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How do we put gain on cattle cheaply? Does it mean we limit spending on all inputs? Or does it mean we optimize spending to get our costs of gain as low as possible?

One of the cheapest resources to put weight on calves is perennial pasture. Budgets from research on fertilized warm-season grass pastures estimated costs to be $100/acre without supplementation, and costs increased to $150/acre when byproduct supplements were fed to calves.

In comparison, wheat pasture cost an average of $250/acre. Gains of unsupplemented calves on warm-season grass pasture were 1.1 pounds per day, with supplementation increasing gains to 1.8 lbs./day, while calves on wheat pasture gained 2.25 lbs./day. 

If we are trying to minimize our total expenses, it appears that grazing calves on warm-season pastures without supplementation is the way to go. But even with the higher cost of production per acre, supplementation of calves on pasture and grazing calves on wheat pasture resulted in costs of gain that were about half that ($0.50/lb.) of unsupplemented calves on pasture ($1/lb.). This translated to a net return per acre of $55 for supplemented calves grazing permanent pasture and $70/acre for calves on wheat pasture, compared with $30/acre for unsupplemented calves.

I calculated that a 10 percent change in performance (from 2 lbs. per day to 2.2 lbs. per day, or by 30 lbs. over a 150-day grazing period) can change net returns by around $25/head. In comparison, a 10 percent change in cost of gain (from $0.50/lb. to $0.55/lb.) can change net returns by $15/head. We can easily get an extra 0.2 lbs. per day using common growth promoting technologies. 

In the table are the results from an experiment conducted on wheat pasture, where the ionophore monensin was fed in a free-choice mineral to calves that were given a growth promoting implant or remained unimplanted. Monensin increased performance of unimplanted calves by 0.2 lbs./day. The implant increased calves’ gains by 0.4 lbs./day. 

Both feeding monensin and implanting together increased gains by a total of 0.6 lbs./day. The increased gains from monensin increased net returns by $20/head, implanting increased net returns by $24/head and both technologies together increased net returns by $42/head.

Health issues will impact performance. When evaluating the health records of multiple load lots of calves coming through stocker research facilities in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Mississippi, these impacts were found to be long reaching. 

Calves that were untreated or treated once for respiratory diseases gained over 2 lbs./day. Calves treated twice for respiratory disease gained 1.75 lbs./day, while calves treated three times gained 1.65 lbs./day. Also, calves treated two or more times had lower hot carcass weights and took more days on feed to finish. This reduced performance will result in increased cost of gain and reduced profitability.

When we hear we make money in the cattle business by “buying low and selling high,” “keeping ‘em alive” and “putting gain on ‘em cheap,” we often think, “That’s simple; everyone knows that!” It really may not be that easy. There is art in identifying and purchasing undervalued calves that are the “upgrading type of cattle,” as well as art and skill in keeping “mismanaged cattle” healthy and alive and skill in getting calves to perform with the lowest cost of gains. 

But these are goals to strive for, and it may take a lifetime to get the formula right. Paul Beck, Oklahoma State University Extension beef nutrition specialist

What do you think?


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