Category: Livestock

Educated Cows Eat Weeds!

Turn a Foe Into Forage

In 2004, Kathy Voth invented a method for training cows to eat weeds. The idea grew from the responses from ranchers when she suggested they use goats or sheep to manage weeds. That just wasn’t an economically viable or sustainable solution for them.

Kathy believes that animals are a good solution for weed management, so she decided that if cattle ranchers weren’t interested in goats or sheep, she’d figure out how to turn their cattle into weed managers. Using discoveries made by researchers at Utah State University, and decades of animal behavior studies, she put together a very logical set of steps for teaching cows to eat weeds.

Minimal Time Investment
Using Kathy’s process a cattle producer can teach cows to eat weeds in as little as 10 hours over 10 days and then sit back and relax while the cows get to work.

Cows Are Good Learners and Teachers
A small group of trainees will teach their calves and herd mates to eat weeds, to create a weed eating army in the course of one grazing season. Cows will continue to eat the weeds year after year and add new ones without additional training.

The Training Steps Click HERE

Wealth really comes from sunshine

Improving the life processes that convert sunshine to energy on the ranch or farm can increase all forms of wealth.

Walt Davis 1 | Feb 18, 2020

Ranching is different things to different people but like all types of agricultural endeavors, it comes down to converting sunlight into wealth through green plants and photosynthesis.

This wealth can take several forms aside from money. Grazing animals, especially ruminants, can convert vegetation that is inedible to humans into high quality food. This can be done, without machinery, on land that is unfit for cultivation. Lately this has been getting press under the guise of “upcycling.”

There are other beneficial products, but one desperately needed in today’s world is improved water management. In some situations, if grazing management is used properly, it can double or triple the amount of precipitation captured and used to grow vegetation. This management will also greatly increase the amount of water that accumulates in the soil and in subsurface aquifers.

Proper grazing decreases the likelihood of flooding and increases the usefulness of precipitation. These advantages come about through creating the conditions that allow water to enter and be held by the soil. Foremost amongst the conditions is keeping the soil surface covered with organic matter.

I was on a ranch recently in the hot dry summer when a four-inch rain fell in about four hours. This was followed several hours later by a two-inch rain. This ranch is rolling sandy loam with sandy clay subsoil and has some steep slopes. Little, if any, water ran off the ranch while the neighboring areas had heavy runoff of muddy water.

The difference was the amount of bare ground on the two areas. The ranch with good ground cover absorbed the rainfall to the degree that the tanks (ponds to those of you not from Texas) caught no water. Twenty-four hours after the rain stopped, clear water began to flow from springs into the tanks.

What is the value of six inches of rain stored in the soil rather than running down the creek? There are millions upon millions of acres world-wide that are totally ineffective in capturing and storing rainfall. Water shortage for crops but also for humans is already critical in many areas. Good grazing management can dramatically improve the water cycle of these degraded areas while producing food and profit.

A second condition critical to improving water capture and retention is soil organic content. Organic matter that has been processed by microbial action can seize and hold many times its weight in water. Soil life is dependant on soil organic content, and plants are dependent on soil life. Soil life, especially mycorrhizal fungi, produce the organic compounds – essentially the glue – that holds soil particles together in aggregates and gives soil the porosity and permeability that allows it to take in and hold both water and air.

A big portion of soil organic content comes from root exudates – mostly carbohydrates – pumped into the soil by living plants. In a classic example of symbiotic relationship, the root exudates nourish the soil lifeforms which nourish the plants that provide the root exudates.

Given the opportunity, natural forces promote life to the benefit of the whole soil-plant-animal complex. This is not always a straightforward process. Drought can cause an explosion of grasshoppers by killing the fungi that normally limit the viability of the hopper eggs. When normal weather returns, the fungi will return, and balance will re-establish in insect populations. If we intervene with insecticides spread over large areas, the ecology of that area becomes unstable with ongoing wide swings in both populations and numbers within populations.

Catastrophes such as wildfire, drought and flood happen in the natural world, but only man prolongs the effects of these events. Millions of acres of grassland have been destroyed by holding stock on areas that can no longer feed them. The diversity of life from plants, animals and microbes provides stability and productivity, but it is destroyed when management focuses on “kill the pest” rather than on fostering the conditions that promote health through out the local environment. This may sound sophomoric, however it is not only possible but much more effective financially, ecologically and to human benefit than what is common practice over most of the world.

Don’t be afraid to challenge heifers during development

By MORGAN ROSE The Prairie Star Jan 20, 2020

Research out of Fort Keogh, a former U.S. Army base off the western edge of Miles City, Mont., indicates that pressuring heifers in their earliest stages of development may pay off big in the long-run.

MILES CITY, Mont. – It is no secret that the largest cost endured by cattle producers is their yearly feed bill. It is also no secret that having cows who consistently bring a calf to market every fall is the long-term goal of any producer. For many years, the thinking has always been that in order to have a cow remain in the herd long-term a producer must ensure that heifers are handled with kid gloves and given everything they need from a nutritional and environmental standpoint so they can develop correctly.

Research coming out of Fort Keogh, a former U.S. Army base off the western edge of Miles City, Mont., is turning that line of thinking upside down. Dr. Andrew Roberts, a research scientist at Fort Keogh, is leading a study that is comparing heifers developed in a feedlot to heifers developed on range. The study began in 2012 and it stemmed from previous research where heifers were developed in a feedlot at two different levels.

“The feedlot study pretty much showed that the current recommendations in the industry are probably very excessive for heifer development,” Roberts stated.
Roberts went on to explain that recommendations published in popular press today are often based off of research on heifer development that was conducted in the 1960s through the 1980s. In the mid-part of the 20th century, heifers were never bred until they were two years old, they simply never reached puberty until then. At that time, there was a big push to try and get heifers to reach puberty quicker. Breed genetics where advancing, and at the same time, producers were pouring the coals to the heifers nutritionally.

“Those animals aren’t representative of what we are dealing with now,” he said.

With that in mind, Roberts and his research team decided to go back to the drawing board to try and find a more cost-effective way to develop heifers and to see if where they are developed has any correlation to cow longevity in the herd.

The ongoing research is being done on a composite herd that was developed at Fort Keogh. Heifers are 50 percent Red Angus, 25 percent Charolais and 25 percent Tarentaise. The heifers in the study have been divided into three groups: one group is weaned and developed in a traditional feedlot setting; one group is developed on range and given four pounds of cake as a supplement; and the final group is developed on range, but given free-choice access to a mineral and protein supplement. The range cattle are only fed hay when weather and range conditions made grazing not possible.

It is important to note, the range-developed heifers where fence-lined weaned in a pasture, so the entire development process was conducted in a setting similar to the one the heifers are expected to perform in as running-age cows.

Over the course of the study, more and more pressure has been applied to the range heifers. Not only are they being challenged for feed efficiency, but fertility, as well. When the study started, the heifers entered a 60-day breeding period, which has now been shortened to a period closer to 30-days. Even so, the heifers average 77-78 percent breed up rates, which is outstanding for first calf heifers.

Roberts’ study is showing that it isn’t necessarily a bad thing to make young heifers prove themselves. Allowing Mother Nature and natural selection to weed out the weaker heifers is not only more cost effective, but it may lead to better female retention.

“By having more pressure on their first pregnancy as a heifer, we are getting very good rebreeding rates, over 90 percent among our two- and three-year olds. When we did this in the feedlot study, pregnancy rates were closer to 80 percent for those same age groups,” Roberts stated.

In general, it is considered bad to have low pregnancy rates, but Roberts argues it really comes down to efficiency. Don’t waste money propping up the weak ones, he warned.

“If you have a group of cattle and you fed them more to get five percent more bred, then really that five percent is your least efficient bunch you are getting calves from and you will end up over feeding the rest of the group,” he says.

When it comes to heifers, Roberts advises producers to keep the long-term goal in mind: cow longevity. Challenging heifers early on in their development will toughen up your entire cattle herd down the line. There is a greater chance a producer will see better rebreeding rates and the cattle will stand a better chance of being productive for longer.

“You have to make progress in selecting animals that work in the nutritional environment you’re operating in,” Roberts added.

Roberts plans to continue his research and study the heifers more as they turn into cows. The first batch of heifers studied in 2012 will be turning eight-years-old this year, so Roberts looks forward to examining data from those cows as they continue to age.

Heifer development is critical, but if approached correctly, it doesn’t have to be a black hole for money. As the saying goes, “cream always rises to the top,” especially if given the chance to do so naturally.

$1000 plus Cow Costs –

Where are Your Costs?

Here is a PDF of the

Estimated Cow Costs for the Nebraska area for 2019.

Where are you at.

Screen Shot 2020-01-03 at 9.24.07 AMDifferences Between High-, Medium-, and Low-Profit Cow-Calf Producers: An Analysis of 2014-2018 Kansas Farm Management Association Cow-Calf Enterprise – A Review

This study by Whitney Bowman, Dustin L. Pendell Ph.D. and Kevin L. Herbel can be found at the Kansas State University AgManager.info website. Review and summary by Aaron Berger, Nebraska Extension Educator.

Whitney Bowman together with Dr. Dustin Pendell and Kevin Herbel recently published a paper that highlighted the differences between 71 different producers with cow-calf enterprises that are part of the Kansas Farm Management Association. The paper examined both returns over variable costs and returns over total costs in 2014-2018. The authors broke out participants in the study into three groups of high-, medium- and low-profit producers. Here are differences that stood out between producers from the data when looking at returns over total costs.

  • Differences in costs between operations significantly outweighed revenue differences. High-profit operations spent $259.93 less per cow than low-profit operations in this study.
  • High-profit operations generated more revenue per cow, $152.32, than low profit operations.
  • Major differences in costs between high profit and low profit herds were found in feed expense. High-profit herds spent a total of $418.66 per cow on grazed and harvested feed, while low-profit herds spent $543.92. This is a difference of $125.26 per cow!
  • Labor, depreciation, machinery and interest expenses were all lower on a per cow basis for the high-profit operations than the low-profit operations. High-profit producers spent on average $100.95 less on these items than low-profit producers.
  • High-profit operations generated on average an annual positive net return to management of $60.53 per cow, while low-profit operations had a negative return of -$351.72 to management over the five year period.

The Kansas Farm Management Association cow-calf enterprise data provides insights into the differences between high-, medium- and low profit producers. Participants in the data set have the necessary production and financial records to know what their production costs are and then can use that information to make management decisions to improve profitability. In this data set, producers who aggressively controlled costs while producing more pounds of calf to sell per cow than their competitors were the most profitable.  Good production with cost control differentiated the most profitable producers from those that were the least profitable.

A one page sample budget titled Estimated Annual Cow Costs for Nebraska 2019 is a tool that can be used to help producers to begin to estimate what their own cow costs are.  Good accounting and record keeping can help producers track their costs and know their cost of production.

For producers interested in learning more about this topic, a Unit Cost of Production Workshop is scheduled for February 5 & 6 at the Cedar Creek Church which is in the Burwell area.  For more information contact Aaron Berger at 308-235-3122.

Interviews with the authors of BeefWatch newsletter articles become available throughout the month of publication and are accessible at https://go.unl.edu/podcast.

Livestock handling techniques all about reward training

  • Updated 
Ed Fryer
Ed Fryer on horseback inspecting yearling heifers along a fence in the fall at a Montana ranch with typical rangeland in background.

Livestock handling is all about animal behavior, according to Ed Fryer, who has managed Castle Mountain Ranch near White Sulpher Springs, Mont., since 1998 with his wife, Bev.

Ed and Bev are now mostly retired, and their eldest son, David, now manages the ranch.

Through the years, Ed and David became well known and well respected for low-stress livestock handling techniques.

In fact, for several years, they volunteered to demonstrate their techniques as part of the Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program in Montana.

“The goal was to demonstrate simple low-stress solutions to common livestock handling tasks,” Ed Fryer said.

That portion of the program always received undivided attention and was well received by those in attendance.

“Humans, horses, cattle – it’s all animal behavior – and we’re no different than they are,” he said.

The basis of all animal training is reward training.

“It is about incentivizing a positive response somehow. It’s as simple as giving your dog a treat for doing the right thing,” he said. “With training horses, it is a system of pressure and release. You apply subtle pressure to get a response, followed by prompt release of pressure when you get even the slightest response in the desired direction. And it’s the same with cattle.”

Part of low-stress cattle handling is having a calm approach, letting the cow do the work, and setting up situations where both the handler and the cow have a high probability of succeeding.

One important concept that Fryer always brought up when they were conducting their BQA training was that there is a cumulative effect.

“If we do a poor job of handling a particular cow, the cow is going to remember what she got away with the first time,” he said.

When ranchers handle cattle consistently, cows begin to accumulate a body of learned behavior in either a positive or negative direction.

“It is up to us to set that direction in our favor. Everybody wins by doing it right,” he said.

There are certain situations that are difficult for cattle, and ranchers can take the time to evaluate the situation and make facility or other modifications to reduce difficult challenges. In these cases, it is okay to move the target.

“All we’re trying to promote (to livestock handlers) is to use our heads, realizing sometimes slowing down one facet can speed up the whole project, and to learn to set up situations where we have a very high probability of succeeding,” he said. “We have to make sure we’re in the right spot and are able to adjust our position quickly enough.”

One example Fryer gives shows the difficulty of moving heifers into a calving shed if the heifers perceive a scary situation with the layout.

“The layout was such that we had to put all the cattle through a back door with a shadowy dark spot that they really didn’t like to go into,” he said.

The crew built a simple lane on the opposite end of the shed to eliminate the need to go through that shadow.

“All we did was switch up the approach to the shed with some very simple construction,” he said. “It didn’t take us but two afternoons and a little bit of materials to switch it 180 degrees, and now one person can quite easily get a cow into the shed with almost zero stress.”

Fryer learned a lot about cattle handling as a crew member on a remote cattle ranch.

“The most proficient crew members became mentors to the younger crew members, with coaching often very blunt and direct,” he said.

That coaching, along with exposure to more modern horsemanship methods that were becoming popular in the ’70s, helped Fryer develop many skills that proved useful to him in years to come – and not only with livestock.

Fryer gives two examples of his mentors’ “blunt direction” that helped set the course for future professional development.

The first occurred while Fryer was a teen-ager on a summer branding crew for a “tough” cowboy outfit.

Yearlings were “mixed up” in the pasture, so the cowboys held the cattle up in a corner so the boss could sort them into their respective groups.

“I was assigned as a herd holder to assist in keeping the cattle together. My horse was barely trained, just like everybody else’s horse. I got bucked off a couple of times and I started complaining to the boss about the horse,” he said. “The boss finally told me to ‘shut up and make sure I was doing my job to the best of my ability, and the horse part would take care of itself.’ It worked, and I never forgot about it.”

Another example occurred while Fryer was in his early 20s.

Fryer and another young cowboy named George were sent out from a cow camp to search for calves, along with Sam, an older cowboy approaching 60-years-old.

It was winter, bitter cold, with a foot of snow on the ground.

“We had to ride several miles into rough country and look for some calves, weaned calves that a hunter had reported seeing,” he recalled.

The cowboys found the calves and started back to camp.

“We came to this little creek about 18 inches wide, two feet deep, drifted over with snow, and the calves didn’t want to cross it,” he said.

While the creek was invisible to the eye, both the calves and the horses knew it was there.

“You can hear the water gurgling down there and it was one of those oxbow-type creeks, so we had them trapped in one of the oxbows. These calves would not cross,” he said.

Fryer and George decided they needed to make a track for the calves to follow.

“We rode our horses back and forth across (the creek) two or three times, while Sam guarded the narrow entrance and watched,” he said. “The calves were not trying to get away, so we younger fellows were thinking that we had better just rope them and drag them across. But there were too many calves and we knew we couldn’t rope them all.”

Meanwhile, Sam said to the young cowboys, “You want to smoke?”

Since we had spent some years on the same crew, he knew we didn’t smoke.

“Sam looked at us in a direct and unmistakable way and said, ‘You guys would be a hell of a lot better hands if you at least had to stop and smoke once in a while,’” he said.

Meanwhile, the sun was sinking, and Fryer and George were getting nervous.

“George and I were tightening our cinches getting ready to rope, and while all this is going on, the calves are standing there watching us.” he said. “We had no choice but to sit on our horses and talk while Sam was smoking. Finally, those calves must have decided they were going to have to go somewhere, because all of a sudden, they just turned around and hopped across the creek and headed out towards where we wanted them to go all along.”

That taught Fryer a lot about low-stress cattle handling.

“We did not need to rope and drag them across. We just presented the option in a different way to get them to do what we wanted them to do,” he said. “Eventually, those calves decided, all on their own, that our horse tracks didn’t look so bad. They just followed our horses’ tracks, hopped across the little creek and away they went.”

That stuck in Fryer’s mind and he began to build on his cowboy skills.

Fryer has spent a lifetime on ranches in Montana and Wyoming, and he believes low-stress cattle handling is a way of handling cattle that leads to success for both cattle and hands.

5 Keys to Quality Cattle

by Dave Pratt

Here are the keys to producing quality (high gross margin) cattle, or any species of livestock for that matter:

  1. Fit the enterprise to the resource. It doesn’t matter how productive your cows are if you shouldn’t have cows. You can cram a square peg in a round hole, but it is expensive, exhausting and unsustainable.
  2. Fit the production schedule to the environment. Why don’t elk in Montana calve in March? It’s because nature’s production cycle is in synch with the seasonal availability of forage and because photoperiod has a big effect on the seasonal fertility of ALL grazing animals. This isn’t to say that everyone should be calving in late May or June. But being able to reduce hay feeding by $200-$300 per cow probably adds more value to most ranches than the extra $100 you might get for the calf weaned by the cow that consumed all that hay.
  3. Find animals that fit the environment. Hot and humid or cold and dry, subtropical or temperate, prairie, mountain or desert, a cow that works in one environment may not be suited to another. That goes for the production schedule too. A cow selected to be productive in a March-April calving program may not be fit for a May-June calving program.
  4. Hit depreciation head on. For most producers the biggest cost of keeping a cow isn’t feed, rent, or labor. It’s depreciation. We rarely even think of depreciation as a cost of keeping a cow, let alone the biggest cost! In a typical herd, depreciation averages $250-$350 per cow per year. That’s $250-$350 ON EVERY COW EVERY YEAR! Many Ranching For Profit grads have drastically reduced depreciation in their herds. Some have even eliminated it. In my mind’s eye, cattle that don’t depreciate are quality cattle.
  5. Come up with a replacement strategy that works. Most cow/calf producers have no idea of the REAL cost of raising their own replacements. The gross margin of a productive cow is almost always at least a couple hundred dollars higher than the gross margin of H1’s or H2’s on the same ranch. There are alternatives to raising your own replacement heifers. You can contract with someone else to raise them, buy them, or buy older, depreciated cows as your replacements. It is a breakthrough for some producers to realize that they don’t need replacement heifers. It’s not heifers they need to replace, it’s cows. That paradigm shift opens the door to several profitable opportunities.

These five principles can help you improve the economic efficiency of any kind of livestock. Please share with me and ProfitTips readers the principles you’ve found essential to producing quality (high gross margin) livestock.