Leases for perennial pastures remain high as many acres across the Midwest have been converted to cropland.

Recent commodity prices have led some producers to consider planting annual forages. A mixture of annual forages, crop residues and some confinement time can be a profitable system for cattle producers with limited traditional perennial forage pastures.

Ongoing research at the University of Nebraska suggests a combination of cornstalk residue grazing and confinement can be economically competitive with a perennial grass system.

Using partial confinement in an operation will likely look different for each producer, and developing a system that is optimal for the resources available is critical for success. Producers should think through the whole production system when determining what will work best.

It is not only important to develop a grazing plan and timeline for annual forages and residues but also to think through the production cycle for those times as well.


For example, where will the cows be when calving occurs? Will they be in confinement at that time? Where will confinement occur? Will it occur in a feedlot or on a pivot corner or a fallow field? Producers in areas where rainfall and snow are heavy in early spring may want to calve somewhere other than in confinement during that time or may not want to calve that time of year.

When will breeding occur? Does the grazing plan include lush cool-season annual forages high in degradable protein? Will this occur during the breeding season? If so, this could increase the uterine pH and cause problems with conception. Will nursing calves be in confinement? Is there an opportunity to provide creep grazing or modify a fence for a creep-feeding pen?

Your feed inputs

Feed resources typically contribute the biggest portion of the cost associated with maintaining a cow. If part of a production system is going to include confinement feeding, then there are several concepts producers need to understand.

Research at the University of Nebraska has demonstrated cows can be maintained in moderate body condition on a limit-fed, energy-dense diet while in confinement.

Obviously, availability impacts commodity price, but in many regions of the country, byproducts such as distillers grains, wet corn gluten feed or sugar beet pulp can be acquired very economically compared to other sources of energy.

Poor-quality hay or baled crop residue may be another source of feed that can be mixed with byproducts to make a diet more economically feasible than feeding medium-quality hay ad libitum.

When limit-feeding energy-dense diets in confinement, producers have to consider the production stage of the cow, the intake of the calf and the nutrient content of the feed resources available.

A very important concept to understand when feeding in confinement is the cow’s nutrient requirements. The cow’s nutrient requirements vary with age, size and stage of production. Two- and 3-year-old cows still have requirements for growth as well as gestation and lactation – and should be fed separately from mature cows in a limit-feeding situation to allow them to consume the feed needed to meet their requirements.

More frequent sorting may be necessary when cows are limit-fed to prevent very aggressive cows from overconsuming and timid cows from becoming too thin. When lactation starts, the cow’s nutrient needs increase and peak at about eight weeks of lactation. Producers need to either increase the energy density of the diet or increase the pounds of dry matter fed when lactation starts.

Feed intake

Another important consideration is the feed intake of the calf. Nursing calves can be seen nibbling at forage within the first three weeks of life. By the time they are 3 months old, research indicates they are eating about 1 percent of bodyweight in forage. If calves are not weaned and in their own pen at this time, additional feed should be added to the bunk for them or a creep area developed for them.

Research at the University of Nebraska indicated early weaning does not save feed energy but may be a good management practice in the confinement feeding situation.

While not resulting in an advantage in feed energy savings, early weaning can be advantageous in other ways. Early weaning would allow calves to be placed in a separate pen from cows.

Producers would then have the flexibility of feeding calves a growing or a finishing diet – or even allowing them to graze forages if available. The cows then, without the demands of lactation, could be placed on a lower-energy diet. Young calves in confinement must also be able to reach the water source.

The third consideration is the nutrient content of the commodities used in the limit-fed ration. Most producers are familiar with feeding low- to medium-quality forages to mid-gestation cows supplemented with a protein source. The protein allows the cow to adequately digest the forage, and if the forage is not restricted, the cow can usually meet her energy requirements.

Feeding for energy

Limit-feeding cows while maintaining body condition requires a mindset shift for producers. While the protein needs of the cow do need to be met, the first limiting nutrient, especially for the lactating cow, is energy.

Typically, producers are always encouraged to send feed samples to a commercial laboratory for testing. The total digestible nutrient (TDN) value listed on commercial laboratory results is not from an analysis but is actually calculated from acid detergent fiber.

In the case of forages, this is fairly similar to the digestibility and is an acceptable measure of forage energy. However, due to the oil content of some byproducts, and the interaction of byproducts in residue-based diets, the University of Nebraska recommends using TDN values for byproducts based on animal performance in feeding trials.

These trials suggest 108 percent TDN for distillers grains, 100 percent for corn gluten feed and 90 percent for sugar beet pulp when limit-feeding. Estimating too much energy for a commodity can result in poorer-than-expected cattle performance, while underestimating the energy value of a commodity would cause overfeeding, resulting in an increased expense for the confinement period.

Additional considerations for the confinement part of a system include bunk space (at least 2 feet per cow and 1.5 feet per calf), adding calcium to diets using byproducts high in phosphorus and implementing technology such as estrus synchronization, A.I., growth implants and ionophores.

Limit-feeding an energy-dense diet to cows or pairs in confinement for a segment of the production cycle can be a viable alternative to increasing permanent perennial pasture.

Producers choosing to limit-feed cows or pairs in confinement must consider the nutrient needs of the cow, changes in nutrient requirements as production phase changes, nutrient content of available feeds, availability and associated costs of available feeds, as well as the increasing feed demands of the growing calf.  end mark

PHOTO: Limit-feeding in confinement requires understanding the cow’s nutrient needs. Staff photo.

Karla Jenkins
  • Karla Jenkins

  • University of Nebraska – Lincoln
  • Panhandle Research and Extension
  • Email Karla Jenkins