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LIVING UP TO MARBLING POTENTIAL STARTS EARLY

Getting cattle to hit the higher quality grades takes effort at every link in the production system. From the cow-calf producer to the feedlot, all must be quality conscious for cattle to gain premiums on a value-based grid.

In a research review, Certified Angus Beef LLC (CAB) vice president Larry Corah and supply development director Mark McCully looked at early management factors that affect marbling, the intramuscular flavor fat.

"People used to think marbling was something that only happened in the feedlot," says McCully. But research shows targeting a high-quality beef market should begin long before that."

Cells begin developing into either muscle or fat, before a calf is even born. Once the calf hits the ground, the fat cells start to further differentiate into subcutaneous fat (back fat) and marbling.

"We blame a lot on genetics, but it's management," says Francis Fluharty, animal scientist at The Ohio State University.

Nutrition, from mid-gestation on, has a significant effect on how cells develop.

"Pre-partum nutrition is really important, because the cow sets up the calf's ability to marble," Fluharty says. "In addition to genetics, the cow's body condition and quality of colostrum are very important as they determine the newborn calf's immune status."

Corah says, "Getting a live, healthy calf on the ground is just the beginning, however. There are many options to weigh after that."

Early weaning and feeding a grain-based diet increase marbling significantly, Fluharty says. Ohio research shows that Angus-influence calves weaned at about 100 to 150 days of age graded 90 to 95 percent Choice, with 55 to 60 percent Certified Angus Beef  (CAB) acceptance.

"What we're really trying to do is get these young calves on a high grain diet much earlier in life," Fluharty says. Forage-based rations are much more likely to result in rumen end-products of fermentation that convert cells to back fat. By comparison, high-energy grain rations with corn or grain sorghum lead to more propionate, glucose and marbling.

If a producer is unable to early wean, Fluharty says creep feeding could provide some of the same benefits, including increased marbling and weight gain. However, feed efficiencies are reduced when compared to early weaning.

"We should not ignore the benefit of these strategies to first-calf heifers and 3-year-olds" Fluharty says. "We take the stress off those young females that are still growing by removing their calves earlier."

Early weaning and creep feeding both require extra facilities and feed investment.

"It's got to be economical or there's no point in doing it," Fluharty says. "If producers do it right and they put an additional 100 pounds of gain on the calf, that's where they make it up."

The most critical management time seems to be the "window" from two weeks before to four weeks after weaning. Producers have many choices then, with weaning, implanting and health programs varying from ranch to ranch.

"Preventative measures are high on my list of things to do," Fluharty says. "The data have often been reported that if an animal gets sick, it's already had lung lesions. If it's had lung lesions, you will reduce the performance and marbling." As calves recover from sickness, energy that would have been used to create marbling is diverted to getting them healthy.

"This whole thing needs to be tied together," Fluharty says, noting pre- and post-shipment handling can have an effect on carcass quality.

"Making sure the calves have the least amount stress in their lifetime will help ensure they have the greatest amount of marbling," McCully says.

Whether to use a growth implant, what types and timing need to be carefully considered, too.

"Aggressive implanting strategies can impede marbling," Corah says. "It's important to match up implant potency with diet, and better to forego the implant if there is any risk that nutrition may be short at any time before weaning."

Carcass quality is everyone's business, Fluharty says.

"It goes all the way through the production system," he says. "We've done an awful lot of work looking at high-marbling genetics--the Angus breed especially--and genetics definitely play a large part in potential.

"But that's all it is: potential," Fluharty adds. "You can have the potential, but you can manage that right out of them."

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