Cow/calf Production with Limited Perennial Grass: Capitalizing on Opportunities to Integrate Cropping and Cattle Systems

Final report for LNC19-418

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2019: $199,642.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2023
Grant Recipient: University of Nebraska Lincoln
Region: North Central
State: Nebraska
Project Coordinator:
Dr. Mary Drewnoski
University of Nebraska Lincoln
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Project Information


Cow/calf Production with Limited Perennial Grass: Capitalizing on Opportunities to Integrate Cropping and Cattle Systems

In the North Central Region of the U.S. a significant amount of pasture was converted to cropland in the last decade. When asked their opinions on research needs related to cow/calf production, Nebraska and Iowa cattle producers indicated that limited availability of perennial pasture was a significant issue; however, they also suggested that there are opportunities to integrate cattle and crop production. There was interest in fall calving cow systems because they can help to distribute the labor better over the year. In these integrated systems, pairs can be grazed on annual forages/cover crops in the fall and early spring and corn residue over the winter. During the summer, cows may need to be managed in confinement. However, there are no comparisons of how an integrated system might compare with a perennial forage based system in terms of cow and calf health and performance as well as system economics. Thus a replicated on-station study will be conducted in which fall cows will be managed using cropland grazing and summer confinement and compared to a perennial forage based system.  Two critical areas of concern for cattle producers were the nutritional and health management associated with calves in confinement conditions. With this in mind additional on-station research will be conducted to evaluate nutritional management strategies for the young calf while in confinement. Additionally, the disease incidence of nursing calves managed will be benchmarked at cooperator farms to determine risk factors that contribute to calf hood disease and to develop management strategies to minimize risk. The overarching goal is to assist producers in effectively incorporating confinement feeding of cows as a component of a system that includes grazing crop residues and annual forages in areas where perennial pasture is limited.

Project Objectives:

The overarching goal is to assist producers in effectively incorporating confinement feeding of cows as a component of a system that includes grazing crop residues and annual forages in areas where perennial pasture is limited.

The objectives of this project are to: 1) compare a pasture based, to cropland based, fall calving cow system, 2) evaluate the nutritional management of the confined calf, and 3) characterize risk factors that contribute to health issues in young calves.  

In result, producers will understand opportunities for fall calving cow systems and learn to manage nursing calves in confinement to optimize performance and health.


A total of 43 innovative producers discussed their opinions on the research and education needs regarding cow/calf production. The need for and management of cow/calf pairs in confinement was a central theme that was in the top four research priorities identified by all of the producer groups interviewed. These groups indicated the need for a better understanding of: 1) feeding management requirements for calves, 2) risk and management of calf diseases and 3) economics of integrated cropping-cow/calf systems. 

These questions are not limited to Nebraska; similar questions have continued to be raised by Iowa cattle producers.  In 2013, Iowa cattle producers indicated that land access for grazing was their #1 concern and the idea of confinement cow-calf systems and the potential impacts on herd health was #8 on their list of research needs (Gunn and Loy, 2015). In January of 2019, Iowa cattle producer were again asked their research and education needs. Once again, pasture loss and increased rent was their #1 issue. The need for more knowledge of the potential for cover crop grazing and alternative cropping systems was a top priority. Confinement of cow-calf pairs was discussed at 5 out of 6 of their focus groups with questions on labor needs, health, management, and economics being raised (Lippolis, 2019).

Why is research on cow-calf systems than include confinement and cropland grazing a high priority for cattle producers in the North Central Region (NCR)? Across the NCR, a significant amount of pasture was converted to cropland in the last two decades. During the time period of 1998 to 2018, the cropland acres in ND, SD, NE and KS increased from 80.1 million to 85.0 million. Much of the increase in cropland that occurred in the region over the past two decades resulted from the conversion of acres producing perennial forages (Wright, and Wimberly, 2013). The decrease in supply of perennial acres has also resulted in doubling of the rental rates for range and pastureland in the NCR.  Rental rates per animal unit month increased 35% from 1998 to 2008 and an additional 45% from 2008 to 2017 in these states (NASS, 2018). Thus, cow/calf systems that take advantage of opportunities to integrate cattle and crop production are vital to sustaining or increasing beef cow numbers across the NCR.

What are the opportunities for cow/calf systems without perennial pasture?  In integrated systems that combine cropping and cow/calf production, cows may be grazed on annual forages/cover crops in the fall and/or early spring and corn residue over the winter. During the summer, cows may need to be managed in confinement when the cash crops are being grown. Gardine et al. (2018) reported that year round confinement is feasible and that while late summer born pairs grazing corn residue in the winter being supplemented with distillers grains resulted in less calf gain than year round confinement, the net profit was greater for the grazing pairs. This is because the cost of supplementing pairs on corn residue can be quite low. In fact, the use of corn residue for grazing is a major cost advantage for cow/calf producers in the NCR (Redfearn et al., 2019). In terms of fall grazing, the forage nutritive value of late summer planted oats and oats-brassica mix has been shown to be quite high and remains elevated into the winter. When planted after wheat harvest or early harvested corn silage and grazed in the winter by growing calves, gains of 1.3 to 2.2 lb/d can be achieved (Drewnoski et al., 2018). While this would suggest that the nutritive value would be adequate for cows in early lactation, their use during the breeding season has not been explored.

Research on management of cows in confinement. Feeding cows in confinement was initially researched as a drought mitigation tool to remove cows from perennial pastures in danger of overgrazing. Indeed, confinement management offers producers the ability to sustain drought stressed perennial pastures without having to endure costly destocking and restocking following the drought. Thus far, research has focused on the impacts of limit feeding cows (Loerch 1996; Jenkins et al., 2015; Warner et al. 2015).  It has been shown that limit feeding a mix of nutrient dense by-products such as distillers grains with low digestibility roughages such as wheat straw or corn residue is an effective and economical way to feed cows in confinement (Jenkins et al., 2015; Warner et al., 2015). Shike et al. (2009) reported up to 75% of the diet of production cows in confinement could be supplied by corn-based co-products in limit fed diets, greatly reducing the cost of the ration and the need for perennial pasture. Meteer et al. (2018) replaced silage with high-moisture corn stover in limit fed confinement diets for gestating and lactating cows, successfully reducing diet costs.

However, two critical areas of concern for cow/calf producers are the nutritional and health management associated with calves in confinement conditions. Unfortunately, this has not been extensively studied. Rumen development of the beef calf is important for the post-weaning success of that calf. However, limit feeding pairs in confinement may not be the most beneficial diet for facilitating rumen development and post-weaning rumen capacity in the nursing beef calf. The forage intake of the beef nursing calf has not been extensively studied, although research has shown the grazing calf to select a diet higher in protein and energy and lower in fiber than its dam (Horn et al., 1979; Ansotegui 1986; Hollingsworth-Jenkins 1994). Although not commonly considered as a large component of the nursing beef calf diet, research has indicated the nursing beef calf will consume approximately 1% of their BW in forage by 3-4 months of age (Hollingsworth-Jenkins, 1994). The suckling calf receives milk directly to the abomasum via closure of the esophageal groove. Because this meal does not enter the rumen, it does not promote rumen development (Orskov et al. 1970). Therefore, forage or concentrates must reach the rumen to initiate development. Thus feeding management during the nursing phase can have both immediate and long-term effects on calf productivity.  

The most common causes of death in current U.S. cow/calf production systems are calving difficulty, environmental exposure, calf scours, and pneumonia (USDA NAHMS, 2015). In total, these 4 categories of losses are estimated to cause approximately 73% of calf losses. Individual cow/calf production systems demonstrate a wide range of management and environmental diversity. For example, many pasture-based systems manage calving in lots that share many of the characteristics of confined cow environments. Alternatively, confined cattle operations often take advantage of harvested crop fields as calving environments.  Given this level of diversity, calf health is more likely to be tied to risk factors that drive adverse health events rather than whether the system is primarily confinement or pasture-based. A critical need exists to measure the frequency of known risk factors for adverse health events in calves and measure the impact of those risk factors on calf health within the context of different production systems. Filling this need will both allow a more thorough understanding of the health risk inherent to confined systems compared to pasture-based systems and allow cow/calf producers the ability to assess and mitigate risk factors particular to their system.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Dr. Karla Wilke (Educator and Researcher)
  • Dr. Lindsay Waechter-Mead (Educator and Researcher)
  • Dr. Brian Vander Ley (Educator and Researcher)
  • Hannah Speer (Researcher)
  • Morgan Grabau (Researcher)


  1. In integrated systems that combine cropping and cow/calf production with fall cows grazing on annual forages/cover crops in the fall a and corn residue over the winter can be economically viable for producers with limited access to perennial pastures.
  2. When limit feeding cows a diet containing low quality forage plus concentrates in confinement, providing nursing calves access to a diet containing medium quality forage in addition to being able to nurse their dam would economically improve calf performance as opposed to only allowing the calves access to the limit fed cow diet, or weaning calves early and feed them separately.
Materials and methods:

Cow System Comparison

Cow management systems were compared in a replicated study. A fall calving cow system using summer confinement with late-summer planted cover crop and corn residue for fall/winter grazing was compared to a traditional summer grazing perennial pasture based system using harvested feeds in the fall and early spring and winter corn residue grazing.  The health of the cows and calves and production parameters (pregnancy rate, live calves born and weaned, weaning weight etc.) were evaluated. Approximately, 380 August/September calving cows were allocated into 8 groups.  Allocations were stratified across replicates by cow age and genetic background.  Four groups were randomly assigned to a perennial pasture based system and four to a drylot and cropland based system.  Cows were maintained within replicate for the life of the experiment.  In both systems a cow:bull ratio of 25:1 and a 49 d breeding season was used. 

Cows in the perennial based system started grazing perennial grass in mid-April and continue through October. When necessary, cows received harvested feed to maintain a body condition score (BCS) of 5 on a 1 through 9 scale. In November, at the start of breeding, the cows were fed harvested feeds on the dormant pasture . In January, the pairs were weaned and the cows started grazing corn residue. Calves were moved to a drylot and penned by  replicate and fed a growing diet. In late February or early March, cows were moved to dormant perennial grass pastures and received supplemental feeds to maintain a BCS of 5. Cow body weight and BCS were determined at the start of spring grazing (April), in July, beginning of breeding (November), and at weaning (January). Calves were weighed at birth, at breeding, at weaning, and 112 days after weaning.

Cows in the confinement system were managed in drylot from mid-February through October. Cows were fed a limited intake ration of corn residue, corn silage and distillers to maintain a body condition score (BCS) of 5.  In October, pairs were moved to a late summer planted oats, rye, brassica mix and grazed till January when calves were weaned.  The cows were then moved to graze corn residue  similar to the perennial based system.

Nutritional management of the calf

Previous research has indicated that cows in confinement are most profitable when fed a nutrient dense diet with limited intake. However, research is needed to determine the best management strategy for feeding the nursing calf.

To accomplish this, summer calving cow/calf pairs (n= 54 per year) were blocked by calf age (105 ± 16 day of age) and assigned randomly to one of three treatments: 1) kept with dam with access to cow diet only (PAIRS) 2) early-weaned (EW) or 3) kept with dam with access to a diet containing higher quality forage (CREEP). Each treatment was replicated 3 times over 2 years to obtain 6 replications per treatment for statistical evaluation. The cow diet was 55% wet distillers grains (WDGS) and 44% straw. This diet was fed to meet dry cow requirements  for EW, lactation requirements in CREEP, and lactation requirements plus allow for some calf intake (in PAIRS. The calf diet fed to the EM and CREEP calves consisted of 51% alfalfa hay, 25% WDGS, and 22% corn. Intake was managed using a slick bunk system to achieve close to free choice intake while ensuring feed in the bunk is fresh. The PAIRS and CREEP calves were weaned at 203 DOA. A  growing diet was fed post weaning of CREEP and PAIRS (223 DOA to 311 DOA). In year 1 the growing diet consisted of 40% corn, 18% corn silage, 18% soybean meal, 18% alfalfa hay and 6% mineral. In year 2 the growing diet consisted of 34% corn, 25% corn silage 10% alfalfa hay and 6% mineral. 

Body condition score and body weights of cows as well as body weight of calves were measured at the start of calf treatments (105 DOA) and at weaning of PAIRS and CREEP (203 DOA).  At 203 DOA calves were fed the growing diet for 110 days and weighed.  The economics of these systems were compared with the assumption that the calves are sold at 203 DOA as well as being retained and backgrounded (314 DOA) before being sold.

Health of calves managed in confinement

Producers have indicated concern about the health of calves in confinement. Very little information is available to compare confinement situations to traditional pasture-based systems. In both cases, benchmarks would enhance producers’ ability to understand and manage disease. The project aims to measure the prevalence of risk factors and adverse health events, including diarrhea and respiratory disease, on producer operations.  Resulting data will allow more accurate characterization of the impact of these diseases in both systems and the risk factors that drive disease events. With this information, control strategies that focus on disease prevention rather than antimicrobial treatment can be developed. 

We captured information from seven operations. Normal management protocols were used to identify and treat diseased animals; however, producers were asked record additional information to enable use of standardized case definitions for common diseases. To assess risk factors, producers were asked to provide information related to cow condition at calving, information about calving conditions and difficulty, and information about characteristics of the calving group. Producers were also asked to record abortions, perinatal death (still birth or death within 48 h), and weak calves.  Health records were collected until calf groups were weaned, with a focus on incidences of diarrhea and pneumonia. Each outcome condition was analyzed for association, using multivariate logistic regression, with appropriate risk factor variables.

Research results and discussion:

Fall cow system comparison

Pregnancy rates did not differ (P < 0.72; Table 1) between treatments within year. There was a treatment × time × year interaction (P < 0.01) observed for cow BCS and calf BW (Table 2). In Year 1, BCS was greater (P < 0.01) at pre-calving (July), breeding (October), and weaning (February) time points for PF compared to DC cows; however, cows in the DC treatment never dropped below a BCS 5 and were still considered to be in adequate condition. Differences in BCS between treatments were expected because perennial forage (PF) cows could easily gain body condition when they were on summer pasture and not lactating, whereas drylot/cover crop (DC) cows were fed to maintain a BCS of 5 while in the drylot. Birth weights of calves were not different (P = 0.96) between treatments, with average weight being 86 ± 4 lb. At weaning, however, BW of PF calves was 12 lb greater (P = 0.03) than DC calves (403 vs. 391 lb, respectively).

In Year 2, cow BCS was greater (P < 0.01) for PF than DC cows at pre-calving and breeding but was not different (P = 0.12) between the treatments at weaning. Cows in the DC treatment in Year 2 never fell below a BCS 6. Like Year 1, calf birth BW was not statistically different (P = 0.12) between PF (81.8 lb) and DC (88.0 lb) groups, but unlike Year 1, weaning weights were greater (P < 0.01) for calves in DC compared to PF by 24 lb. The greater weaning weights observed in DC calves may be attributed to the feed resource available to pairs. Prior to breeding, pairs in the DC treatment were in the drylot and PF pairs were on pasture. From breeding until weaning, DC pairs were grazing a high-quality cover crop and pairs in the PF treatment received a TMR in the drylot. It is possible the different quantity and quality of feedstuffs pairs had access to in each system, especially from breeding to weaning, impacted calf performance.

In Year 3, BCS was greater (P < 0.01) for PF (7.7) at the pre-calving time point but was lower (P < 0.01) than DC cows at weaning (5.9 vs. 7.1). Cow BCS was not different (P = 0.98) between treatments at breeding in October. Body weight of calves at birth and weaning was not different (P 0.14)  between PF or DC, with average weaning weight across treatment groups being 478 ± 4 lb.

When examined over a 3-year period there were no consistent differences in the weaning weight of calves or reproduction of cows managed in a limit fed confinement system compared to those managed on perennial grass. Cow and calf performance were not sacrificed in the semi-confined cow-calf system. Although differences in cow BCS were sometimes observed between the two production systems across years, all cows maintained adequate body condition throughout the study and no differences were observed in pregnancy rates. Based on these performance data, a semi-confined production system combining summer drylotting, fall cover crop grazing, and corn residue grazing could be a viable alternative when perennial forage is limiting but ample cropland is available. However, viability of this system will ultimately depend on costs, which will vary among producers.

Table 1. Effect of August-calving cow-calf system on pregnancy rates by year. Systems were 1) perennial forage and corn residue grazing (PF) or 2) summer drylot, fall cover crop grazing, and corn residue grazing (DC).










Pregnancy rate, %





Year 1





Year 2





Year 3





Table 2. Effect of August-calving cow-calf system on cow and calf performance. Systems were 1) perennial forage and corn residue grazing (PF) or 2) summer drylot, fall cover crop grazing, and corn residue grazing (DC).










Year 1

Cow BCS3





Pre-calving (July)4





Breeding (October)5





Weaning (January)










Calf BW, lb










Weaning (January)6





Year 2

Cow BCS3





Pre-calving (July)4





Breeding (October)5





Weaning (January)










Calf BW, lb










Weaning (January)6





Year 3

Cow BCS3





Pre-calving (July)4





Breeding (October)5





Weaning (January)










Calf BW, lb










Weaning (January)6





1Average SEM across treatments within each time point.

2P-value for main effect of treatment within time point. 3-way interaction between treatment, time point, and year was significant (P < 0.01) for cow BCS and calf BW.

3Body condition score (1 = emaciated to 9 = obese).

4PF cows grazing perennial forage, DC cows limit-fed in drylot to meet energy requirements.

5Body condition prior to bull turn-out for breeding. In Year 1, PF cows placed on stockpiled forage sorghum and DC cows placed on alfalfa/grass pivots. In Year 2, PF cows placed in the drylot and DC cows placed on cover crop. In Year 3, PF cows placed on dormant perennial grass pastures and DC cows placed on cover crop. Breeding season was 44, 46 and 49 d in Years 1 through 3, respectively.

6Age of calves at weaning in Year 1 through 3 was 143, 157, and 164 d, respectively.

Management of the Young Calf when Dams are Limit-Fed in Confinement 

Cows. The body condition score of cows did not differ among treatments at the start (104 day of age; DOA) and end of calf management treatments (204 DOA).  As designed, cow diet intakes were the greatest (< 0.01) for PAIRS (26.6 lb/hd/d) followed by CREEP (22.7 lb/hd/d), and least (< 0.01) for the EW cows (17.8 lb/hd/d). Cows were being program-fed, targeting to meet their dry (EW), or lactating requirements (PAIRS, CREEP) with PAIRS being fed an extra 4 lb/d for the calf. However, it should be noted that the cows in PAIRS may have consumed a proportion of that which was allocated to the calf. 

Calves. At the start of the early to normal weaning period, there was no treatment by year interaction (P = 0.58), year (P = 0.98) or treatment (P = 0.82) effect for the initial BW of the calves in December. There was a treatment by year interaction (P < 0.03) for ADG during this early to normal weaning period. In year 1, CREEP gained the most  having greater (P < 0.01) ADG than both EW and PAIRS, with EW (1.01 kg) being greater (P < 0.01) than PAIRS. In year 2, CREEP calves still had the greatest (P < 0.01) ADG, but ADG of EW  and PAIRS  did not differ (P = 0.42) from each other.  

As a result of differences in ADG, the BW at the end of the early to normal weaning period in March when calves were about 204 DOA, had a significant treatment by year interaction (P < 0.05). In the first year, CREEP calves tended to be greater (P = 0.08) than EW calves, and both were greater (P ≤ 0.02) than PAIRS. In year two, the BW of CREEP calves was greater (P ≤ 0.02) than both PAIRS and EW which did not differ (P = 0.20).  

There was no treatment by year interaction (P = 0.36) for intake of the calf diet offered to CREEP and EW from December to March. There was a treatment effect (P < 0.01) with the EW calves having greater (P < 0.01) intakes than CREEP calves ( in both years of the study. The EW calves may potentially have greater intakes than the CREEP calves because they are solely eating their own calf diet, whereas the CREEP calves may be eating some of the cow’s diet as they were observed at the bunks next to the dam at the time of feeding. The CREEP calves were also consuming milk which may have also reduced feed intake (Tedeschi and Fox, 2009).  Wiseman et al. (2019) also observed greater intakes for EW calves than that of CREEP calves.

In the current study, there was also a tendency for a year effect (P = 0.09) with both CREEP and EW eating less in year 2 than in year 1. The EW calves in year 2 had much lower gain than in year 1 while CREEP had a slight decline and ADG of PAIRS  did not differ. The lower intake in year 2 may partially explain the lower gains of EW and CREEP in year 2. The difference in gain response between EW and CREEP may be due to weather influences. On average, in year 2, temperatures were colder and precipitation was higher than that of year 1. Therefore, cold stress could very well play a role in the early to normal weaning period in year 2. Early-weaned calves were not able to use their dam as windbreak unlike the other two treatments. It appears that when there is cold stress, keeping cows and calves as pairs may offer a buffering effect. Suggesting that in times when cold stress in more likely, there is more risk of lower performance for EW than PAIRS or CREEP. The current study cannot definitively say there is a benefit to managing an early weaned calf or keeping as pairs, but CREEP calves had the best performance in both years of the study for the early to normal weaning period.  

Once the early to normal weaning period concluded in March, PAIRS and CREEP were weaned. Thus, PAIRS and CREEP calves underwent weaning stress at this time, whereas EW calves went through this in December. At the time of PAIRS and CREEP weaning, all calves were fed the calf diet for approximately three weeks. There was not a significant treatment by year interaction (P = 0.88) or treatment (P = 0.74) effect for ADG during this relatively short period of time with all calves gaining about 1.0 kg/d. There was a significant treatment by year (< 0.01) interaction for intakes. However, within year, EW had the greatest (< 0.01) intakes and CREEP  had greater (≤ 0.03) intakes than PAIRS. Early-weaned calves may have had the greatest intakes due to the fact that they did not undergo weaning stress at this time, plus, they were already familiar with the diet. The CREEP calves were also familiar with the diet, but they had weaning stress, and lastly, PAIRS may have had the least intake because they had both weaning stress and an unfamiliar diet at this time.

All calves (~223 DOA) were then fed a growing diet from April to July (~89 days). There was a treatment by year interaction (P < 0.05) for calf BW at the start of the growing period due to differences in gain during the early to normal weaning period. In year 1, CREEP calves tended to have greater (< 0.06) weights than EW and both having greater (≤ 0.02) BW than PAIRS. In year 2, CREEP calves had greater (< 0.01) weights than both EW and PAIRS, with no difference (P = 0.25) between EW and PAIRS.

For ADG during the growing period, there was a tendency for a treatment by year interaction (P = 0.08). In year 1, ADG of CREEP was lower (P ≤ 0.02) than PAIRS and EW which did not differ (P = 0.62). However, in year 2, there were no differences (≥ 0.47) among treatments.  

Thus, there was a significant treatment by year interaction (P < 0.02) for calf BW at the end of the growing period in July. In year 1, the end BW of CREEP and EW calves did not differ (P = 0.16) but were greater (< 0.01) than PAIRS. In year 2, CREEP calves had greater (< 0.01) end BW than both EW and PAIRS, which did not differ (P = 0.33).  

Intakes followed the same pattern as ADG during the growing period with a tendency (P = 0.08) for a treatment by year interaction. The PAIRS and EW calves had greater (< 0.05) intakes than CREEP in year 1, but there were no differences (≥ 0.31) among treatments in year 2. All of the calves ate more in the second year of the study than in the first year. This interaction may be a result of potential compensation for lower gains due to the unfavorable weather during the previous period (early to normal weaning) in the second year of the study. 

Table 3. Performance of calves from December (104 DOA) to March (204 DOA) when kept with the dam and only allowed access to the cow ration (PAIRS), early-weaned (EW) at 104 DOA, or kept with the dam but given access to the calf ration in a separate area (CREEP). Calves in the PAIRS and CREEP were then weaned at 204 DOA. All calves were fed the calf ration until April (223 DOA) at which point they were transitioned to a growing ration through July (311 DOA)



Year 1 Treatments 


Year 2 Treatments 















104 to 204 DOA (Early Weaning to Weaning of PAIRS and CREEP) 


Dec Wt., lb











Mar Wt., lb











ADG, lb











Intake1, lb/DM/d 











204 to 223 DOA (Weaning of PAIRS and CREEP) 


Intake, lb/DM/d 











ADG, kg 











223 to 311 DOA (Growing period) 


Apr Wt., lb











July Wt., lb 











ADG, lb 











Intake, lb/hd/d 











Intake of calf ration. Calves in PAIRS were not offered any calf ration and only had access to the cow ration which was limit fed. 

Means with common letters within the row indicate no significant differences among treatments. 

When calf value and total feed costs, using market prices from the last 6 years, were considered, creep resulted in the most return over feed costs at weaning (204 DOA) as well as at the end of the growing period (314 DOA). The average cost of the cow diet used was $140/ton of DM and the calf diet was $159/ton DM. The economic analysis did not account for the extra cost of mixing a second diet for CREEP and EW. However, the average value returned above feed cost was worth $1.51 per calf per day more than PAIRS from the start of the CREEP treatment till weaning at 204 DOA. Given that mixing costs are unlikely to be that high it seems that providing calves access to a separate diet when cows are being limit fed in confinement is potentially profitable when selling at weaning (204 DOA).  The growing period did result in greater returns above feed costs for all treatments, with PAIRS tending to have (P = 0.09) the most return above feed cost during the growing period. However, the whole system returns (104 to 314 DOA) still tended (P = 0.10) to be greater for CREEP. Providing a separate calf diet during the pre-weaning period (104 to 204 DOA) resulted in CREEP retaining the equivalent of a $0.41 per calf per day advantage over PAIRS even after the growing period.

The current study cannot definitively say there is a benefit to managing an early weaned calf or keeping as pairs, but CREEP calves had the best performance in both years of the study for the early to normal weaning period. If producers are to sell at weaning, the most cost-effective system was CREEP, as it was more economical than PAIRS and EW at the end of the early to normal weaning period. If producers are to retain ownership, CREEP still has the greatest returns above feed costs.

Health of calves managed in confinement

Data was accumulated from seven herds over three calving seasons, resulting in 4,662 individual calving records. Of those calves, 1220 were flagged for various health events, with individual treatment and outcome records listed.  Weather conditions varied in each calving season.  Nebraska weather in February 2021 experienced a record low temperature of -31*F and March 2021 was the 3rd wettest March in recorded history.  In contrast, 2022 temperatures were above average (record high of 81*F in March 2022) and 2023 was exceptionally dry with historic drought conditions.  Observational data shows the majority of calf health events occurring during 2021 and 2022 calving seasons, with only 149 treatments recorded in 2023. 


Research conclusions:

August-calving offers potential opportunities of integrating beef cattle production with farming systems, as labor could be distributed better between these two enterprises across the year. It could help alleviate the problem of calving coinciding with field preparation in the spring, and weaning coinciding with harvest in the fall. The system incorporating summer drylotting, fall cover crop grazing, and corn residue grazing offers producers flexibility in managing their cow-calf herds when perennial pasture is not available or rental rates are high. When cow and calf performance of two August-calving cow systems that combined corn residue grazing with 1) perennial forage grazing and hay or 2) summer drylot feeding and fall cover crop grazing were compared there were no differences in pregnancy rates between systems and no consistent difference in calf performance. Overall, the drylot/cropland system appears to have potential as alternative to a perennial forage-based system for producers with limited or no perennial grass.

Previously our research has shown that limit feeding a mix of nutrient dense by-products such as distillers grains with low digestibility roughages such as wheat straw or corn residue is an effective and economical way to feed cows in confinement. However, it appears that this practice does appear to limit their calf’s rate of gain. Current research has indicated providing a separate higher quality ration for the calves can improve rate and cost of gains resulting in more profit potential over early weaning at 4 months or age or when weaning 7 months of age, but providing the calves with the same diet as the cows in the same bunk at the same time. Providing a growing period (90 days) after weaning at 7 months of age can result in some compensatory gain for calves not supplemented on the cow, however, neither the early weaned or non-supplemented calves weighed as much or had better returns than the supplemented calves.

Observations of the data show that the biggest indicator of calf health events is individual producer calving systems and protocols. These data have generated interest in the following areas: effects of calf shelters on health outcomes, vitamin A supplementation in neonatal calves, neonatal calf treatment protocols on health outcomes.

Participation Summary
7 Farmers participating in research


Educational approach:

We used a multifaceted approach to our educational outreach. We conducted webinars, workshops, field tours, podcasts, wrote extension articles, and gave presentations at other educational events.  We also worked one-on-one with producers to help them develop management that will work for their situation. 

Project Activities

On-farm assessment of risk factors and adverse calf health events in NE cow-calf operations
Crop Livestock integrated Production Systems (CLIPS) Eastern NE Producer Focus Group
On-farm assessment of risk factors and adverse calf health events in NE cow-calf operations
On-farm assessment of risk factors and adverse calf health events in NE cow-calf operations

Educational & Outreach Activities

300 Consultations
1 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
5 Published press articles, newsletters
1 Tours
12 Webinars / talks / presentations
6 Workshop field days
1 Other educational activities: Focus group

Participation Summary:

347 Farmers participated
77 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

Producer focused outreach

A webinar providing guidance on how to manage cows and their calves in drylot was conducted in November of 2020. This webinar provided recommendations based on the first year of research results on nutritional management of the calf when limit feeding cows in confinement. There were approximately 30 people that attended the webinar live with 17 of them saying they are very likely to make changes to their management. There were an additional 1,329 that have watched the recording on YouTube.

Two 3 hr workshops focused on cow-calf production with limited perennial acres were held in December of 2021 with a total of 52 participants.  Of the 34 participants completing an evaluation of the workshops, 88% stated that the event was above average compared to other educational opportunities available to them with the remaining 12% responding that it was one of the best.  Of those responding to the evaluation survey, 93% said they were likely or very likely to make changes to their management as a result of attending the program.

A 45 minute presentation was given at the Driftless Region Beef Conference held in Dubuque, IA in 2021.  There were 40 participants and of those filling out the evaluation all reported an increase in knowledge.

Two 45 minute extension talks were given on early weaning and one on confinement feeding of cows as drought management strategies in 2021 with about 20 people attending each presentation.

A 20 minute research update was given to 30 producers at the NE cattlemen's meeting. 

A 45 minute presentation was given at Cattle U in Dodge City, KS in 2022 on confinement feeding of pairs due to drought conditions. 50 participants attended and subsequent questions and interactions indicated the audience found the information helpful for their situation.

In the fall of 2022, had a tour attended by 20 producers in which the cow and calves in the system with limited perennial acres were viewed and the results of the project were discussed.

A 45 minute presentation was given at the Driftless Region Beef Conference held in Dubuque, IA in 2023 discussing options for cow calf systems with limited perennial forage. There were 50 participants and of those filling out the evaluation all reported an increase in knowledge.

A podcast for Buzzard’s Beat on confinement cow management was done in 2023 with over 360 views.

A podcast for Kansas State’s Dr. J’s Beef podcast series was done on early weaning based on the research of this project in 2023.

A 45 minute presentation titled “Managing Mother Nature and the Newborn Calf” was given to 30 women at the 2023 Nebraska Women in Ag conference.

BeefWatch Podcast on managing hypothermia in newborn calves was recorded in February 2023. 

BeefWatch podcast on managing Weak Calf Syndrome was recorded in March 2023 where observations from this study were discussed.

BeefWatch podcast on Understanding Scours was recorded in April 2023 because of interest generated from this study.

Two 3-hour calving workshops were presented in the Panhandle of Nebraska during January 2024. Information was focused on managing health risks associated with environmental conditions. Over 55 producers and 70 college students attended, with all evaluations reporting an increased of knowledge on the subject.

Scientist and educator (trainer) focused outreach

A presentation was given to 13 extension educators and 5 specialists at in service training in May of 2021 on the young calf management and in May of 2022 on cow systems with limited perennial pasture.

Presentations were given at American Society of Animal Science Meetings describing the research results 

  • Speer, H. and E. Drewnoski. 2022. Comparison of Semi-confined and Pasture-based Fall Calving Beef Cow Systems. Journal of Animal Science. 100: Supplement 3.
  • Grabau, M.T., K. Wilke, and E. Drewnoski. 2021. Management of the Young Calf when Dams are Limit-Fed in Confinement. Journal of Animal Science. 99: Supplement 1.


Learning Outcomes

79 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
10 Agricultural service providers reported changes in knowledge, skills, and/or attitudes as a result of their participation
Key areas taught:
  • Cow calf nutritional management
  • calf health management

Project Outcomes

Key practices changed:

    Information Products

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.