Count Pennies to Cut Cow Costs This Winter

By Dr. Steve Sachtleben, Kent Beef Nutritionist

In today’s economic picture for commercial cow/calf producers, the measure of profitability can be tied to small changes. This segment of the market has enjoyed profitability for many recent years due to cheap feed costs and being paid a premium for their product, a live calf. With the advent of high feed costs and a softening of the feeder market, cow/calf producers must rethink their production strategies. There are numerous ways to cut costs and for the sake of this article most will pertain to feed inputs.

Use Co-Products

With the proliferation of ethanol plants in the central U.S., gluten and distillers grains are available to producers. Both wet and dry versions are acceptable to cows and which one you use is dependent on what’s available from the closest plant, the cost delivered and the storage/usage rate. Wet products do not have the storage life of dry gluten or distillers but often are less expensive per unit of dry matter purchased. Wet products can mold and moldy co-products must not be used in pregnant heifers or cows as abortions may occur. If these co-products are less expensive per ton of dry matter than corn and their use does not cause management issues, enhanced profitability for the operation should occur.

Reduce Forage Waste

Have you ever watched cattle eat hay from a round bale feeder?  How much waste is observed?  Many experts say 20-30% of the forage is trampled into the ground/manure thus losing feeding value. To properly store bales it requires a site that has been developed with drainage in mind. Do not have the bales touch, preferably leaving 1.5 feet of space for air circulation. Having space between the bales also allows rain and snow to go to the ground rather than being held up touching the hay. Know what your bale weighs so feeding becomes more accurate and limits wastage.

Utilize Crop Residues

Think of the tons of corn and bean residues left on the ground after harvest!  We continue to throw this material away year after year. Corn stover contains about 5%-6% protein and almost hay-like NEg values. Not great, but if properly supplemented with co-products, corn and a co-product balancer can make a feed that’s quite adequate. It is paramount that the cow’s body condition be maintained and not allowed to slide. Crop residues should be put through a grinding process to enhance digestibility. The use of low moisture tubs like EnergiLass should be encouraged as these improve fiber digestibility by as much as 20% (Kansas State University).

Know Your Cow Herd

You cannot afford to keep a cow for a year without having a viable calf. These cows should be culled (fed out for market) and replacements brought into the herd. Females in a herd are not all the same weight and body condition. To save feed and money, cows should be fed according to their body condition (gain or lose weight). On both ends of the body condition score index, females will not breed and maintain a calf efficiently. Dry cows require less “groceries” than a lactating cow. Develop diets for each stage of production and age and feed accordingly. Get a scale!

Mineral Supplementation

Most feed programs for cows can be formulated to provide all protein, energy, and fiber with local inputs only requiring the purchase of a free-choice mineral. These minerals should be chosen for the geographic location and stage of production. Some locations are low in selenium and copper and other areas have surpluses of these trace minerals. Prior to and during breeding, research data have shown benefits from feeding complexed trace minerals to cows. Diets with co-products require a mineral with high calcium, no phosphorus, and fortified with thiamine to aid in preventing incidences of polio. This is an area where skimping must be avoided.

Forage Analysis

All forages are obviously not the same. Forages taken from the same field two years apart may not be the same as fertilization with commercial products or manure can change the nutrient content. Forages should be analyzed annually for protein, moisture, calcium, and phosphorus as a bare minimum. Build your nutritional supplementation around these assays. If using various energy sources, have these assayed as well and utilize the appropriate free-choice mineral.

Management Tools

Anything to enhance the efficiency of production should be used by the cow/calf producer if they are cost-effective and legal. Implants and the use of Rumensin or Bovatec should be employed religiously. Either option can save 5-10% on the cost of production. Together, they are at least additive. The use of implants should be the result of strategic planning based on the goals for each calf (i.e.; herd replacement, age of the calf, etc.). Calves headed toward a natural beef program cannot generally use implants or ionophores during their lifetime to qualify.


To tighten one’s belt in the cow/calf industry in order to maximize savings means to take into account feedstuffs, proper nutrition, growth and/or production phase, and management tools. They are all interrelated and impact one another and can make the difference between profit and loss.