When Midwestern cattle producers decide to expand the cow herd, elevated land prices and poor pasture availability will be a headwind. As a result, there will be interest in alternative systems such as semiconfinement or extended drylot housing for beef cows.

Meteer travis
Beef Extension Educator / University of Illinois

These are not new production strategies, as they are often deployed during times of drought or during winter feeding. However, the duration of time cows are housed in the alternative system is a key distinction.

The University of Illinois beef cattle group has been investigating and producing cattle in alternative housing systems for several years. Research results have consistently shown acceptable cow and calf performance. This makes sense to me. Cows receiving a balanced, least-cost ration will perform to the formulation. Cows that are on pasture are subject to weather conditions, especially rainfall, to supply adequate forage availability.

Cows housed in more limited space are more subject to the human management of the environment. Bedding and maintaining pen conditions have a substantial effect on the health and cleanliness of cattle. The spread of disease and introduction to bacterial pathogens can be magnified if the environment is not clean and well-ventilated. In a pasture setting, these are not generally challenges. Thus, if this alternative system is new to a producer, management changes will be necessary to avoid scours, mastitis and other animal health concerns. Foot health and lameness need to be well monitored.

I recently conducted an on-farm survey with producers that have adopted an alternative cow-housing system. It was encouraging to see innovative ways to accommodate beef cows. Here are some observations from the survey and my conversations with these producers.


It was common to see calving occur in these facilities, mainly in the winter months. All the farms utilized available pasture and crop residue to offer grazing days instead of total confinement. Muddy conditions and endophyte-infected fescue pastures were production challenges in the area where these systems were being utilized. Close proximity to economical byproduct feeds and using cover crops for forage were common components for shaping the rations. Cows were generally in good body condition score. In some instances, they were moderately overconditioned. None of the survey respondents said their cows were underconditioned. This may illustrate the local availability of nutrient-dense feeds or possibly a reduction in cow requirements due to less travel or a more controlled environment. The use of technology, such as estrus synchronization, artificial insemination, embryo transfer and cameras for monitoring, was prevalent.

Overall, researchers and producers have been investigating alternative cow-housing systems. Utilizing crop residues, byproduct feeds and cover crop forages seem to be important components of this production model. Understanding best practices for airflow in buildings, bedding needs and pen maintenance is important to maintaining appropriate herd health goals.