Managing the heard when pasture is limited

When pasture is limited, making the decision to put cows in confinement could help producers stay in the cattle business.
When pasture is limited, making the decision to put cows in confinement could help producers stay in the cattle business.

Tips for cow-calf management in confinement situations


PARSONS, Kan. – Consecutive years of drought could prompt beef cattle producers to find ways to unconventionally feed and manage their cow herds. One option when grass is limited is moving the herd to a confinement situation.


Jaymelynn Farney, K-State beef systems specialist, said making the decision to put cows in confinement could help producers stay in the business. Although this past summer experienced more moisture compared to summers the last few years, consecutive years of drought has led to less overall acreage, or pounds of forage for cattle to graze, and competition for crop farming ground.


“Total acreage of grazing pasture has decreased,” she said. “Cattle producers need to think outside of the box for ways to capture premiums they are receiving from the calf market now.”


Feeding cows in confinement can be expensive, but producers can keep their operation profitable by making good decisions on culling, diets and proper housing.


Keep or cull?


Farney said the decision to keep or cull cows is one of the toughest for producers.


“The four easy ones of get rid of are your four O’s—old, open, ornery and oddball,” she said. “On your older females, as some of the farm management data has shown, after about 10 years of age they get to be not quite as productive. Maybe those are the ones you want to get rid of and get younger females to improve the genetic progress within your herd. Open is self-explanatory. If she’s not producing a calf, she’s not worth keeping around. Who wants to deal with some of those mean-spirited, ornery females? And, oddballs are those females that don’t quite fit into your management scheme.”


More specifically, oddball cows might be a different color or calve at a different time compared to the rest of the herd. Bad-uddered cows should also be considered for culling, Farney said.


She added that producers should consider weaning calves before putting the cows in confinement. Research has shown producers will have minimal issues with weaning calves around 90 days of age. Early weaning also enables cows to rebreed sooner, because they will be able to use energy previously used for lactation to maintain their body condition. Bred dry cows in their first and second trimesters also require less energy and protein compared to cows in their last trimester and those that are lactating.


“Not only that, but you won’t have to deal with young, small calves competing for feed and water space, that extra number of head in a small area, and the disease and other respiratory risks, especially if it’s dry and dusty,” Farney said about benefits of early weaning for cows in confinement.


Producers, especially if weaning early, should start the calves on a creep feeder on pasture for a couple of weeks with their mothers, so they get adapted to going to a bunk to eat, she said said. For the cows, confinement provides the opportunity for estrus synchronization, therefore shortening the next calving season.


“(The cows) are already contained, and most times your working facilities are right there, too,” Farney said. “It’s not hard to bring your cows in, set them up for synchronization protocol, use artificial insemination and maybe infuse some new genetics into your group.”


Open cows also are more easily identified in confinement, she said, which could help producers with their keep-cull decisions.


What kind of diet is acceptable in confinement?


Limit feeding cows with a nutrient-dense diet is key in a confinement situation. Limit feeding can make cows more efficient and put on body reserves, Farney said. They will also create less excrement, which from a waste management standpoint becomes a benefit.


“Traditionally, feedlots have used limit feeding to increase the efficiency of their steers,” she said. “We can use limit feeding for cows in confinement as well. Limit them to 1.5 to 2 percent of their body weight for daily intake.”


For example, if a producer is feeding a 1,000-pound cow, 2 percent of her bodyweight is 20 pounds of feed per day. Feeding her at 1.5 percent is 15 pounds.


When feeding cows a limited diet, Farney said producers should watch for any metabolic disorders such as bloat and acidosis, which are associated with high-concentrate diets. They also should make sure the cows are adapting well from a forage diet to a high-grain diet, and provide the cows with mineral supplementation and roughage, such as hay or silage.


Limit feeding requires a protein and energy balance, she said. Protein supplementation in the cows’ diet is important, as protein helps with various functions, including digestion. Urea is an example of inexpensive protein source that is completely degradable in a cow’s rumen.


“You can feed corn right now, especially with today’s corn prices, as a cheap option from an energy perspective,” Farney said. “Maybe feed a little less hay if that’s more expensive. Try to keep your cows in satiety, where they don’t feel like they’re hungry.”


What are the pen considerations?


Producers have three potential options for confined areas when they have poor pasture conditions, Farney said, which include a drylot, a make-your-own feedlot with bunks or a portion of pasture that is sacrificed to allow the rest of the pasture to grow.


“For example, in order to save the rest of my pasture, I am going to sacrifice one acre,” she explained. “On one acre, I was able to put 160 dry cows, haul in some bunks, have a water source and keep those cows confined in that one area to have time for the rest of the pasture to recoup. I’m sacrificing one acre to potentially save a quarter section.”


How much space a producer needs depends if dry cows or pairs are being confined, and if the conditions are wet or dry. Dry cows on well-drained, hard-packed facilities need less area than pairs in wet, muddy conditions, Farney said.


Dry cows in an optimal lot condition with drainage would need at least 125 square feet each, whereas those in a not well-draining muddy type of pen situation could need up to 700 square feet of space.


Each cow also needs 24 to 30 inches of bunk space, and horned cattle would need even more space. Water access in all confinement situations is a crucial element, as each cow will consumer 15 to 20 gallons per day.


“Water is the No. 1 nutrient for cattle,” Farney said. “It doesn’t matter how good of a diet you have, if you don’t have enough water, your cattle are not going to perform the way you need them to. You need to make sure, whatever water source you have, it can continually supply water for the number of head you have.”


Keeping cows and calves together requires more pen space—at least 400 square feet per pair in drylots. If a producer decides to confine pairs, semi-confinement could be the best option.


“Semi-confinement is where you can keep your pairs together, but put a creep gate up so the calves can get out into grass,” she said. “You’re still keeping your pairs together but minimizing the dust and potential respiratory issues for those calves.”


Another consideration for producers is providing shade. They should plan on 20 to 25 square feet of shade per cow for continuous protection from the sun and to minimize heat stress.


Finally, when considering confinement, waste management and appropriate pen location considerations become important. Producers should work with professionals in these areas to make sure they are in compliance and have minimal impact on the environment.


In addition to putting cows in confinement, Farney said producers have other options such as leaving the herd on pasture with supplementation, feeding cows in a commercial feedlot, or selling all or part of the herd. A guide to help producers make management decisions is available in a K-State Research and Extension publication ( More specifics about managing cows in confinement is also available online (

Story By: Katie Allen


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