by Mark Parker
Parsons, Kansas —
Maybe it’ll rain tomorrow and there’ll be so much grass up through the Flint Hills and across the Osage that all those thousands of stocker calves won’t even put a dent in it.
And maybe it won’t.
High-priced cattle make grass a commodity not to be squandered. Working at the Kansas State University Beef Stocker Unit near Manhattan, beef nutritionist Dale Blasi and his team have used dried distillers grain (DDG) supplementation to reduce grazing pressure on native grass — and picked up other benefits along the way.
Hitting target weights on stocker cattle efficiently is always “Job 1” for a backgrounder but that challenge may be ramped-up by below-average grass production.
Speaking to cattlemen recently at a K-State beef cattle and forage field day in Mound Valley, Blasi pointed out that eastern Kansas producers typically suffer drought conditions one out of every five years — years in which rainfall is less than two-thirds of normal. In the western part of the state, that figure jumps up to one of three years.
Supplementing native grass with a limited DDG ration can save grass, he said, giving the stocker operator the flexibility to either stock heavier and reduce grazing costs per acre or hit grazing performance targets even though forage conditions are less than optimum.
In one of the studies conducted at the Beef Stocker Unit, 346 573-lb. steers grazed native grass from June 15 to Aug. 1. Four treatments included DDG supplement fed at 0.25 percent of body weight, at 0.5 percent of body weight, at 0.75 percent of body weight compared to no supplementation.
The cattle on the 0.25 percent ration had an average daily gain (ADG) of 2.53 pounds on grass and 3.58 pounds subsequently in the feedyard. ADGs for the 0.5 percent group were 2.59 and 3.68 and the 0.75 percent steers gained 2.74 and 3.36 — compared to a grazing ADG of 2.31 and a feedyard daily gain of 3.77 for the non-supplemented calves.
Blasi also measured performance of stocker heifers grazing native grass while consuming a self-fed DDG supplement with consumption limited by salt at 10 or 16 percent levels.
“You can’t just turn the spigot wide-open,” Blasi said. “We wanted to limit DDG consumption to three to four pounds per day — and we did show that you can successfully accomplish that with self-feeders.”
The 276 580-lb. heifers in the 16 percent salt group had an average daily gain of 2.41 pounds, consumed 3.4 pounds of DDGs per day, and had a DDG conversion of 7.69 — a 0.5 lb ADG advantage over the control group.
Performance for the heifers in the 10 percent salt group was 2.62 pounds ADG, 6.4 pounds daily DDG consumption and 11.15 DDG conversion — 0.71 lb. ADG better than the control cattle.
“The cattle consuming the 16 percent salt DDG ration put on an extra half-pound a day, compared to the non-supplemented heifers, and made an extra $15 per head beyond the cost of the supplement,” Blasi said. “The distillers grain adds protein to the diet, keeping the rumen operating efficiently to help maximize the digestibility of the grass.
“If you’re in a situation where forage production is unpredictable, this can enable you to hit the weight you’ve budgeted for while reducing grazing pressure.”
Blasi acknowledged that the salt can be hard on equipment and noted that, to a certain extent, cattle can get pretty good at sorting out the DDGs from the salt. He said stocker operators could opt to hand-feed every three days with similar effect, depending on pasture distances and other cost variables.
Costs and goals, he said, should to be measured for each individual situation.
While calf cost makes up an estimated 86 percent of total stocker costs, pasture is the second-highest input at about 7 percent, according to CattleFax figures. Blasi emphasized that stocker operators should calculate value of weight gain, including the viability of supplementation, using their own costs. The website Beefbasis.com has risk analysis tools for such calculations, he said.
“With today’s calf prices, we sure want to optimize gains and get the maximum value from our inputs,” Blasi concluded.