm's pasture program and ability to keep that expensive hay out of the mouths of cows is considered by many to be the primary predictor of profit on a cow enterprise. Starting with the crown jewel of perennial pasture, numerous annual forages and crop residues can keep precious hay away from those insatiable cows. The other jewels of the grazing crown are described in detail the recent Virtual Beef article "Rotational Grazing Primer" from May of 2010 (Volume 8, Issue 25 )which also includes links to other excellent material.

Cow Grazing Corn Stubble

Figure 2. Cows grazing corn stubble.

Reducing days on conserved feeds is the most important strategy in reducing the beef cow's feed bill. Even cash crop land can fit into this part of the plan effectively.

Change calving season

The killer in winter feeding programs is the cost associated with the act of conserving feeds (harvesting and storage costs). The most expensive period during which to feed the cow is lactation. Whether using all hay, or a commodity plus restricted hay feeding program, the high cost associated with lactation remains because so much total feed, energy and protein is required. The only meaningful way to reduce this high lactation ration cost is to have more of the lactation period occurring on pasture, in other words, spring calving as opposed to winter, and certainly not fall. Separate from days on pasture as suggested in strategy #3, this strategy actually moves peak intake and requirements more in line with peak fresh forage growth and thus lower forage costs. Looking at the sample rations in Table 1 comparing dry lot lactation to pasture lactation, and taken in conjunction with a George Morris Centre report on cow-calf cost projections adapted in Table 2, you can see the potential impact.

Table 1. Three separate rations calculated to address the needs of a cow in lactation*
Standard Hay
Poor Quality Hay
Lactating Cow:
1200 lbs
moderate milking
148 lbs pasture

0.07 lbs TM salt

33.0 lbs good hay

0.34 lbs premix

21.5 lbs mature hay
9.0 lbs corn grain
2.0 lbs DDGS
0.34 lbs premix
Cost / cow / day2

*Needs of the calf (creep) are not assumed nor is bedding. For larger cows as more typical in Ontario, the intake could be scaled up over moderate size increases. (eg 1200 to 1500).
1This would assume the lactation needs to be supported long-term on a mature hay (July cutting) with moderate condition (weight loss) to the cow, similar in performance to an all-hay ration.
2 Feeds are values as follows: Hay = $120/tonne (5.5¢ per lb.), Corn = $220 /tonne, Dried distillers grain w. solubles (DDGS) = $220/tonne, Vitamin/Mineral premix = $850/tonne, High selenium TM salt = $9 per 25 kg bag, and pasture is valued at $8.80 per tonne wet weight.

Address cow factors

In the longer term, choices around replacements and wintering sites may also help reduce the feed bill. These strategies are of a magnitude that deserves their own article . The Virtual Beef articles: "Cow Size: A Piece of the Cow-calf Efficiency Puzzle" (February 2010: Volume 8, Issue 24) and "Selecting and Culling for Efficient Cows" (November 2009: Volume 8, Issue 24) can serve as starting points on the discussion regarding the importance of the cow herself.

Table 2. Feeding costs by calving month*
Calving Month
Feed Costs
$ per head
Other Costs
$ per head

*adapted from "Ontario Cattle Costs and Returns" prepared by Al Mussell, Anatoliy Oginskyy, and Graeme Hedley of the George Morris Centre. Presented at the Dec. 2009 Beef Research Update in Guelph, and also presented at the 2010 Ontario Cattlemen's Association Annual General Meeting. The complete presentation also contained revenue and returns by months, omitted here for simplicity. In all cases the feeding period (calf age) is constant at 8.2 months at sale, and the original report also factored in seasonal calf premiums at sale.

So what?

Cows feed costs are a make or break part of the cow-calf operation. As a whole, Ontario's cow operators need to, and can do better. Without the advantages of a low Canadian dollar and cheap commodities, some significant changes need to be made in the feeding of the Ontario beef cows for this to be a profitable venture. The strategies discussed here (reviewing mineral formulation, substituting feeds/restricting hay, increasing days at pasture, spring calving and cow factors) need to be the priorities in forming the basis of a genuine action plan to control feed costs. Finding a way to reduce the feed bill is the only way that Ontario cow operators can do to wind back the financial clock to the situation which existed around eight years ago.

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