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

Progress report for LNC19-418

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2019: $199,642.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2022
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
  • 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 systems comparison

Cow management systems will be compared in a replicated study at Clay Center, NE. A fall calving cow system using summer confinement with late-summer planted cover crop and corn residue for fall/winter grazing will be 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 inputs (including labor) and costs, health of the cows and calves and production parameters (pregnancy rate, live calves born and weaned, weaning weight etc.) will be evaluated. Approximately, 400 August/September calving cows will be used and will be allocated into 8 groups.  Allocations will be stratified across replicates by cow age and genetic background.  Four groups will be randomly assigned to a perennial pasture based system and four to a drylot and cropland based system.  Cows will be 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 will be used.  Passive transfer in calves will be measured in both systems. Serum samples will be collected from each calf at approximately 48 hours of age. Total immunoglobulin concentration as well as isotype specific immunoglobulin concentrations (IgG1, IgG2, IgM, IgA) will be measured using quantitative ELISA. Disease specific risk as well as culling hazards will be calculated and compared. Calving and calf health records as outlined below in the “Health of calves managed in confinement” will also be maintained.

Cows in the perennial based system will start grazing perennial grass in mid-April and continue through October. If necessary, cows will receive 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 will start being fed harvested feeds on the dormant pasture to ensure they are in a positive energy balance. In January, the pairs will move to grazing corn residue and be supplemented with distillers grains. While cow-calf pairs are being fed harvested feeds on dormant pasture and when grazing corn residue, calves will have access to alfalfa hay via a fence line creep. In the middle of February, the calves will be weaned and moved to a drylot. Calves will be penned by sex and replicate and fed a growing diet. Cows will be moved to dormant perennial grass pastures and receive supplemental feeds to maintain a BCS of 5. Cow body weight and BCS will be determined at the start of spring grazing (April), in July, beginning of breeding (November), before being moved to corn residue (January) and at weaning (February). Calves will be weighed at birth, at breeding, when they are moved to corn residue, at weaning, and 112 days after weaning.

Cows in the confinement system will be in drylot from mid-February through October. Cows will be fed a limited intake ration of corn residue and distillers to maintain a body condition score (BCS) of 5. Cows will have a minimum of 2.5 ft of bunk space. In October, pairs will be moved to a late summer planted oats-brassica mix. Each group will be given 80 ac and will graze till January.  Then pairs will move to corn residue and be supplemented similar to the perennial based system. When in drylot and on corn residue, calves will have access to alfalfa hay via a fence line creep. At weaning the cows will move back to the drylots.

Forage and feed quantity and nutritive value will be measured throughout. The amount of all feed provided to both the cows and calves will be recorded. For stored feedstuffs a representative sample will be taken and analyzed for nutrient content (protein and energy content). Forage availability while grazing (both perennial pasture and oat-brassica mix) will be sampled every two weeks.  When grazing begins a 100 square foot exclusion area in each replicate pasture will be created every two weeks.  The exclusion area from the previous two weeks will be sampled to determine forage removal as well as nutrient content of the forage.  Before turn out onto corn residue, forage availability will be determined and a 100 square foot exclusion area will be created in for each group. Each week an additional 100 square foot exclusion area will be added to the area that each group is grazing.  When cattle are removed available forage in the exclusion areas, and the remaining field will be determined.

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, cow/calf pairs (n= 54) 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). The cow diet was 54% wet distillers grains (WDGS), 37% straw, and 8% corn. This diet was fed to meet dry cow requirements (17 lb DM/d) for EW, lactation requirements (24 lb DM/d) in CREEP, and lactation requirements plus allow for some calf intake (33 lb DM/d) 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. Each treatment will be replicated 3 times over 2 years to obtain 6 replications per treatment for statistical evaluation. 

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.   Our plan is to capture information from 20 operations. Normal management protocols will be used to identify and treat diseased animals; however, producers will be asked record additional information to enable use of standardized case definitions for common diseases. To assess risk factors, producers will be asked to provide information related to cow condition at and following calving, information about calving conditions and difficulty, and information about characteristics of the calving group. Producers will also be asked to record abortions, perinatal death (still birth or death within 48 h), weak calves, incidences of diarrhea and pneumonia. Each outcome condition will be analyzed for association, using multivariate logistic regression, with appropriate risk factor variables.

Systems economics

On-going work includes evaluating the effects of grazing, manure application and crop rotation (adding wheat plus cover crop into a corn-soybean rotation) on soil quality indicators and resulting crop yield. The proposed project will supplement this on-going research leading to the development of representative farm budgets and financial performance indicators for the various systems studied. Case farm system simulations will extend the study results with whole farm system sensitivity analysis, scalability, and economic viability testing. One advantage to a case farm approach is that it allows for participatory modeling that incorporates local farmers’ empirical knowledge into the theoretical management of the case farm or ranch. Participatory modeling will increase the credibility of the simulations and their local relevance (Martin et al., 2016).

In contrast to a reductionist approach, which would focus on specific components of the research, a case study approach in regards to the analyzing the economic impacts will allow for the evaluation of all components and associated interactions to draw the system-level conclusions that are required to properly evaluate integrated crop-livestock systems. This approach will tap into financial and resource information at the farm system level to explore complexities, resiliencies, and opportunities in regards to implementing the proposed systems. Stochastic analysis will be used to test the robustness of the systems under different production and economic conditions to encourage subsequent adoption and implementation.

Producer involvement

The original 5 focus groups, consisting of 43 innovative producers have agreed to serve as an advisory board. At the start of the project we will meet with each of the 5 groups to present our plan for data collection and get their help with refining the protocols for information that will be captured. Some of these producers will serve as cooperators for the economic and health assessment component of the project. We will meet with each group annually to provide progress reports, get feedback on the systems economic modeling, and plan outreach activities. Field days and workshops in year 2 and 3 will be designed to foster peer learning among producers.  During these events we will ask some of the cooperating producers using integrated crop and cow/calf systems to discuss how they make it work on their farm.

Martin, G., Moraine, M., Ryschawy, J., Magne, M., Asai, M., Sarthou, J., Duru, M., and Therond, O. 2016. Crop-livestock integration beyond the farm level: a review. Agron. Sustain. Dev. 36:53. DOI:10.1007/s13593-016-0390-x.

USDA-ARS. 2016. Integrated Farm System Model. Pasture Systems & Watershed Management Research Unit, University Park, PA.

Research results and discussion:

Management of the Young Calf when Dams are Limit-Fed in Confinement Year 1 Summary

The body condition score of cows did not differ among treatments at the start (105 day of age; DOA) and end of calf management treatments (203 DOA).  Calves in the EW had greater (< 0.01) intake (11 lb DM/d) than CREEP (9.0 lb DM/d) from 105 to 203 DOA. Calf average daily gain differed (< 0.01) among treatments from 105 to 203 DOA, with CREEP (2.84 lb/d) being greater (P = 0.02) than EW (2.22 lb/d) and both being greater (P ≤ 0.02) than PAIRS (1.62 lb/d). At ~203 DOA, PAIRS and CREEP were weaned and all calves were fed a growing diet. Calf intakes during the growing phase (223 to 314 DOA) did not differ (= 0.39). However, calf average daily gain tended (P < 0.06) to differ. The gain of PAIRS (2.49 lb/d) and EW (2.42 lb/d) did not differ (P = 0.67) but were greater (P ≤ 0.05) than CREEP (2.02 lb/d). Suggesting that the PAIRS and EW did experience some compensatory gain during the growing period.

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 (203 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 203 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 (203 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 (105 to 314 DOA) still tended (P = 0.10) to be greater for CREEP. Providing a separate calf diet during the pre-weaning period (105 to 203 DOA) resulted in CREEP retaining the equivalent of a $0.41 per calf per day advantage over PAIRS even after the growing period.

Participation Summary
12 Farmers participating in research

Project Activities

On-farm assessment of risk factors and adverse calf health events in NE cow-calf operations

Educational & Outreach Activities

12 Consultations
1 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participation Summary:

32 Farmers
5 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

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 approximation 30 people that attended the webinar live and 518 that have watched the recording on YouTube.


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.