Comparing Winter Management Systems

Pairs in drylot management gained more weight over the winter than pairs on cornstalks, in the Nebraska trials. ( John Maday )

Beef cows and calves wintered in drylot settings with complete rations might gain better than those on corn residue, but results of a series of Nebraska trials suggest lower input costs favor the stalk grazing.

In this three-year study, researchers compared two winter-management systems using composite cows and their July-born calves. From calving until the trial began in November, the researchers managed all the pairs together, feeding a crop-residue and distillers’ grains diet. In November, they sorted the pairs into two groups for winter management, with one group remaining in a drylot setting and the other moving to harvested corn fields.

The researchers used the same procedures for trials in two locations, at the Eastern Nebraska Research and Extension Center (ENREC) and at the Panhandle Research and Extension Center (PREC) in western Nebraska. Results differed between the two sites, but showed similar trends.

In the drylot, the team limit-fed a ration formulated to maintain the lactating cows in early gestation, and gradually increased the amount of dry matter offered to account for higher intake among the calves. Pairs on cornstalks received supplemental distillers’ grains pellets at a rate averaging 5.3 pounds per pair per day.

At both locations, cows in the drylot system gained more weight during the trial period than those on cornstalks. At the ENREC location, cornstalk cows lost an average of 72 pounds over the winter, while drylot cows gained 88 pounds. The difference was less dramatic at the PREC location, where cornstalk cows gained an average of 19 pounds compared with 60 pounds for the drylot cows. The cows on cornstalks also lost some body condition over the trial period, while cows in the drylots maintained body condition or showed small increases. The researchers did not note any significant difference in subsequent pregnancy rates between the treatment groups.

As for the calves, those in the drylots at both locations had higher average daily gains and total gains compared with those on cornstalks. At the ENREC location, cornstalk calves finished the trial period at an average of 529 pounds compared with 637 for the drylot calves. At the PREC location, the cornstalk calves finished the trial period averaging 513 pounds compared with 595 pounds for the drylot calves.

In these trials, while drylot management resulted in better weight gains, that improvement came at an additional cost averaging $137 per pair compared with cornstalk grazing. The reduced inputs and cost savings in the cornstalk system, in this case, more than offset the heavier calf weights in the drylot system.

The research team also followed the calves from these trials through finishing. A follow-up article will outline those results.

Read the full report in the 2018 Beef Cattle Reports from the University of Nebraska.