Declining corn prices are giving beef producers opportunity to rethink feeding strategies. Justin Waggoner, Kansas State University (KSU) beef specialist, said alternative feed costs are likely to follow the corn pricing trend.
"A lot of byproducts and livestock feeds are priced in relation to corn markets," Waggoner said. "So as prices change, livestock producers may see advantages in modifying feeding strategies. There are many more feed products available to producers today than there were 15 or 20 years ago. Those include DDGs, corn gluten and in some areas canola is becoming more available. In reviewing feed costs, the best way to compare feed sources is on a cost per unit nutrient basis, such as the cost of a unit of crude protein or TDN."
Waggoner also encourages beef producers to consider how they can manage feed costs based on variations in cow nutrition needs. Understanding how nutrient requirements differ from the time cows are lactating, dry, pregnant and then lactating again may allow for less costly feeds at different points in that cycle.
"Many times, as producers, we get locked into a mindset that what we've always done is what we should always do," Waggoner said. "Producers are sometimes reluctant to ask for help in organizing a feeding strategy, which means they aren't able to take advantage of the knowledge of Extension specialists and nutritionists. It's not unusual for producers to hesitate when they consider trying something new."
Waggoner points to weaning practices as one area where producers may find opportunities to save on feed costs by reviewing the purpose of and cost of weaning plans.
"In Kansas we just came through our third consecutive year of drought," Waggoner said. "Traditionally, Kansas beef producers have weaned calves the first part of October or early November. Because of a shortage of feed, they've been rethinking that plan, asking why they've used that practice and how it works in the current weather situation."
Kansas beef producers have found that calves can be weaned at an earlier age and do well when placed on feed.
"Early weaning spares cow condition and offers numerous other benefits," Waggoner said. "In some practices, there are good reasons why it's done a specific way. In others, there may be quite an advantage to making a change. Change should start with asking why things are done the way they are."
Since feed costs are a livestock producer's largest expense, saving even .2 to .3 cents per head per day can add up over the long term.
"For a smaller producer who doesn't have access to a nutritionist, there are Extension services available in most Midwestern states where they can obtain free information about ration nutrition," Waggoner said. "There are also a multitude of resources available through the Internet and feed companies."
While it takes time and effort, beef producers may find multiple benefits in the pursuit of a thorough knowledge of cow nutrition and economic strategies for providing adequate nutrients.
"Reviewing feed costs and gaining thorough knowledge of how to meet cow nutrient requirements makes us better cattlemen," Waggoner said. "If we continually challenge ourselves to improve on what we're doing, it will force us to learn more. In today's cattle market, there can be great reward for being on the front end of a profit curve. That's not to say that leading changes doesn't come without risk."
A tool beef producers can take advantage of to assess opportunity and risk for their operation is analysis and review of long term data.
"This is especially true for cow/calf operators," Waggoner said. "I know producers often question whether or not data such as weaning weight is worth the time to record and track. But that's the kind of data that helps evaluate the system and allows us to determine what does or doesn't work. Without having that kind of information and being familiar with what's actually happening in your herd, it's difficult to know if a new feed source is really an opportunity.
"Producers shouldn't be hesitant to ask about the value of a new feed source or new practice," Waggoner added. "Information about livestock feed options is much more available than it has been in the past. There's little reason not to explore new options."