Raising cattle indoors
LINDEN — Five years ago, Chad and Amy Wilkerson, of rural Linden, decided to try something new on their farm.
The chance they took has paid off significantly for them.
“Eight years ago, we attended a calving under roof seminar at the race track in Newton and were very intrigued,” Chad Wilkerson said. “We’d been in the hog business for a long time — I worked for Murphy’s for 18 years and for Iowa Select — and thought our experience would come in handy having cows under roof.”
The couple attended numerous open houses and seminars about the subject before he had his banker accompany one with him. Finally, four years later, “we ended up pulling the trigger.”
With pasture ground limited in their area, this only made sense for the couple who wanted to get more involved raising cow-calf pairs.
They built an Accu-Steele barn measuring 320 by 46 feet and set up eight pens inside it. They nestled 17 to 20 pregnant cows per pen depending upon what stage of the cycle they were in.
Their second building is 400 by 60 feet and set aside 80 feet of that as a working facility and calving area equipped with 20 calving pens and a chute.
There’s also a 30 by 40 calving office outfitted with three couches, a kitchen table, sink, refrigerator, microwave and Netflix for someone to stay in during the height of the calving season.
Altogether they have 400 head of cattle.
“One of us is out here 24 hours a day during the calving season,” Wilkerson said. “When they’re gestating, each barn can hold 160 head each. Then after the calves are born, we set up playpens where only the calves can get into. We use single-sided hog feeders for creep feeders.”
From within the office, they have monitors that allow them to observe the cows and calves at any given time. It helps them not disturb the cattle if they’re in labor and to ensure the calves are nursing properly.
“If we walked out there, the cow lying down entering labor might get up. If we opened the door to check on a calf to make sure it’s nursing, the cow would turn around and get nervous, interrupting the calf,” he said. “And I’ll be honest, we’re not covering 160 acres covered in snow when it’s 20 below zero in the middle of the night trying to find a cow that we think is calving.”
The length of the barn built is determined by bunker needs. The Wilkersons allocate up to 2.75 feet per cow depending upon the stage of pregnancy they’re in.
Keeping the cattle close has many benefits. The Wilkersons get to know their cattle quite well, since they’re underfoot. They also are hands on with the babies from the start. Being indoors during the winter leading up to the calving season means they are “comfortable, dry and as happy and healthy as they can be.”
“If it’s negative 17 degrees outside and no wind, it’s still negative 17 in that building,” he said. “But if there’s a negative 46-degree wind chill, the barns remove that wind chill. If the cattle were to get wet outside, this takes that factor away. We also aren’t calving in snow, rain or mud.”
The Wilkersons also lay down fresh bedding every day to keep the teats and navels as dry as possible. He noted that many people prefer to turn their cattle out to pasture and check on them twice a week, but by keeping them under roof, they’re able to keep a close eye on any health issues that could develop.
“If we see something, we don’t wait a week to drag out a corral,” Wilkerson said. “We open eight gates and have them in a chute within five minutes to check on. We also can offer these cows the same amount of nutrition in every bite. If they’re outdoors and you have a year where the grass has changed because of a drought or whatever reason the grass isn’t as rich, their health varies. Monitoring their intake helps us breeding back and maintain body scoring.”
The Wilkersons’ success with this production practice has piqued many people’s interest. They’ve chatted via phone with people across the Midwest and have given tours to people, too. The family has an embryo business which also is housed in the barn.
But Wilkerson is quite quick to point out that raising cattle under roof just isn’t for everyone.
“We try to make people understand that these barns aren’t like putting up contractor hog facilities,” he said. “There are so many variables. It really depends upon your dirt work and if you need a well. If someone looks at their cattle twice a month, this is not the deal for them.”
“My dirt work was just $1,200,” Wilkerson added. “My friend in Nebraska spent $36,000 on dirt work alone, but his cash flow is a whole lot different than mine.”
Their building set up also has allowed the Wilkersons to launch an embryo business.
“It was a fluke deal,” Wilkerson said. “A gentleman came to us and asked if we’d put some embryos in. It’s become unbelievable. We’ve put in everything from Angus to Hereford to Charolais. We’re even putting in some bucking bulls for a guy, so we’ll have those come April.”
Dan Loy, beef specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, said their team recently completed a three-year study about raising cattle under roof. Several meetings have been scheduled yet this month about this subject. They worked with 28 producers to characterize three production management systems: pasture grazing during the growing season and then feeding harvested or purchased feed during the winter; grazing almost year-round with almost no supplement feed; and limited grazing with cows confined to a building or drylot.
Denise Schwab, a beef specialist with ISU Extension, said they have seen an increase in interest in confining cows because of the value of grazing land, access to grazing land, interest in increase a cow herd and alleviating the weather’s impact during calving season.
“We don’t have good data to really show how many producers have gone to confined cow herds, but I think we can say it is growing but is still a small percentage of all cow herds in the state,” she said. “We’ve also seen interest in some modification of the confined system, where producers may utilize a building during the calving season but still graze cows in much of the rest of the year.”
“A few of the advantages are less impact from severe weather at calving season, easy to monitor cows at calving time, ability to provide a total mixed ration that best meets the cows’ requirements, potential for reduced feed waste, and easy to group cows based on stage of production and nutrient requirements,” Schwab added. “A few of the challenges are the cost of the facility particularly if it is new construction, increased stored feed needs and cost, the risk to animal health due to increased animal concentration, and possibly increased equipment requirements.”