Wintering yearlings pays off

Three Nebraska cattle producers who have adopted winter grazing programs for their operations are realizing benefits from the practice.

Maddux Cattle Ranch of Wauneta started grazing cornstalks with yearlings six years ago. “In 2005, we sold all of our cows with the intention of gradually rebuilding our herd. This meant that we had about 75 circles of cornstalks that we had been renting for 20 or 30 years without cattle to graze them,” says Harlow Hill, ranch manager.

They wanted to keep control of the pivot land while they rebuilt the cow herd, and in order to do that, they tried a couple of things. First, they took in cows from producers in Colorado and Wyoming. Second, they worked on a plan to place yearlings on some of the cornstalks.

They decided to start receiving purchased calves weighing between 350 to 450 pounds at home. After backgrounding them, they started putting the heavier calves on cornstalks and supplemented them with wet distillers grain while they grazed the stalks. Their ration started at about 3 pounds of WDGS per day. As the calves got older, the level was increased, but the first few years, they never fed more than 10 pounds of WDGS per day, Hill notes.

At a glance

More ranches are adopting winter grazing programs.

Supplementing with wet distillers grain is often part of the program.

Winter grazing programs work well for yearlings.


Smaller calves were put on a ration in a drylot. Their goal was to get them up to, but not over, 650 pounds by the time they wanted to put them on grass. This was because one grass rental agreement stipulated they would pay the gain per pound of the yearlings. Bigger steers meant the lessor must run fewer stockers.

When March arrived, according to Hill, they would sort the calves on stalks and take the lighter end back home and start pushing them in the drylot to get them caught up. “In the first two or three years of doing this, we had trouble getting them heavy enough to go to grass. We were always 50 to 100 pounds light of being ready. At this time we realized we needed to change our program,” he adds.

They put together a mentoring group made up of successful yearling producers and university specialists. “Jack [Maddux] and son, John, have always been good about finding people with knowledge in our industry and using them as a resource,” notes Hill.

Immediately, their mentors told them to stop worrying about the 650-pound weight restriction. They told Hill and Jack and John Maddux their goal should be to send yearlings to the Colorado site weighing 649 pounds. Those that weighed more than 650 could be sorted out and either sold at turnout time or be placed on other grass without weight restrictions.

So they switched from primarily a hay ration and now feed those on stalks as much distillers as is safe to keep them coming along. “When we were pushing these cattle with the distillers, they were getting about 6 pounds a day to start with. We tried to keep our groups small enough so, that at least early in the winter, we could get by with feeding them every other day,” says Hill.

They developed this system because a lot of the stalks were 30 miles away. “We would also watch the cattle at home in the drylot. When we thought some were big enough, we would weigh them, and if big enough, would send them to cornstalks. This means that we sorted every two or three weeks all winter. We were moving a 1,000-head herd every eight or nine days.”

It took some personal convincing that the sorting would pay off, he notes. “It was a real key to having calves closest to the target weights as possible. When spring came, we all had learned that sorting cattle is a valuable tool, as our yearlings going to grass were all close to our weight goals of 650 pounds for steers and 600 pounds for heifers.”

John Maddux, who returned to Nebraska in 1999 to join the family operation, notes, “The powerful part of the yearling business is how you winter them. We have come to realize that bigger steers put on grass can have good average daily gains. Our mission is continually looking for the optimum program for wintering.”

An economist is developing a cost accounting system for wintering yearlings, a move John described as “humbling.” “We found out our costs were not really as competitive as we’d hoped. That said, having these figures is a powerful tool in evaluating our grazing program for the winter.”

Batie writes from Lexington.

01121524a.tif

OPTIMUM PROGRAM: John Maddux says his ranch’s winter grazing/feeding program continues to evolve.

This article published in the January, 2012 edition of NEBRASKA FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.