Feed costs represent more than half of the total cost in a cow/calf production system. The majority of feed costs are from feeding cows during the winter season, when most grasses are dormant. As a result, University of Illinois Extension commercial agriculture educator Travis Meteer said producers can greatly affect operation profitability by managing winter feed costs.
Meteer offered some options for developing a least-cost ration on a farm.
“Depending on your farm setup, available equipment and your willingness to purchase diesel fuel, your least-cost ration may look very different from your neighbors’,” Meteer said. “Availability and proximity to co-product feeds, such as corn gluten feed and dried distillers grains, may also shift your diet makeup.”
Hay is the traditional winter feed of choice, but its variable quality can lead to problems. “If hay is not sufficient in protein, energy and other nutrients, then cows may be malnourished," Meteer explained. “This may occur even though cows have all they can eat. Poor-quality forage and crop residues have a high proportion of fiber to protein, thus slowing digestion.”
Consequently, cows can eat only 1.5% of their bodyweight per day of low-quality forage. If the forage is of high quality, cows can consume around 3% of their bodyweight daily. “Poor-quality hay likely needs to be supplemented to meet cow requirements,” Meteer added.
With supplementation, cows can actually digest more low-quality forage — up to 2% of their bodyweight. Meteer explained that grain supplementation should be no more than 0.5% of the cow's bodyweight. “If the forage is of such poor quality that more supplementation is required, you should consider using co-products to avoid negative associative effects that occur when using grains,” he added.
“The most economical way to feed cows is to keep them grazing. Brassicas and small grains with corn stalks can be used to provide fall and winter grazing very economically,” Meteer said. “If the cattle need to be fed due to snow cover or other factors related to your farm, you should develop a low-cost method of feeding the cows. If your cows are thin or heavy milking, you will need higher-energy diets than the examples. If your cows are larger than the example, they will need proportionally more feed.”
Read more about winter feeding at https://web.extension.illinois.edu/oardc/eb275/entry_11983.