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10 tips for managing high feed prices

published: July 11th 2022
by: Dr. Katie VanValin
source: University of Kentucky

We have all heard the phrase, “it’s the little things”. The saying applies to the beef industry as well. There is no single management practice, feed ration, or genetic trait that drives profitability. Profitability is really a summation of lots of little things coming together to create a profitable system. Whenever profitability is challenged, whether from greater input prices like we are seeing now, or lower calf prices, I start to get questions about decreasing feed costs. This should come as no surprise, as feed costs are one of the biggest expenses facing beef cattle operations. Below is a list of some of those little things that can really add up.

1) Pregnancy checking: Cows should be working for the operation. Thus, an open cow is one that is not pulling her weight on a cow-calf operation. Today, producers have more options than ever before for pregnancy checking their herds. New chute side blood tests can be completed right on the farm in about 10 minutes. There are also commercial labs that will run blood tests which provide results in just a couple of days. There is also ultrasound, which gives you a real time answer but does depend on scheduling and availability. Culling open cows not only decreases purchased feed costs but can also make our available forage resources go farther.

2) Buy in bulk: The ability to buy purchased feeds in bulk can allow producers to take advantage of bulk discounts offered by many feed retailers. Also having the ability to store feed on the farm/ranch can allow producers to purchase feed stuffs at the time that they are most economical as opposed to waiting until it is needed to be fed.


3) Get your hay tested: When talking with cow-calf producers about feed costs, one of the first things I ask them is, “Did you get your hay tested?”  Getting hay tested allows cattlemen to make strategic decisions about hay feeding. Cattle’s nutrient requirements fluctuate throughout the year so making sure that hay with the highest energy and protein concentrations is fed to the cattle  can go a long way in decreasing  supplemental feed costs. For example, hay test results from two different lots of hay are shown in the table 1.


Assuming that we are feeding 1250 lb. cows with a body condition score of 5, table 2 shows the amount of dried distillers grains that would be required to meet the energy and protein requirements of these cows in either mid-gestation, late gestation, or lactation.


Now, assuming that DDGS cost $280/T, table 3, shows the cost to supplement 30 cows per day.


These calculations show the importance of feeding the right hay, to the right cow, at the right time. Feeding Hay A during mid-gestation and saving hay B to be fed during lactation can have a drastic impact on the cost of supplementing the cow herd while also maintaining adequate body condition score. This calculation was simple and does not take into consideration things like environmental factors or age that can impact the energy and protein requirements of the cow herd.

4) Compare costs based on nutrients: When comparing feed stuffs, it is critical that comparisons are being made apples to apples. It is not enough to just look at cost per lb. orton. There are many factors that can impact the cost per lb. or ton of a feed ingredient. One of the biggest things to remember is that feed stuffs can have vastly different moisture contents, so how much of the feedstuff is actually water? To answer that question, we must compare the price of feeds on a cost per lb. of protein or energy basis.

For example, consider dried distiller grains at 90% dry-matter, and 28% crude protein for $280/T.

First calculate the lbs. of CP in one ton of dried distiller grains (on a DM basis).

2000 lb. * 0.90 = 1,800 lb.s of DM in a Ton; 1,800 lb DM * 0.28 = 504 lbs. of CP in ton.

Now calculate the cost per lb. of nutrient. Divide the cost of the feed by the lbs. of the nutrient in one ton.

$280 ($/Ton)/504 (lbs. of CP/T) = 0.56/ lb. CP.

Use this value when comparing feed stuffs to one another. Another important consideration is that sometimes we can’t take full advantage of a feed stuff in a ration. For example, whole cotton seeds are high in protein (~24%), but it is also very high in fat (~18%). Working with a nutritionist can be beneficial when evaluating the economics of feed ingredients.

5) Improve record keeping: The best cattle managers are often the best record keepers, and that is not coincidence. We can’t manage what we do not measure. Record keeping allows us to truly track feed costs as it can be a great way to subjectively identify those less efficient cows in the herd. You know the one, she’s had a few calves and she gets rebred, but a closer look at records might show that her calving interval is more like 425 days vs. the goal of 365 days. For example, if we had two 7-year-old cows and one had an average calving interval of 370 days and the other 425 days, the cow with the shorter calving interval would have had 5 calves vs. only 4 calves for the cow with the longer calving interval.

Luckily, technology has made record keeping easier than ever! There are a variety of  programs help producers track performance metrics, that can help to identify those less efficient or productive animals in the herd.

6) Cut the fluff: I’m talking about body condition score (BCS). Body condition score highly correlated to reproductive performance. Cows with a body condition score of less than 5 have a much lower chance of being bred. What about those heavy cows? Each BCS equal to about 75-100 lbs. of live body weight. When cows’ BCS increase, their maintenance requirements increase, feed intake increases, and even their susceptibility to heat stress increases. Thus, the cost to maintain that cow at a BCS of 7 or 8 will be greater than if she were maintained at BCS 5 or 6. One solution for managing BCS of the cow herd is to sort cows by BCS. Keep those cows that are thinner or heavier separate from the rest of the herd. This allows us to feed those cattle either more or less energy and protein to increase or moderate their BCS.

7) Prevent feed waste: Feed wastage is just money wasted. Now, understand that we will always have some feed wastage but there are ways to limit it and thus, limit the economic impact it has on the operation. Preventing feed wastage starts long before we start feeding. Storing hay under roof is one of the first things we can do to prevent wastage. For a 5 x 5 bale, 33% of the weight of that bale is found in the outermost 6”. When bales are stored outside and on the ground, we can easily see weathering of that outer 6”. Feed waste can also occur when feeding hay. Using hay rings can help prevent some losses, but not all bale rings are created equal. Designs that have solid metal skirting around the bottom are better than those that are open.

8) Keep back only what you need: Developing heifers can be a pricey undertaking. Keeping back only the number that you need can help to decrease the overall cost of developing heifers on the operation. However, sometimes it can still be advantageous to purchase bred heifers. This is a scenario that might require a little pencil pushing, but I encourage you to consider the costs of developing heifers on your operation vs. purchasing bred heifers. Also remember, that especially when input costs are high, keep back only what you need for your operation.

9) Extend the grazing season: Finding ways to extend the grazing season (efficiently), can be a great way to decrease your feed bill.

10) Don’t cut the minerals: Minerals are a required nutrient, just like energy and protein. It can be easy to forget about minerals or cut back on mineral supplementation when feed costs increase. The problem with this is that many feedstuffs are deficient in at least one or more minerals. Minerals are extremely important for optimal reproductive performance and growth. Unfortunately, early mineral deficiencies can be difficult to diagnose. This is because at first symptoms of mineral deficiency are what we call sub-clinical. This means that we aren’t losing cattle to mineral deficiencies and lab tests are not sensitive enough to detect these sub-clinical deficiencies. However, when herds have sub-clinical mineral deficiencies, we are undoubtedly leaving performance on the table. To avoid, sub-clinical mineral deficiencies provide a good quality complete mineral supplement to the herd 365 days of the year.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of strategies to manage feed costs, but it is a start and should give producers some things to evaluate on their own operation. Remember the small things and manage the things that we can control on our operations to help improve profitability. If you have any questions about these strategies, please reach out to your local county extension office.












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