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Want to use less hay and less water in your cow herd? Some research could help

Research going on at cooperating universities throughout the country will work to identify feed and water efficient cattle, which could mean big savings for producers and for the environment.

Black and black-baldy cattle eat feed on the ground in a snowy winter pasture, with hoar-frost covered trees in the background.
Central Grasslands Research Extension Center, in Streeter, North Dakota, will be cooperating on research with other institutions looking at more efficient, faster-growing cattle. Photo taken Jan. 4, 2023.
Jenny Schlecht / Agweek
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STREETER, N.D. — What would it mean to have cows that eat less feed and drink less water?

Lisa Pederson and others in the beef industry have given that a lot of thought.

"We’re very very excited about what this can do for our farmers and ranchers and our environment," said Pederson, an Extension livestock and beef quality specialist with the Central Grasslands Research Extension Center, a part of North Dakota State University Extension.

West Virginia University for about 20 years has been working on tracking feed and water intake of animals. What they've learned is some cattle have traits that make them more efficient than others.

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Pederson and others at Central Grasslands and within NDSU Extension are embarking on a research project, cooperating with West Virginia University and others, on feed and water efficiency in cattle. It's research WVU pioneered within the past two decades, and it's showing some impressive results. For instance, Pederson explained, the difference between the highest water consuming cattle at WVU and the lowest was 1,500 gallons per year.

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A black cow stands at a red and yellow water fountain in a wintery pasture scene with snow and hoar-frost covered trees.
Cows that are more water efficient have been shown to use 1,500 gallons less water per year — a potentially huge savings for livestock producers and the environment. Photo taken Jan. 4, 2023, near Streeter, North Dakota.
Jenny Schlecht / Agweek

At Central Grasslands, the research will focus on efficiency in the type of operation common in the northern Plains, using the same types of cattle, feeds and grasses — and large herds — that populate ranches.

"You take the average herd in North Dakota of 400 cows, and that’s a huge amount of water," she said. "You don’t realize how much water that is until you have to haul water, which many of our producers have had to do in the last several years. But also then if you look in the feeding situations, that’s a lot of water that also goes through feed yards. In lots of places where we feed cattle, water is a major major issue."

It's similar on the feed side, where the most efficient cattle may be eating 10% less than the least efficient.

"If we can improve the feed efficiency of these cows say 10%, that’s 4 pounds of feed a day on average that they’re eating. And you multiply that over a herd of, you know, 400 cows — that’s a couple bales of hay a day," she said. "And you don’t think about that either until you look at feed costs and fuel costs, and if you’re in a drought having to buy hay or conserve hay."

A stack of round hay bales sits in a snow-covered field. The bales are covered in frost, as is the fence in front of them. The sky has soft pinks and blues in it.
Conserving hay, given the northern Plains's recent droughts and harsh winters, can be especially important for livestock producers. Photo taken Jan. 4, 2023, near Streeter, North Dakota.
Jenny Schlecht / Agweek

And the droughts — where producers often have to buy hay — and the rough winters — when animals often need more feed to maintain their body temperature — have been common in recent years.

"We’ve had a lot of drought and some pretty tough winters mixed in," Pederson said. "You know, it’s kind of been the bad poker hand, all in all — we can’t seem to get a royal flush."

Continuing to improve sustainability "offers a lot of opportunity to really tell our story," Pederson said, noting that it's a "great story" that combines the usefulness of cows not only ecologically in helping care for grasslands and the birds, insects and wildlife that go with it, but also for using products that otherwise would be unusable for humans.

"These cows back here, they are the world's greatest upcyclers," Pederson said, motioning to a group of black cattle eating placidly behind her on a Central Grasslands winter pasture. "They can take a feed and a forage that we cannot use as humans — it’s not nutritionally strong enough for us as humans — and convert that into a really high quality high protein high amino acid high vitamin product in terms of beef"

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The other piece, she said, is on "building sustainability back into our communities in terms of bringing young people back and financial sustainability."

Pederson encourages anyone with questions about the research to reach out. Additionally, anyone who has research they'd like to see done should reach out to Extension.

"We’re doing it for you, not for us," she said.

Jenny Schlecht is the director of ag content for Agweek and serves as editor of Agweek, Sugarbeet Grower and BeanGrower. She lives on a farm and ranch near Medina, North Dakota, with her husband and two daughters. You can reach her at jschlecht@agweek.com or 701-595-0425.
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