April 23, 2018
Cattle on feed and slow herd expansion
By Derrell S. Peel, Oklahoma State University Extension Livestock marketing specialist
The April 1 inventory of feedlots over 1,000 head capacity was 11.729 million head, up 7.4 percent from last year. This report was very close to pre-report estimates and contained no surprises. Feedlot marketings in March were 96.1 percent of last year, just about even with last year considering that there was one less March business day in 2018 compared to one year ago. March placements were 90.7 percent of last year. While close to expectations, this placement number is significant because it breaks a string of twelve consecutive months of year over year placement increases.
Decreased March placements are not an indication of fewer total cattle supplies but rather are a confirmation of the change in feedlot timing in recent months. Larger, drought-enhanced placements in recent months have built up feedlot inventories and have set the stage for larger than normal seasonal peak marketings in May and June. Lower March placements are a reminder that, while the timing of feedlot production has changed somewhat with cattle entering the feedlot earlier than usual recently, fewer cattle are now available for placement and the overall number of cattle is unchanged.
The April 1 quarterly breakdown shows that the number of steers on feed was 4.1 percent higher year over year, similar to the 4.4 percent increase on Jan. 1. Heifer feedlot inventories were up 14.0 percent compared to one year ago. Heifers on feed began to increase sharply in mid-2017 with higher quarterly inventories July 1 (+10.6 percent) and Oct. 1 (+13.0 percent) as well as Jan. 1, 2018 (+16.0 percent) and now April. The increase in heifers in feedlots is indicative of the slowdown in heifer retention in 2017 and continuing in 2018.
The heifer slaughter that follows from increased heifers in feedlots provides an indication of the status of herd expansion in 2018. In the past twelve months, heifers have represented an average of 34.3 percent of total steer and heifer slaughter. Over the course of a cattle cycle, heifers account for about 37 percent of total yearling slaughter, a level that generally represents a stable herd size. This percentage varies from roughly 31 percent during rapid herd expansion to about 40 percent during herd liquidation. The current level of heifer slaughter is up from a recent low of 31.4 percent in mid-2016 but is still less than the long-term average and certainly below levels that would suggest herd liquidation. Heifer slaughter is increasing but is still at a level that suggests limited but slightly positive herd growth.
The other component of herd inventory change is cow slaughter. Beef cow slaughter for the year to date is up 10.6 percent year over year. At the current pace, beef cow culling in 2018 would continue to climb from the low levels of recent years (record low in 2015) and return to normal levels this year. Both heifer slaughter and beef cow slaughter patterns thus far are consistent with the idea of positive but small continued beef cow herd expansion in 2018.
Early weaning for the beef herd
by Glenn Selk, Oklahoma State University Emeritus Extension animal scientist
This article could probably be titled “What to Do If All Else Fails.” Certainly, no one ever plans to find themselves in a drought and/or wildfire, short of forage, and with a group of cows too thin to breed. It does happen, however, and early weaning of calves at six to eight weeks of age is an effective way to get high rebreeding rates, even in very thin cows. Although early weaning is certainly not advocated for all producers all of the time, it can provide an attractive alternative in certain situations such as drought, when large amounts of purchased forage would be necessary to maintain a cow herd through to normal weaning time or when cows are already too thin to rebreed. Studies at Oklahoma State University show that early-weaned calves can be efficiently raised to a normal weaning weight with minimal labor and facilities. The procedure used at OSU is outlined here.
Why Early Weaning Works
Lactation roughly doubles the daily energy and protein requirement for a typical beef cow. Removing the calf at six to eight weeks into lactation obviously reduces the quantity and quality of forage needed to maintain the cow herd. Reasons for improved rebreeding after early weaning involve more than nutrition, however. Research has shown that the removal of the nursing calf and therefore the removal of stimuli of the nerves in the udder causes hormonal changes in the cows that allow estrus cycles to begin. Estrus activity can then be induced in cows too thin to cycle while still suckling a calf. Producers that use artificial insemination will observe that many “early-weaned” cows will “short cycle” and show heats about 10 to 12 days apart after the first estrus. Subsequent heat cycles are usually normal. Therefore, breeding on the first heat after early weaning is discouraged.
Age for Early Weaning
In order to maintain a 365-day calving interval, calves should be early weaned at less than 80 days of age. About 40 days of age may be a practical minimum for early weaning in beef herds. Calves at least 40 days old do not require milk replacers in the ration and are old enough to eat dry feed. Since smaller and younger calves may have difficulty competing for feed and water, the age range in any given group of early-weaned calves should be kept as narrow as possible.
Managing the Early Weaned Calf
The procedures described in this section were developed from three studies conducted at the Range Cow Research Center at Oklahoma State University. Two studies were conducted with spring-born calves early weaned in April and May while the third study involved fall-born calves early weaned in December.
The most critical time is the first two weeks after early weaning. Calves must overcome the stress of weaning and learn to eat feed very quickly. However, with good management to reduce stress and to provide palatable feed, early weaning is not as risky as might first be feared.
At the time of early weaning, all calves should be vaccinated for blackleg and malignant edema. Consult your veterinarian for other suggested vaccinations. It is probably a good idea to vaccinate two weeks prior to early weaning anyway because immunity will be established by weaning time and calves will not be subjected to the added stress associated with vaccines, injections and handling at weaning time. All calves not intended for breeding replacements or destined to “all-natural” programs could be implanted.
Calves should be first placed in a small pen with some type of shelter available. Small pens are preferred over larger lots because large lots or traps encourage fence walking and make it more difficult for calves to find feed and water. The feed bunk and water source need to be easily accessible and recognizable.
Previously, the OSU early weaning program utilized three weaning rations starting with a high concentrate ration for the first few days when feed intake is very low. More research has shown that performance is better when a single ration is used throughout. This also makes management of the program much easier. Example rations for early-weaned calves can be found in the Oklahoma State University Fact Sheet ANSI-3031, “Nutrition and Management Considerations for Preconditioning Home Raised Beef Calves.” Look specifically at Table 3 in this fact sheet.
Expect Improvements in Cow Performance
Early weaning increased conception rates of very thin first-calf heifers from 59 percent to 97 percent and shortened the days to first estrus by 17 days. The mature cows were judged to be in moderate condition. All the early weaned mature cows rebred; while only 83 percent of the cows that raised calves rebred. Many of the cows cycled within three days of early weaning, indicating that extra bull power may be needed for a few days following early weaning.
As mentioned in the first paragraph, early weaning is not for everybody. However, those herds that have been affected by drought and wildfires may benefit by allowing thin, but otherwise healthy young cows to re-cycle and re-breed for next year’s calf crop.
Cow-Calf Corner is a newsletter by the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Agency.