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Production analysis and survey data suggests that the greatest contribution to annual cow production costs in the Northern Plains is harvested and purchased feed (Taylor and Field, 1995). Harvested hay is not only expensive to purchase, but it is expensive to put up and feed. Dunn (2002) showed that interest and depreciation on capital (required to handle hay) were major factors limiting profitability of ranching operations. Profit margins in cow/calf production are slim due to high production costs (Taylor and Field, 1995) and lost opportunity to capture value from marketable ranch products (NASS, 1999). Low input systems, or systems that reduce hay feeding, may add profitability to producers. Systems that rely more on grazing and less on harvested and purchased feedstuffs have a higher potential to be profitable (Adams et al., 1994).
Early weaning practices may be beneficial when forage supplies are low and supplemental feed is costly. Work done by Meyers et al. (1999a, b) and Fluharty et al. (2000) showed early-weaned steer calves when compared to those calves weaned at traditional ages may have comparable average daily gains and improved feed efficiency during the postweaning period.
While it is clear that reduced-input systems have a greater potential for positive returns, management of cattle becomes increasingly important on these low- or reduced-input systems. Management of calving dates, weaning dates, supplementation programs and monitoring and managing cow condition at critical times throughout the production year, are key elements in achieving good performance in the herd.