Drylot Beef Cow Production Systems: An Alternative to Cow Herd Liquidation

By : Jim Krantz,former SDSU Extension Cow/Calf Field Specialist, Jack B. Davis, CPA SDSU Extension Crops Business Management Field Specialist, Warren Rusche, Julie Walker, and Russ Daly,  Courtesy of iGrow.org

Non-traditional management systems such as Drylot Beef Production may offer cattlemen an alternative to reducing stock cow numbers or total herd liquidation. As grazing and haying acres continue to be converted to crop ground especially in crop-intensive geographic areas of our state and region, cattlemen are faced with the impact of that trend as they strive to maintain cow herd numbers. Since 2006, more than 370,000 acres of grassland have been lost to the crop sector according to the US Geological Survey and USDA.

Developing a new mindset, willingness to explore alternative management practices and doing some homework allow producers the ability to adjust production systems and maintain, or expand, the beef cow enterprise. Research at North Dakota State University’s Carrington Research Extension Center documents the sustainability of cow/calf production programs through the incorporation of drylot management practices.

Total confinement on a year-round basis does not define the true foundation of most drylot systems although that is an approach used to some extent in Iowa. However, typical drylotting includes some confinement feeding during the summer grazing timeframe and potentially in the fall as well. Fortunately, the availability of vast supplies of roughages, grains and alternative feeds in South Dakota and the region compliment and support the adoption of this management tool.

Facilities utilized for drylot production are presently available on most farms and ranches. The benefits of feeding cattle based on individual animal requirement does justify the availability of additional pens, so that cows/heifers can be sorted and fed diets based on energy and protein needs of the pen make-up. Grazing creep areas for calves adjacent to the confined area has proven to be a recommended design. Allowing calves access to these grass areas provides a more dust-free environment while decreasing the risk of respiratory challenges during the drylot time frame for pairs. Increased performance has also been documented.

Although these systems require some additional labor resources, for many cattlemen, they may provide even more efficiency for the labor sources already employed. With virtually no need for new or additional equipment than what is already in place in most cattle operations, drylotting may increase the ability of herd managers to utilize labor and equipment resources more fully, even sometimes providing the means to bring family members into the operation. Land availability to expand existing farms and ranches may be limited or non-existent. Maintaining or expanding the cow-calf operation through the drylot process is a viable option for families to consider as they contemplate that possibility.

Regimented health protocols may very well be the backbone of drylot programs. It’s not that they differ drastically from a conventional system; it’s simply that timing is even more critical because of the close proximity of the herd mates. Special attention must be paid to the environment into which calves are born, as greater chances of exposure to scours-causing organisms may be present in drylot calving systems. Poorly drained, dusty, fly-infested, crowded conditions provide an environment conducive to rapid disease spread. Foot rot can be a problem, especially in established sites so prompt treatment is essential. Grooming lots and surfaces has been adopted as standard procedure for feedlots in recent years and that practice pays dividends in terms of fly control and foot condition health in drylot programs as well.

In addition to the discussion items mentioned previously, there are advantages and disadvantages that should be considered prior to making this management adjustment:


  • Extends production life of broken mouth cows
  • Provides a market for frost-damaged or drought-stressed crops
  • Increases cow to bull ratios
  • Easier synchronization when artificial insemination protocols are utilized
  • Very low weaning stress for calves
  • Potential lower cost of production


  • More manure handling (could be a benefit as fertilizer)
  • Increased managerial skills required in balancing diets
  • Faster depreciation of facilities
  • More harvested feeds required
  • Greater need for fly control and lot maintenance

While drylot beef production practices may not illustrate a conventional approach to managing the beef cow enterprise, it may be an inevitable alternative that allows cattlemen to maintain or build cow numbers in spite of disappearing grazing acres. Currently, SDSU Extension Field Specialists and Animal Science Department faculty members are scheduling meetings to address this topic. The next one is scheduled for January 7, 2014 in Salem. Anyone interested in attending these sessions is welcome.

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