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Suckler Calves Prefer Stockpiled Forage Over Creep Feed

"OK, you talked me into this late spring/early summer calving thing. And it actually works really well. But I don't know what to do with my calves. Do I wean them early and sell as light calves or do I leave them on the cow?"

I have had this conversation with a number of producers over the last couple of years, as many of them make the switch to calving later in the spring or into early summer, in May or June. The answer may well be to leave them on the cows until early winter before weaning.

Research at the New Liskeard Agricultural Research Station (NLARS) suggests that calves and cows grazing stockpile forages late into the fall will do very well, even compared to cows and creep-fed calves in a dry lot situation. For a number of years, researchers at NLARS have studied dry cows grazing stockpiled grass. Stockpiling is the process of allowing some pasture to grow for an extended period of time in late summer to accumulate for grazing in the late fall. The research showed that dry cows will meet their nutritional requirements and do very well on standing, stockpiled forage. But with the increase in spring/ summer calving, many producers were not weaning their calves until early winter. How would cow-calf pairs do on stockpile grass? A University of Guelph research team led by Dr. Ira Mandell1 decided to use the summer calving cows in the NLARS beef herd to answer this question. They allocated 40 cow-calf pairs to fall grazing, with the balance of the 75 cows placed in a dry lot situation, with oatlage as the main cow feed source. Both sets of calves had free access to creep feed.

The stockpiled forage was 80 % grass (timothy, bluegrass, reed canary, orchard grass) and 20 % legume (trefoil, white Dutch and alsike clover.) The grazing cattle were given access to fresh pasture by moving the electric polywire either once per week or twice per week, depending on which sub-group they were in. The trial started in early October and ended in early December.

Previous research had shown that dry pregnant cows did well on stockpiled forage. But what about lactating cows? In this case, the lactating cows on pasture initially gained weight, and then gradually lost weight over the grazing period. The lactating cows in the barn initially lost weight while eating the oatlage, before gradually gaining weight for the rest of the trial. Overall, by the end of the trial (as seen in Figure 1), the cows from both groups performed the same. Both had lost a similar amount of body weight (approx. 3% of initial weight), and had also lost about 0.40 units of body condition score.

Effect of Management System on Cow Body Weights Over the Course of the Trial.

Figure 1. Effect of Management System on Cow Body Weights Over the Course of the Trial.

The nutritional analysis of the oatlage compared to the pasture samples showed that the oatlage had less protein and more NDF and ADF fibre than the pasture, which may be one reason why cows on pasture initially gained weight. However, as the cold weather and snow came, the grazing cows did begin to lose weight. On five occasions the pasture grazing cows had to eat through more than 10 cms of snow. Previous studies have shown that snow depth can become a factor in forage consumption. Wind chill, night cooling and gradual decrease in pasture quality over time could also have contributed to declining weight of the pasture cows. However, by the end of the trial the groups of cows had experienced similar net weight change.

The conditions the pasture cattle were under in mid-November are illustrated in Figure 2. How did the calves fare? There was no difference in the weight of calves at the start and end of the trial between calves in the dry lot and calves on pasture. Surprisingly, calf performance was the same in the barn or on pasture, with average daily gain at about 2.40 lbs per day per calf. However, the calves in the dry lot ate much more creep feed than the calves on stockpiled grass. The researchers suggested some potential reasons for this, including cow density limiting calves' access to stored forage feeders, boredom, or actual nutritional need. The increased consumption of creep by the calves may also help to explain why the cows in the dry lot gained weight in the latter part of the trial, as the calves reduced their nutritional drag on them.

Cows and calves graze through snow in mid-November.

Figure 2. Cows and calves graze through snow in mid-November.

By leaving the calves on the cows, and grazing pasture for as long as possible, significant savings in feed costs can be achieved. Figure 2 shows the cows and calves on pasture in mid-November. For example, the calves in the barn ate 183.4 lbs of creep per calf, while the calves on twice weekly moving ate 36.0 lbs and the calves on weekly movement ate only 14.1 lbs. If creep feed is priced at $250 per tonne, then the calves in the barn each ate about $21.00 worth of creep as compared to the twice per week calves at $4.00, and the weekly calves eating $1.50 worth of creep for the duration of the trial. The pasture and oatlage costs were not assigned, however, pasture is generally considered to be much more economical than any type of machine harvested and stored forage.

Spring calving means that traditional sale times may not work for selling calves in the fall. The calves may be better sold in early winter or held until the following spring

Beef producers looking to lower costs could find May/June calving combined with fall stockpile grazing and delayed weaning would provide both lowered feed costs and increased marketing opportunities.

For a detailed technical summary of this trial, please see "Stockpiled Permanent Grass Pasture for Fall and Early Winter Grazing of Beef Cows and Calves in Northern Ontario".

1 I.B. Mandella, T.A. Hamiltonb, L. Giesena, C.P. Campbella, and
J.G. Buchanan-Smitha
a University of Guelph, b Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food

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