Every now and then I’m asked for some advice on new ways of feeding cattle. With the drought extending its impact across NSW, those requests are much more frequent. Most requests are generally pretty straightforward. But there are always one or two requests that need a bit more of a response beyond feeding rates and methods.
One of those more challenging requests for advice comes when people ask me about the benefit of feeding sprouted grain to cattle. You may have seen this system somewhere. It involves soaking grain on trays and allowing it then to sprout and grow for about 5 days. The sprouted grain is then taken off the trays and feed to cattle.
On the surface it seems like a pretty good way to feed cattle. Promoters of these systems will tell you that they can turn 1kg of grain into 6 to 9 kilograms of green feed. Again that sounds pretty impressive, and almost too good to be true. To make it seem even more exciting, you’ll probably be told it’s the cheapest way to feed cattle.
Well, the simple fact is, when something is too good to be true, there is generally a catch. And in the case of these sprouted grain systems, there are quite a few!
The first big catch comes in the form of the feed you are providing. Quite simply if you do sprout 9kgs of feed from 1kg of grain, you don’t actually have 9kgs of useable feed! Most of that weight is made up of water in the plant. And water has no nutritional value! There is no energy or protein in water.
In fact the Dry matter percentage (DM%) of most sprouted grains ranges from as low as 6% to 15%. So if you’ve produced 9kgs of spouted feed with a 15% Dry Matter, what your animals really get to eat is 1.35kgs of feed.
It’s not a lot of feed really! In fact all you’ve done is taken 1kg of feed and marginally increased the amount that you have to feed stock.
The second catch comes from the quality of the feed you have produced. Some very neat work by the QDPI on the use of sprouted grains summarized the research work done to compare shed sprouted grains, grasses and grain. The interesting thing comparing say sprouted barley against barley grain, apart from the spouted being so low in DM%, was that the Metabolisable Energy (ME) of the sprouted grain was lower than the cereal grain. Crude Protein % was a little higher in the spouted grain.
If you are wondering how that is a catch, its really quite simple. In a drought we are looking to provide energy to stock in the cheapest way. Feeds that are higher in energy are more useful to feed. To be economic in a feeding program its more ideal to provide higher or more energy dense feeds. This basically means you can feed smaller rations but still meet animal requirements.
Lower levels of energy mean you need to feed a little more. Combine that with the impact of low DM%, and the actual amount you need to physically feed each ay can become pretty significant.
I decided to compare this scenario through the NSW DPI Drought Feeds Calculator. To make it simple I decided to compare feeding 10 cows for a month on either sprouted grain or normal cereal grain with the addition of roughage for rumination.
To make it more relevant, I used the figures given to me by a producer who told me he buys grain to sprout for $70 /tn. I compared it to barley at $310 /tn, which is what one of my clients paid this week.
The amount and cost of feeding spouted grain (without the labor cost added) for 30 days to feed 10 cows can be seen in this summary
Basically to allow for the Dry Matter of the sprouted feed, you would need to grow just over 31kgs of feed per animal. That would cost you $2.18 / day and for a month you would need to spend around $650.
This compares to feeding grain. While the cost of feed barley is much higher (as per the quotes I’ve been given) it is in the long run a much cheaper option.
The first thing that should jump out when you look at these comparisons is the difference in the amount you need to feed. The difference of 4.8kgs of grain compared to 31kgs. This then translates into a cheaper daily cost per head, and a significant difference in your monthly feed bill!
However, the comparison needs to go a lot further. To feed grain you do need to consider how to introduce it, to feed it either in self-feeders or in troughs each day. There is some labor in feeding!
The QDPI work also considered the cost of labor to produce sprouted grain. The systems can be very labour intensive (although some systems are automated). However to make sprouted grain work there is a range of tasks from loading grain into the soaking solution, making the nutrients; outing grian into trays, checking growth, cleaning old trays out and then actually feeding the sprouts to the livestock!
The report suggested that it takes between 2 – 4 hours to produce 1,000kg of sprouted grain, which in reality is about 150 – 200kg of feed for cattle.
The cost of your time is a huge factor to include when considering these systems. Based on the sums I did earlier; 1,000kg of sprouted feed would meet the needs of about 32 adult dry cows. That’s a lot of time to feed a small number of animals.
Finally the report considered the actually cost of producing the sprouted grain. Most systems require a sizeable shed (which is often something you have to build first) and install the hydroponic system to sprout the grain. You’ll still need silos to store grain anyway. On top of this are the running costs as well as the cost of grain and considerations such as repairs and maintenance. The QDPI team calculated it costs around $92 to produce about 800kg of sprouts. On a dry matter basis, that’s $92 for 96kg DM.
That’s a pretty high figure to include in your comparisons!
I think its important to also ask if there is any difference in the performance of animals that are fed on sprouted grain compared to grain. If there were significant advantages, well I guess it would help explain the attraction of the system. Sadly it appears that there’s really no significant benefit from feeding sprouted grain.
So what does it mean! Feeding cattle is a costly, time consuming exercise. If its not planned well, costs quickly blow out! You need to choose a system that is cost efficient and provides the best balance of energy and protein without incurring huge costs. Its better to fed less of higher quality than more of average quality. Equally important is not spending a lot of time and effort producing a product that really offers no nutritional advantage!
Droughts are tiring and difficult. Checking cattle, assessing feed, moving stock, checking water, well you know the things you need to do every day. I don’t think adding 2 to 4 hours work into the day to produce a product that is ultimately no better nutritionally but much more expensive makes much sense.
Perhaps for small numbers or for a specific purpose it may suit your program. But for the producer looking to efficiently feed a large number of cattle appropriately, I don’t think its an economic option.
Ultimately you need to run your numbers. Just remember that when you do, you need to take out the water component! Compare the feeds on their value and Dry Matter. Then you’ll know if it’s a system for you.
“How many cows should I be running?” “Is a higher stocking rate more profitable than a medium stocking rate?” Over the last few years, these are questions I’ve been asked on occasion. Following my recent post on the basics profit drivers, a few people have approached me with similar questions.
These are questions producers have grappled with for a long time. Where is the benchmark for profitable beef production? First of all, what does it cost to produce a kilogram of beef in Australia? The latest figures I’ve seen from ABARES suggest that in Southern Australia, the cost is around $1.74 and in Northern Australia it is $1.75
Looking a little further into the data, it becomes clear that herds with small numbers are much more impacted on by costs associated with production. In southern Australia, herds with less than 100 head don’t produce enough beef to cover the costs associated with the business. Herds over 200 head are slightly more marginal. Often they break even because the business model relies on unpaid family labor!
Moving over 400 head is where the operations seem to start to become less marginal and more profitable. In northern Australia, the figures seem to be similar, with herds around the 400 – 1600 mark relying on the unpaid labor to get through and over that 1600 mark the systems become more profitable.
There is no doubt that higher numbers have a key influence on profit. It’s very hard to capture economies of scale with a small operation. However, its important to look beyond the simple argument that more cows means more profits. Increasing numbers needs to be considered fairly carefully.
I have been looking at some work on the relationship between stocking rate and profitability conducted in Queensland. These have been very interesting to read. The studies have looked at the relationship between stocking rate and gross margin for growing enterprises and for breeding programs.
The key findings from the studies include:
- Increasing stocking rate does lead to an increase in production per hectare
- However this increase is offset by lower production per head
- There is a point where increased numbers will not increase production per hectare and may actually reduce production levels
- Lower production levels per animal will lead to price reductions for fat or MSA compliance. These often reduce any increase in gross margin achieved through the higher numbers.
- Increased stocking rates increase the demand for supplements and lengthen the time period of drought feeding
- Breeding herds tend to be less efficient with lower conception rates, lower weaning rates and lighter cull cow weights
From this work it appears that increasing stocking rates to high levels offers only short-term increases in profitability. In my own experiences with producers who have pushed their stocking rates to high levels, it is a strategy that seems to increase risk to uncomfortable levels.
By that I mean increasing the risk of seasonal conditions impacting more swiftly and to a greater degree. Putting pastures under high stocking rates puts more pressure on plants and plant root systems. Without a corresponding increase in fertilisers or plant nutrition, it doesn’t take long to see pastures become sparser, composition changes and animal performance decreases.
The change in composition is a significant issue. I have been working on the restoration of grazing properties in the south of NSW that have had a long history of high stocking rates and insufficient pasture nutrition. Much of my work now is associated with programs to eliminate invasive weeds and replant desirable pasture species.
Any increase in income from more animals has long been spent on worm control, supplementary feeds and now weed and pasture work.
There is no doubt there are times when you need to manipulate stocking rates for specific outcomes. I’ve recommended it with producers planning to renovate pastures, and we have used high levels to graze pastures right off in preparation for cultivation. But that has been a short term management strategy.
I think the numbers discussion needs to be treated with some caution, and more importantly some realistic objectives. I don’t think increasing numbers in the chase for more kilograms of beef per hectare is justified if it sees your animals struggle to meet production targets.
I can’t really justify the drop in conception rates for breeders or the drop in compliance rates for sale animals just to run a few more head. So if you wanted to increase stocking rate and maintain high animal performance, you’ll most likely need to increase your fertilizer program, or your use of supplements or even both. If it requires you to spend more to make that little bit more, is it really worth it?
When I am asked about the right number of animals, or what stocking rate to consider, I can’t give a definitive answer! What I can do is to work through the opportunities to use pastures efficiently and in a way that doesn’t compromise the long term viability of pastures, ensures high levels of animal production and doesn’t increase the ability to respond to changing seasonal conditions.
So when you do look at stocking rate, take the time to look beyond the raw numbers. If you are pushing stocking rate to the point where your animals are inefficient, or its costing you more in inputs than you are producing, you need to re-evaluate your program.
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