DUBUQUE, Iowa — Changing dynamics for cattle producers in the Midwest continue to drive the discussion about alternate cow production strategies such as semi-confinement or extended dry lot housing for beef cows. Land prices are increasing while the availability of land for pasture becomes less and less; droughts are seemingly more common, and urban sprawl continues to eat away at farmland.

However, ideas of semi-confinement or extended dry lot housing for beef cows are not new production strategies, said Travis Meteer, a beef Extension educator with the University of Illinois, during his presentation at the Driftless Region Beef Conference on Jan. 25. But before a beef farmer dives into either of these strategies, they must take into account the many considerations such as increased labor and resources, intensified herd health protocols, and proper manure management and bedding of animals.

“There’s pros and cons to this subject,” Meteer said. “Like everything, there are two sides to every coin.”

Benefits to semi-confinement or extended dry lot housing of beef cattle include the ability to limit-feed TMR; improve animal handling and facilitate calving and AI breeding; and the possibility to reduce dependency on pasture by using other crops.

Challenges include the requirement of a good relationship with the farm’s veterinarian as health challenges are probable; an increase in labor as feed needs to be delivered in a confinement system; an increase in equipment needed to provide for those animals ;and the need for more facilities and infrastructure, which could also drive overhead costs.

To further investigate these benefits and challenges, along with the effects on cows and calves in extended dry lot housing, the University of Illinois conducted a demonstration at the Orr Beef Research Center in west-central Illinois. In spring 2017, researchers and students began monitoring cows that remained in the dry lot where they had been housed for wintering and compared them to cows rotationally grazing cool-season pastures. Cows were monitored for 82 days, with dry lot cows limit-fed a corn silage-based ration.

In both groups, cows lost weight during the demonstration period, Meteer said. Cows also had similar milk production and conception rates, with the demonstration leading to a dry lot cow trial at the research center in 2018.

The trial contained two experiments. One looked at the effect of housing beef cows on dry lots versus pasture on cow production and reproduction, while another looked at the effect of housing cow-calf pairs in dry lots versus pasture on calf performance and calf behavior.

Like the demonstration, cows in the first experiment remained in the dry lot after the wintering period, while pastured cows were released into the pasture in April under a rotational grazing system. The cows in the dry lot were limit-fed a ration consisting of corn silage, dried distillers’ grains, cornstalks, corn and soybean hulls.

At the end of this part of the trial, researchers and students reported that the dry lot cows had a greater body weight than pastured cows, although Meteer added that the performance of the pastured cows may have been hindered by drought conditions. Body condition score, milk yield and reproductive rates did not differ between the two groups.

The second experiment focused on the calves of the mothers from the first experiment. Calves in the dry lot had ad libitum access to the same diet as cows in an adjacent pen while calves on pasture were rotationally grazed with free-choice mineral. After weaning, all calves were fed a diet consisting of corn silage, wet distillers’ grains, dry rolled corn and grass hay.

It was observed that dry lot calves had greater body weight and average daily gain prior to weaning, while calves from the pasture had a lower dirt score and greater hair coat score at weaning. Calves on the pasture also had less behavioral signs of stress and greater growth performance in feedlot.

Meteer observed no differences in yield or component levels in milk in these experiments. He wants to continue to investigate cow reproduction using these cow production strategies, but reported that AI rates were good on both groups.

“We have plans to keep looking at this year after year,” he said.

In summary, he indicated that research from the University of Illinois shows that extended dry lot housing of beef cows can serve as a short-term alternative to housing cows in a pasture setting. However, Meteer brought attention back to the considerations of this type of strategy, including increased labor, herd health, feed and manure management.