Perspectives on alternative cow/calf production systems

Author: Kristy

By Warren Rusche, South Dakota State University Extension

“Any time changes in standard management practices occur there is a learning curve and occasionally unintended consequences.”

Ranchers face two competing economic realities today. The market is signaling for more calves. The grazing resources required to produce additional calves are very expensive or unavailable in many areas. The prospect of drier conditions and reduced grass growth further compounds the problem.

Some solutions to the issue include improved pasture management and/or increased usage of annual forages for grazing. Another alternative is increased usage of harvested feeds to lessen the reliance on traditional pasture systems. Some alternatives include from supplemental feeding while cattle graze sacrifice pastures such as cool season grass areas near buildings or areas that have been used for winter feeding. Raising cow/calf pairs in a drylot or an enclosed structure represents an alternative that doesn’t use pasture at all.

Creating diets for lactating cows that are cost competitive with pasture is a key critical factor in whether or not these systems make sense. Common diets rely heavily on low-cost crop residues combined with by-product feeds or other supplemental feeds. Other possibilities include limit-fed rations based on grain. Under current market conditions, these kinds of diets often cost less than the top end of pasture or range leases when considered on a cost per head per day.

Any time changes in standard management practices occur there is a learning curve and occasionally unintended consequences. Labor needs obviously increase when cattle are fed every day compared to grazing pasture. The costs of manure disposal and potentially higher equipment repair and depreciation expenses need to be considered as well. On the other hand, semi-confinement may make technologies such as AI easier to manage. Manure represents an opportunity to reduce fertilizer expenses for crop acres.

Earlier this year SDSU Extension sponsored a program on alternative cow/calf production systems that featured a producer panel as well as researchers experienced in these systems. These are some of the observations that they reported.


One of the statements made by Dr. Vern Anderson, retired animal scientist at NDSU-Carrington was that semi-confinement could be “cow heaven” or something much worse, depending on how well producers manage the physical environment of the cow. Proper drainage, pen maintenance, and bedding when necessary are important to avoid excessive mud and all the associated performance and health problems.


As mentioned earlier, heavy use of crop residues is a common characteristic of these systems. Producers need to make sure they follow sound nutritional principles, especially when feeding less common feedstuffs. The panelists felt that it was easier to meet the cattle’s nutritional requirements and head off problems by bunk feeding a balanced diet. Some also indicated that they had observed lower than expected feed requirements because of either improved environment, less walking, or a combination of those factors.


The risk of increased disease is a common concern. However, the producer panelists did not report significant health issues. Some of the reasons they gave included the ability to treat cows and calves in a timelier manner and improved ability to meet the cattle’s nutritional needs. They also worked closely with their veterinarians to develop vaccination and treatment protocols.

Other factors

Other keys are bio-security and minimizing stress factors. In a poster presented at the 2015 Midwest Animal Science meetings, researchers from Nebraska reported that treatment rates for calves in an intensively managed environment were 0% in year one but 84% in year two. These differences were attributed to weather stress (October snow) combined with exposure to a set of newly weaned calves.

Agriculture has adapted to changing environmental and economic conditions many times in the past; the cow/calf business is no exception. Managing cows and calves more intensively in a semi-confinement system is a potential option to deal with the economic realities of the beef business and adapt to changing environmental conditions.


Posted in In The Industry |

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