Does Feeding Pregnant Cows Impact Profitability Through Calf Finishing?


Cattle feed distillers grainsFarmers and ranchers love feeding their cattle. There’s just something about going out to the field and emptying a bag of cubes or dropping off a few more protein tubs. This is especially true for livestock producers in the Southeastern U.S. with smaller herds. But does that extra feed pay off in the long run? Not always.

While living in Tennessee, I had the opportunity to build off nutritional research conducted in Nebraska by Dr. Rick Funston et al. that looks at the benefits/costs of supplementing cattle with protein during the dry period (after weaning their calves until they calve the next time), and its effects on the cow’s performance and the performance of her offspring. Dr. Funston’s research is what we refer to as fetal programming.

The project I helped launch involved applying the research model from the high plains to a much different environment in Tennessee. Our goal was to see how the additional protein fed impacts cattle in a Southeastern environment with much different forage supplies.

Below is an excerpt from one of the first papers from that study which looks at the return on additional inputs measured through the performance of those steer calves, which were in utero when the protein supplements were fed, all the way through feeding and slaughter.


Does Prepartum Supplemental Feed Impact Beef Cattle Profitability Through Finishing?

No matter the weather, we're out feeding our cattle. Sometimes it's snow, but once in a while we get a beautiful day in our enivironment

Implementing a supplemental prepartum feeding program has become a topic of interest for increasing the profitability and reducing the risk of retaining ownership through finishing (Bohnert et al., 2010; Stalker et al., 2006). However, this issue has only been addressed for cattle from the western and midwestern United States. The cattle industry in Tennessee, which is similar to other states in the southeastern United States, primarily consists of cow-calf producers. Thus, producers might benefit from implementing a similar program and retaining ownership of calves through finishing. Ultimately, research is needed to determine if a supplemental prepartum feeding program for cows is profitable for cattle producers in the southeastern United States. Therefore, the objectives of this study were to investigate the impact of animal characteristics and a supplemental prepartum feed program for cows on net returns to finished steers and to evaluate the impact of animal characteristics and a prepartum feeding program on the probability of a steer grading Choice or higher.

We found that the prepartum feed program reduced net returns for producers by about the cost of the supplemental feed and did not have an impact on the steers’ probability of grading Choice or higher. These results could be explained by the slightly above-average forage conditions during our study, which may have reduced the cows’ potential deficit in nutritional requirements. Thus, our results may be subject to change depending on weather and forage conditions in Tennessee in a given year.

Although our research is focused on the profitability of using a prepartum feed program for cows, the results can also provide insight to producers interested in retaining ownership through finishing. Several factors such as feed-to-gain ratio, average daily gain, placement weight, and dressing percentage were found to affect net returns to finished steers. Though retained ownership of cattle through the feedlot is a marketing alternative for cow-calf producers, it may not be a feasible alternative for all producers. Potential barriers that many cow-calf producers face when considering retained ownership include, among others, inability to maintain cash flow because of the longer period of ownership (Lambert, 1989); incapacity to make a complete truckload of cattle, which increases transportation costs to the feedlot; and lack of a relationship with a feedlot operator. By knowing what production factors positively affect net returns in the feedlot, cow-calf producers selling calves at weaning can alter management practices to improve the likelihood of their calves returning more profits to the next owner. Our results provide insight to these producers on growth characteristics in the feedlot and how their calves may grade when finished, thus giving them extra information when they sell their calves at weaning.

This research is not without limitations. We only examined 1 year of data; therefore, our results are conditional on the weather conditions and feeder and fed prices during only 2013–2014. Future research could extend our study by evaluating multiple years of a prepartum supplemental feed program in the southeastern United States. Additionally, future research using multiple years of data could also examine the trend of retained ownership profitability over time, which would be beneficial for cow-calf producers throughout the country.

Read the entire paper, description, and results here: Does Prepartum Supplemental Feed Impact Beef Cattle Profitability Through Finishing?

TLDR? – According to this scenario, providing additional inputs for dry cows doesn’t always pay off in the long run. This can be especially true when forages and hay supply enough protein and energy in the diet to meet dietary needs of the pregnant dry cow.

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