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What Do I Do If I Don’t Have Enough Winter Feed For My Livestock?

Photo courtesy of Missouri Extension
Photo courtesy of Missouri Extension

You did your best to prepare for the winter and ensure that you could feed all your stock.  But sometimes things go wrong. What do you do if it turns out you don’t have enough feed? Should you try to buy and bring in extra feed given how expensive that is and how it will affect your bottom line? Or is there another option? With the livestock markets the way they are and the cost of any purchased feed or hay, take a very close look at the animals you have right now and decide if you can justify feeding those mouths.

Almost every meat animal is valuable today and that actually creates a double-edged sword when you consider culling. Livestock prices, especially cattle prices the last few years have been good, really good. This has created opportunities for some retirement age producers to step out of the business on top. As a result, cattle numbers have dropped to 1950’s levels. Low numbers and high demand makes it hard to save back heifers because they are needed to meet feedlot quotas. This slows down herd rebuilding and building new herds. Meanwhile, the price consumers are willing to pay for a good piece of meat has a limit too. The last quarter of 2013 gave us a sample of a possible new trend–more poultry consumption, less beef, as well as the potential for more imported beef to meet demand and reduce cattle prices.

These market factors are important to consider when we’re considering winter feed. We really need to think about which animals we keep and which we sell or cull today to lower winter feed inputs. Without focusing on a particular type of ruminant animal, I will try and list some reasons to cull that would be appropriate for cattle, dairy, sheep and goats in general.

Body condition

If an animal is not able to gain efficiently on the pasture or fed feeds present, especially as compared to the rest of the group and maintain itself likewise, then this animal is certainly a candidate for culling. These animals certainly couldn’t be called “easy keepers;” in fact, quite the opposite. This can be due to higher energy requirements, heavier parasite loads, or a possibly damaged rumen limiting nutrient intake for a few possibilities.

Attitude or temperament

Maybe it’s just me, but I think life is too short to have to deal with animals with poor temperament, especially when they outweigh you six or more times. Do we really want to keep them to raise more unruly challenges?

Illness and Other Problems

Photo courtesy of Langston University

There is certainly a list of ailments that would justify an instant culling. Presence of Johne’s disease for beef and scrapies for sheep would top my list. There are also numerous genetic traits that probably should not be proliferated. Animals predisposed to pink-eye, blindness, damaged utters or testicles, difficult calvers/kidders/lambers, and prolapsing animals, just to name a few. Animals that are not reproducing or cycling regularly or are lame should be considered for culling.

Improving the herd

Culling a certain percentage of the group should probably be a yearly event. If you cull or sell off a certain percentage of the group each year, such as ten percent of them, then the remaining animals are that much better and you are augmenting the best animals. Selecting for animals with good conformation is important. They should have good feet and legs, udders, good scrotal conformation, and good girth and appropriate frame. They should also hold appropriate characteristics for the breed, and male and female features.

In conclusion, if the animal does not fit your program, management, or goals then consider culling it. Ideally, don’t sell it to your neighbor either. Using these concepts, we have an opportunity to build herds back with good, sound, efficient animals that can provide us and the next generation with even better stock.

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Victor Shelton
Victor Shelton
For more than 25 years, Victor Shelton, Indiana agronomist and grazing specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, has provided advice about grazing’s best practices. He travels across the state conducting pasture walks, working one on one with farmers and participating in grazing talks. He also writes a newsletter called "Grazing Bites" as a way to talk about current and seasonal grazing issues and what farmers need to be prepared for.

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