Biological and Economic Synergies of
Integrating Beef Cows and Field Crops


Vern Anderson and Blaine Schatz

Carrington Research Extension Center

North Dakota State University




Most cattlemen rely on range and pasture grasses as their primary forage resources.  Several varieties of these perennial grasses are native cool and warm season species.  There are some introduced or improved annual and perennial grasses available for grazing or harvested forage as well.  Some sustainable crop rotations are increasingly including forages for a variety of reasons including weed control, to break disease cycles, and strong markets for hay.  Annual grasses include corn, wheat, barley, oats, millet, sorghum, and sudan.   For corn, wheat, barley, and oats, the residue after grain harvest is a forage resource, but these crops can be harvested as silage or hay as well.  Millet, sorghum, and sudan  are deliberately grown for forage.  Cows contribute fertilizer to the cropping systems in the form of manure which contains nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. Part of the mission of the Carrington Research Center Livestock Unit is to develop management practices and recommendations for practical use of cropping system biomass and alternative feeds in beef cow/calf enterprises and more recently in feedlot operations. 


Research Findings in Nutrition

A number of trials have been conducted to explore residues and co-product feeds in cow diets during the past several years.  The collective results have repeatedly shown that cows can be fed a wide variety of feeds and if properly balanced for the cows’ genetic potential, will support satisfactory reproductive performance, good cow condition, and healthy calves.  More responsibility falls on the manager to formulate diets to match respective gestation or lactation needs when feeds are provide vs allowing cows to graze. 


Some of the feeds used successfully in balanced diets for lactating cows during several research trials include small grain straws (wheat, oats, barley), several oilseed meals (crambe, canola, sunflower), screenings (wheat, sunflower, pea, flax, barley), co-product feeds (soyhulls, barley malt pellets, wheat midds, oat hulls, potato processing waste, corn processing co-products), and more conventional grains like corn and barley.  In many cases, co-product feeds are preferred over grains as the starch from grains will lower digestibility of forages due to a shift away from fiber digesting microbes in the rumen.  Grains should be limited to 4 lbs per day or less for optimum fiber digestion but highly price competitive feed grains may override this recommendation.  Several publications are available through extension that summarize research studies and give recommendations on feeds and co-products and their nutritional value.  These include Wheat Middlings, A useful feed for beef cattle (AS-1175; Alternative feeds for ruminants (AS-1182), Feeding field peas to livestock (EB-76), Feeding barley to beef dattle (EB-70), By-products and regionally available alternative feedstuffs for dairy cattle, (AS-1180) and Drylot  beef cow/calf production (AS-974).   When feeding new or unknown feeds, a lab analysis is recommended before formulating diets.  More specific information on using alternative feeds in cow and calf diets can be found in previous research reports ( or by contacting animal nutritionists at the Carrington Center (701 652-2951, or 


Vitamin and mineral nutrition is a concern with extensive use of co-products.  Vitamin A is easily and quite inexpensively supplemented by injection or by adding a dry supplement to the feed.  Feeding small amounts of good quality alfalfa provides adequate vitamin A as well.  Extra calcium may be needed to balance high phosphorous levels when higher levels of grain are fed or with some co-products.  A good comprehensive micro-mineral supplement is recommended when feeding large amounts of straw or other low quality forages.  High sulfur levels in some corn co-products should not be a problem in cow diets as these high-protein feeds are used at low percentages in brood cow diets. 


Palatability is an important factor for livestock diets, although cows are less sensitive to the flavor of feeds than calves.  Glucosinolates in crambe meal have a bitter flavor but comparative feeding trials suggest this new oilseed meal (30% crude protein) can be fed at up to 50% of a supplement formulation in cake or in mixed feeds.  Deoxynivalenol or DON in barley had no negative effect on intake, cow condition, or rebreeding, and actually improved calf gains when 12 pounds of 36 ppm DON barley was fed to lactating first calf heifers in a straw based diet.   High fiber feeds such as sunflower screenings and oat hulls have limited and in some cases highly variable nutrient content.  These feeds may be purchased at a lower price and any palatability issues can be avoided by mixing with other nutrient dense feeds. 


A practical approach used at the Research Center is to provide a limited amount of a nutrient dense feed depending on the ingredient(s) and offer low quality forage such as straw free choice.  The supplement can be fed as a cake or in bunks but all cows need to have access to prevent dominating cows from over-consumption.  The free choice straw or low quality forage allows cows to satisfy their need for dry matter.  The practice of offering a few pounds of supplement may be used with dry pastures to minimize grazing pressure.  In cases where no forage is available, cows can be fed limited amounts of co-product feeds or grains to meet nutrient requirements.  This approach is usually cheaper than purchasing hay.  Cows will seek additional dry matter as limited amounts of co-products or grain will leave them hungry.  


There are many commercial feed additive products on the market that claim to improve forage utilization.  Some claims are valid but more research is needed.  Some yeasts, enzymes, organic acids, and other products are widely promoted but the cattleman is encouraged to conduct a cost/benefit analysis before adding these ingredients to cow diets.


Feeding supplements to cows requires some labor but offering a 2-day supply of a nutrient dense supplement on alternate days has been explored with satisfactory results.  Stressed pastures or free choice residue /low quality forage provides dry matter to satisfy the cows and a 2 day supplementation schedule does not disrupt rumen function.


Grazing of cropland biomass is often relegated to aftermath opportunities.  This is a valid and cheap feed source for gestating cows.  Extended periods of aftermath grazing will require supplementation of protein and vitamin/minerals.  This can be done with small amounts (2-4 lbs) of cake, mixed feed (3-6 lbs), or high quality forage (5-8 lbs) such as second cutting alfalfa.  The amount of feed will vary depending on ingredients used and type and amount of aftermath grazing remaining. 


Cropland pastures where annual or perennial forage is deliberately sown for grazing cows has not been explored in an integrated cows/cropping system scenario.   This method of integrating crops and cows may increase net return to the farm during challenging grain marketing times.  Irrigated mixed alfalfa/grass pastures were used for grazing at the Carrington Center several years ago.  Bloat preventive blocks were necessary but animal performance was acceptable.  With irrigated cropland, more beef was produced per acre when corn silage and alfalfa were grown in rotation and fed to cows in drylot.  Corn offered the option of grain harvest and feedlot use for calves.  Cows were supported by aftermath grazing of stover. 


Some warm season annual grass forages such as sorghum, sudan, or corn are being deliberately grazed in the late summer and fall.   Moisture stressed cereal grains and hay may also be harvested by grazing cows, however, drought stressed forages may contain high nitrate levels from incomplete metabolism of nitrogen.  Samples from the most stressed areas of the field should be analyzed. See Nitrate Poisoning of Livestock V-839(Revised) for further information on feeding high nitrate forages.


In every case described above, cow health and condition should be continually evaluated and changes made in diets or management if problems arise or cow condition is seriously affects.  A margin of nutritional safety may be appropriate just before and during breeding season to insure cycling and conception.  Consultations with beef cattle specialists is advised if you have questions on feeds or strategies for feeding in drought or other unique scenarios. 


Manure applied to cropland or deposited during aftermath grazing will reduce the need for purchased commercial fertilizers.  Estimates for the fertility value of manure vary with diet nitrogen and with cost of nitrogen in commercial fertilizer. The reader is referred to the paper “ Manure Nutrient Utilization” elsewhere in this publication or the extension publication “Manure Application Planning” (AE-1187).


Economics of Integrating Cows and Crops

Only 16-18% of agricultural income is attributed to livestock in North Dakota, dominated by beef cow enterprises.  Surrounding states realize over 40% of agricultural income from livestock enterprises. Virtually all available rangeland is grazed so increased cow numbers must be supported with crop biomass.  The net economic effect of increased cow/calf production based on cropping system biomass and use of more co-products in-state could be substantial. 


Economic returns to a beef cow enterprise are to a great extent dependent on feed costs, as this is the single greatest expense.  Using “cost of production” for feed to determine net return places credits toward the beef cow enterprise for total farm income.  If actual or estimated “market prices” are used, it can create an artificial scenario for estimating feed costs that can be lower than actual costs in some cases and exorbitantly higher in other cases.  However, it is logical to use market prices when feeds have been purchased.   Beef cows in the integrated crops/cows scenarios are often considered as scavengers, consuming otherwise low value or unmarketable feeds and forages.  The calculation of profit from crops enterprises or crops with cows enterprises must be interpreted carefully with whole farm returns providing the appropriate comparison. 


A comparison of breakeven costs for producing weaned calves under traditional pasture or with drylot production (Anderson and Meyer, 1983) used a 10 year average of pasture production coefficients from the North Dakota Beef Cattle Improvement Association and coefficients for drylot production developed at the Carrington Center.  Granted, costs figures have changed since this paper was written but the relative breakeven prices for calves may still be valid for comparison.  Feed costs were based on actual production costs.  Breakeven prices for marketing weaned calves in this model were $59.23 per cwt for drylot calves and $89.78/cwt for high production pasture calves.  Drylot cows require significantly lower capital investment per cow but facility and equipment depreciation is accelerated.  Labor needs were greater for drylot cows.  Salvaged residue and other opportunity feeds provided an advantage in feed cost per head.  Total annual cost per head was $305.70 for drylot cows and $308.98 for high production range cows.


In a typical east central ND farm modeled for a three year period, crops or crops plus drylot cows were compared for net returns (Sell and Watt, 1989).  Sixty five beef cows could be supported throughout the year from the cropping system biomass available.  Adding cows to the crops only farm using the same cropping sequence increased requirements for operating capital by $7200, improved net returns by $12,166, and lowered the year to year coefficient of variation in income from .85 to .48.  Cows require labor and management and at certain times of the year there is potential for conflicting demand.  However, cows can spread depreciation of machinery over more enterprises and occupy available labor during months of little cropland activity.


In another model, Sell (1989) concluded that a typical east central ND farm using conventional or minimum tillage could provide adequate feed biomass for up to 85 head of drylot beef cows.  The drylot cow enterprise increased operating capital requirements by an average of $8241 and improved net returns to overhead for the farm by $22,190.  Production coefficients for animal performance and feed requirements were taken from actual data generated at the Carrington Research Center livestock unit.


More recent data from the 2001 state-wide average of North Dakota Farm Business Management report compared returns for crops only farms with combined crops and beef cattle operations.   Net farm income was averaged for 146 crop farms and 103 crop and beef farms. Net returns increased from $34,916 to $37,554 with the addition of beef cattle in a year with a relatively soft cattle market.  In addition, labor and management earnings were reported as $12,304 for crops only and $18,063 for crops and cows operations, with a net worth improvement for crops and cows of $8986 over crops only.  This comparison had not been made in previous years but will be included in all future reports. 



Clearly, synergies exist to improve biological and economic sustainability in crop farms by adding beef cows.  Livestock management expertise and reasonable facilities are required for optimum production.  Past research with alternative feeds, drylot management, and early weaning gives producers information for feeding and managing a cow herd during drought or for adding an enterprise to capture value of cropping system biomass.  North Dakota has a wide variety of abundant feed resources for supporting many more beef cows and for increasing backgrounding and finishing calves. The livestock sector is poised for significant growth which could enhance producer returns as well as the overall economy of North Dakota. 


References Cited

Anderson, V. L. and R. F. Meyer. 1983. An economic comparison of three beef production management systems.  North Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station Farm Research Bi-monthly Bulletin Vol. 40: No 5 pp14-18.

North Dakota Farm and Ranch Business Management. 2001.  State Averages.  Annual report.

Sell, Randy, and Dave Watt. 1989. Profitability of including a drylot cow/calf enterprise in a typical east central North Dakota grain farm.  NDSU-Carrington Research Extension Center, Beef Production Field Day Proceedings. P34-39.

Sell, R. S. 1989. Adding a drylot cow-calf enterprise to an eastern North Dakota grain farm.  Masters of Science Thesis.  Agricultural Economics Department.  North Dakota State University, Fargo.



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