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Forage barley and field peas account for one year out of a five-year rotation in a study at North Dakota State University’s Dickinson Research Extension Center. The study indicates producers can add $900 to their returns on a single steer. Photo taken Aug. 1, 2018, at Dickinson, N.D. (Forum News Service/Agweek/Mikkel Pates)

Wintering calves, integrating crop/grazing can boost returns

DICKINSON, N.D.—If you're a cow-calf producer, Kris Ringwall wants you to consider keeping those yearlings over the winter.

The director of North Dakota State University's Dickinson Research Extension Center and Extension livestock specialist thinks it's your best shot to get full value for your forage resources. It would be easier for you, more money for you and the state. And a bonus: it could be better for the land and environment.

"It's a shift, you're shifting your mindset," Ringwall says. "All those pieces in your operation, they have to shift slowly."

Ringwall knows how slowly. He picked up his 40-year pin with the Extension Service last year and says researchers through his entire career have talked up the benefits backgrounding and feeding cattle.

Over the years, livestock and grassland researchers have tried to improve forage and have improved the quantity and quality through better soil health. Research shows that over the past decade, most producers who have sold calves from a cow-calf operation typically make $100 to $150 net on the cow. Those figures can vary significantly based on individual operations.

Ringwall thinks that with later calving the results might improve.

"If we make the cow-calf operation less labor-intensive ... and move that calving to a better time of year where we don't work so hard—to May, or when the grass grows—then we can take those calves, work them through the winter, and bring them into the cool season grasses so they gain well," Ringwall says. "You use your native range program and go into forage-based cover crops, some grazing-type cereals, then we can double that calf's weight."

Doug Landblom, an animal scientist at the Dickinson research center, has led a study of the costs and returns on such a system. The center's average weight for calves marketed in the November at weaning time is 567 pounds.

Alternatively holding them for the second year, through December of the next year, takes them to an average market weight of 1,275 pounds.

Here are some of the significant statistics:

• Cow costs are standard at about $600 per year and are slowly increasing but relatively stable within most ranch operations.

• In the Dickinson study, backgrounding costs averaged about $153 per steer from weaning to grass turn-out. "Our calves probably gain 1 pound or 1.5 pounds over the winter months. Once they get turned out on our cool season grasses, that's when you really get some gain out of those calves. We put them into a grass program."

• Keeping them on grass through the fall adds $285 in cost.

• Finishing them on corn in a feedyard in Wyoming added another $271—a final cost of about $1,312 per steer.

5-year rotation

More money is spent in a second year, but the returns are worth it. The Dickinson research center's three-year study averaged $2,224 per animal in gross returns. The net improvement on per-steer profit is about $900. Ringwall acknowledges that some of those returns were during higher-price times, but says the concept remains viable most of the time.

Ringwall says many cattle producers have some of their land in wheat or small grains, five years in a row. Those crop returns are dictated by commodity prices. Some of the cropped land would be better left in forages and grass. The Dickinson research center's rotation is spring wheat, cover crops, corn, field pea-barley and sunflower. The center fits the cattle into that rotation or gets a cash crop, depending on how the year goes.

Despite the research, the traditional cow-calf program is likely to persist, but Ringwall worries that even a $200 per cow profit under that system won't be enough to sustain cow-calf operations.

"We've seen a lot of beef producers give up the reins and say, 'No, it's not, I'm going to go do something else," he says.