Nathan Eckel has adjusted the crop rotation surrounding his family’s northwest Ohio beef feedlot to produce a high forage diet and reduce the feed expense. Photo by the Ohio Soybean Council.

Adjusting feed as costs rise

By Matt Reese

Skyrocketing feed costs have livestock producers pushing pencils, adjusting and re-adjusting their nutrition plans to manage expenses. 

Nathan Eckel farms around 2,000 acres in Wood County and feeds out Holstein cattle with his brother. Eckel considers it a “good” year when crop prices are high because of some restructuring they have done to meet the nutritional needs for the cattle on the feedlot. 

“My brother and I usually have around 700 head of cattle on feed here all the time in conjunction with our row crop ground we farm in northwest Ohio,” Eckel said. “Pre-pandemic, we saw cattle prices dwindling down. We were looking for a way to mitigate our losses and do more with what we have here on the farm rather than having to rely on other producers to produce the products we feed our livestock. We changed our feeding operation to try to capitalize on our livestock operation as feed prices were ticking up and fat cattle prices were heading down. 

“In conjunction with the H2Ohio program, we saw an opportunity to reduce costs on our feed side by going more towards a forage type diet rather than straight shelled corn. For years we were feeding straight shelled corn and the liquid supplement with some dry hay. The cattle did well, but we needed to mitigate our feed costs. We went to a corn, wheat, sorghum-sudangrass rotation on the 100 acres around the feedlot. That helps with H2Ohio Program to pull the nutrients out of the soil and reduce our runoff losses and we are using it to really improve our cattle. We can produce a really nice animal with that high forage diet.”

Corn silage is chopped and the other forage can be handled multiple ways. 

“With the sorgum-sudangrass we can also chop it and bag it in a silage bag like we do with silage corn, or we have a neighbor with a tube wrapper and we can wet bale it,” Eckel said. “We already had a baler that could handle the wet baleage. And we knew that if it got away from us we could always chop it with the silage chopper. We’re not doing an enormous amount of acres. We do it in chunks of 50 acres.”

The dietary change has worked well.

“The cattle take a little longer to get fat because it is not quite as high energy of a diet, but they really do well. Every once in a while we would have acidosis because the cattle would pick through that feed when we fed straight shelled corn. Now, with the wetter ration, they don’t pick through it as much and they are getting a more wholesome diet. I know that does not work for everyone, but it works for us. The TMR mixer really changed the ballgame when it comes to that.”

They also have the ability to pick up a wide array of ingredients from the local area with a belt-floor trailer to add to their rations. 

“We have a really good nutritionist we work with. We are fortunate that we can feed a lot of byproducts here in northwest Ohio in conjunction with what we raise on the farm. We can get oat screenings, corn screenings from The Andersons. We can get corn screenings from Luckey Farmers. We can get DDGS (dried distillers grains with solubles) from a number of ethanol plants and we can switch to soybean meal with ADM in Fostoria. We can get wheat midds (middlings — a byproduct of flour production) from Mondeléz in Toledo,” Eckel said. “As our feed changes, we work with our nutritionist constantly to keep a consistent diet for the animals. Right now we are feeding corn silage, dry hay, wet DDGS from the ethanol plant, corn screenings, and when we have some sorghum-sudangrass wet baleage, we’ll switch out the corn silage.”

For Jim Jolliff, Ph.D swine nutritionist for Kalmbach Feeds and Kalmbach Swine Management, the rations fed to Kalmbach’s pigs are continuously evolving based on prices and available ingredients in various locations around northwest Ohio and out-of-state.  

“The adjustments we’re making now in many ways are not different from the adjustments we would normally make all year round. We’re constantly evaluating the ingredients available to us in order to balance the cost of the ration against the performance it provides so that we can deliver the lowest cost result. For example, in the winter, we can afford to lower cost of the rations through lower nutrition because pigs will still grow well. The price for hogs generally isn’t as good in winter as summer, so we can’t pay as much for feed,” Jolliff said. “However, this summer corn and soybean meal prices are going up and the cost of fat has gone up significantly. We are constantly looking at not just those ingredients, but our prices for midds, DDGS and any other ingredient we might be able to obtain to lower diet costs. It looks like the price of hogs should be pretty good this summer which justifies higher performance diets, but how much can we chase performance at the cost of using high priced ingredients? For this summer I had planned to use high energy diets to chase weight. Now, as ingredient prices keep rising, I’m having to revise that plan. I might not be able to chase the weight as hard as I wanted to in February, because I can’t afford to pay that much for feed and still make money on those hogs. Ultimately this could reduce the amount of pork available to consumers as other companies make these same decisions.” 

It is an ongoing challenge for swine nutritionists, including Jolliff, when managing costs versus performance in these rapidly escalating ingredient markets.

“Our typical swine diets might have 12 or 16 ingredients in it. We use the major commodities, corn, bean meal, DDGS, midds, and then we use other opportunity ingredients. So, for instance, we might use peanuts. The problem with some of those opportunity ingredients is that you can have them for a month and then they’re gone or the price changes drastically. This creates significantly more work for our team and requires constant attention to make sure the formulations are correct. Our swine feed for our pigs today has corn, soy, midds and DDGS. If you’d asked me a week ago, there would be very few DDGS and a lot more midds. In three weeks, I don’t know,” Jolliff said. 

As subtle (and not-so-subtle) price dynamics change day-to-day and hour-to-hour, the diet for Kalmbach’s contract hogs is adjusted accordingly to meet the needs of the animals and their growth goals while fitting in the necessary budget driven by the markets. 

“With all these changes in the markets around us, what I can tell you is I’m thankful to be a part of a great team at Kalmbach,” Jolliff said. “Our team is working every day to make sure we have the ingredients we need at the best price possible, and that the formulations are accurate and up-to-date to deliver the right diet to our pigs and to the consumer who ultimately consumes the pork.”

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