Shifting to dry lots

CARRINGTON, N.D. -- Cow-calf production is most often done on pastures, but an ongoing study at the North Dakota State University Research Extension Center in Carrington is proving that it can also be done in a dry lot.

Feed lot
A three-year study at North Dakota State University's Carrington Research Extension Center is showing how a dry-lot operation can allow producers to maintain or expand a cow-calf beef operation if affordable pasture isn't available. Mikkel Pates, Agweek

CARRINGTON, N.D. -- Cow-calf production is most often done on pastures, but an ongoing study at the North Dakota State University Research Extension Center in Carrington is proving that it can also be done in a dry lot.

Vern Anderson, an NDSU research livestock specialist at the center, says corn and soybeans have displaced pasture acres and made them more expensive, especially in times of drought. Cow-calf producers can consider a dry-lot system for herds that have increasing beef values.

Most cows in the Northern Plains are penned in the winter and through calving. Dry-lot beef production means the cow herd is kept in the pen all summer until the crop is off and then grazed on crop residue and re-growth.

If this system were employed, Anderson says the region could double its dwindling cow herd.

Certainly, it's a strategy for those who want to keep cows through stressed periods and could be a profitable one, Anderson says. Most ranchers have some kind of pen facility or paddocks for winter feeding.


"People think cows should be out grazing on pasture and range all summer, which, theoretically, they should," Anderson says, explaining why the idea isn't universally embraced. But the technique could help farmers or young producers who want to expand their cow-calf operation on limited acreage. The research center has been featured in some national beef production publications and blogs. The research on dry-lot systems is in its fourth of six years.

Proper feeding

Producers facing drought pressures and who have spent a lifetime selecting genetics can keep their cow herds together by feeding them small amounts of nutrient-dense feeds instead of large amounts of hay.

"The biology of it is we can produce beef just as easily in a pen, if we feed them right, as we can on pasture," Anderson says.

So far, the dry-lot and pastured animals end up at a desired slaughter condition at the same age, weight and quality.

"There's a little difference in how the calves grow in the pen, versus how they grow on the pasture -- a little advantage to the pasture -- but once the calves are weaned and putting on a fattening ration, the dry-lot calves grow faster than the pasture," Anderson says. "We produce 1,300-pound steers in 13 months. They hit the rail at 77 percent choice grade. With the price of grain, we might look at feeding longer but lower-quality co-products or screening products. But we do have the co-products and residues here."

But farmers don't want to do feeding chores in the summer because they're busy farming, Anderson says.

"We could help that by feeding cows every other day," he says. "We've tried that and it works fine -- allowing calves to creep-graze on an acre or two of lawn if you want. It's a healthier environment. They get out of the dust and the flies. They eat less creep feed and they gain faster. So there are management practices we can impose here that will make a dry lot more comfortable to the producer and to the cattle."


Anderson uses corn stover and distillers grains as primary feed components. A dry-lot system requires 300 to 500 square feet per cow, depending on topography and other factors.

Studies show that only 16 to 18 percent of agricultural income in North Dakota is from livestock, Anderson says. That compares with 40 percent in surrounding states, so there is room for growth.

For information on managing a cow-calf dry-lot operation, go to Anderson's publication online: . Results of the study so far haven't been published.

Here are some of the advantages and disadvantages Anderson details:


•Increases marketability of crop residues, forages and other feedstuffs.

•Allows more control of the herd for health and management.


•Allows easier synchronization and artificial insemination.

•Increases number of cows per bull with natural service.

•Allows flexibility of management (dry lot during breeding or before weaning).

•Lessens weaning stress for calves.

•Easily integrates to backgrounding calves -- "bunk broke."

•Increases beef production per acre as a result of efficient machine harvest versus grazing.

•Allows for pasture or rangeland restoration.

•Improves market for frost-damaged, drought-stressed, sprouted or cheap feeds.

•Extends production life of broken-mouth cows.

•Maximizes use of facilities.

•Increases manure accumulation for fertilizing cropland.

•Allows marketing flexibility.

•Can lower cost of production.


•Increases labor and equipment use for feeding.

•Requires more manure spreading.

•Facilities and equipment depreciate more quickly.

•Requires higher level of management for ration balancing and herd health.

•Can increase crowding and associated stress.

•Increases potential for more rapid spread of contagious diseases.

•Creates a more challenging environment (dust, mud, flies, etc.) for cattle.

•Requires more harvested feed for lactation and creep rations.

•Increases odor from manure.

Stover study

In a separate study that also involves hot, dry conditions, Anderson is using corn stover bedding during the summer in a feedlot.

The stover keeps the ground an average of 6 to 9 degrees cooler -- up to 20 degrees cooler in some cases -- than when the feedlot is left uncovered with dark-colored soil. The feedlot finishing study started in June and will end in September. It will report rate-of-gain, feed intake and sequestration of carbon nitrogen in the bedding. The cost-benefit ratio hasn't been determined.

"We think the greatest value will be increased fertilizer of the manure," Anderson says. "Nitrogen volatilizes and phosphorus runs off. With the bedding, they can keep more and use it for fertilizer."

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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