As cattlemen look to the future, building a profit margin into the bottom line blends sound management and genetics to achieve the desired results. Good genetics obviously play a role in supplying cattle that meet current market demands, but as more and more research is conducted the impact management has on the end product is astounding.
Health, implant strategy and age at weaning could have an affect on harvest performance. As supplies continue to tighten at this stage in the cycle, cattle are constantly being pulled forward with fewer days on feed, which helps decrease beef tonnage, but lowers quality grade. Managing genetics for quality will add premiums because the Choice/Select spread remains at an unusually high level.
In recent years, herd health has been at the forefront of many programs trying to identify factors that would inhibit genetics from realizing their full potential at harvest. Cattlemen quickly learned sick calves do not grade and health came to the forefront as a major role player in the industry's quest to offer consumers a consistent product.
“The old adage of never having a bad day is really important for cattle to reach their genetic potential during the feeding and harvest phase,” says Dr. Daryl Strohbehn, Iowa State University. Poor health has detrimental affects on marbling and there is enough data that producers need to pay attention.”
As the industry investigated the right time frame to add the proper insurance policy to the genetic component it had created, many programs surfaced that would prove beneficial. Like many other husbandry practices, there is no silver bullet philosophy that guarantees future performance, but a there are different vaccination programs that have proved their worth.
“I don't know what the proper time frame for pre-conditioning is for a cow/calf producer transferring ownership of his calves. We think no less than two to four weeks is needed to gain back the shrink and maybe add some pounds after the stress of weaning,” Strohbehn says. “I think each producer needs to figure out the number of days it takes to be profitable. Most double vaccination programs that ensure the process even more require 45 days during the pre-conditioning period.”
There are many components that play a role in a producer deciding what program provides the most value. These factors range from time, to facilities and financial security to take on the added risks. The data present from research done gave birth to several different programs that could be successfully adapted to many management philosophies.
“A lot of folks don't have the time or facilities to wean calves for 45 days,” Strohbehn says. “For these producers, pre-weaning vaccinations seem to be paying dividends. Producers must have been rewarded because more are taking stock in these programs and including them in their management routine.”
With the added emphasis on herd health, livestock marketers were quick to embrace the advantages of a standardized raw material. Through increased information exchange, cattlemen have been able to place a dollar figure on the added value for this product.
“There are a lot of sales today where some type of standardized immunization program is in place. Feeders know where these standardized health program cattle are in terms of herd health and how to make them work in their feedlots,” Strohbehn says. “Vaccinations are becoming more important processes at the cow/calf level because there is more communication up and down the chain. It allows us to better manage cattle and realize their genetic potential.”
Most of the time, respiratory diseases are very important to the pre-conditioning process, but may be only half of the total program. Expanding health programs to include parasite control is a drawing card for potential buyers.
“From a marketing standpoint, external parasite control is standard practice to make the product more attractive to potential buyers. For retained ownership, some type of deworming program is very beneficial,” Strohbehn says. “Some standardized programs require internal and external parasite treatment. If you want the certificate to qualify you better do it.”
Timing at weaning is another topic that is currently being debated by a lot of professionals in the beef industry. Every rancher has his own formula for success, but the bounds of tradition may be being stretched to identify profit.
“With pre-conditioning, length of time has a lot to do with keeping cattle eating. Once we get them to the feedyard, if we can keep them eating, we have won half the battle. The nice thing about weaned calves, compared to non weaned calves, they are used to eating and will step to the bunk,” Strohbehn says. “Age at weaning is very system oriented for each producer. It is so variable. Some ranchers, largely due to drought and other circumstances, are weaning calves early and it works.”
Agriculture, as a principle business, is bound by tradition more than any other industry in the market structure. Some producers have been forced to abandon traditional theory to find profit in their production system, especially in trying times, and found added benefits from thinking out of the box.
“We started early weaning our calves mainly due to drought and found many positives with this management system,” says John Maddox, a commercial cow/calf producer from Western Nebraska who has been early weaning 2,500 head the last five years.
Most producers wean calves at seven months of age. For some reason, beef producers leave calves with their mothers longer than any of their competitors.
“How did we ever arrive at weaning a calf at seven months of age? Look at the pork industry, when they started weaning early, it eliminated the runts,” says Dr. Tom Turner, Ohio State University.
As with any management system, there are downfalls and this practice is probably better suited to producers positioned to retain ownership through harvest to realize the built-in premiums.
“There is a big advantage with early weaning for retained ownership for quality markets. The premium at the other end is generally six to eight dollars through the IBP grid,” says Dr. Dan Faulkner, University of Illinois.
“Retained ownership cattle will reap the benefits of the system. However, our data shows 60 to 100 pounds more weight at normal weaning time with early weaned calves,” Turner says. “The trade-off is calves had a little more bloom, so they weren't worth as much on a per pound basis, but there is more variation in weights in a system that follows traditional weaning.”
Breed type and frame size may also be conducive to a program of this nature. It seems early weaning is more beneficial for certain biological types of cattle.
“With straight British cattle we see better uniformity the longer they are left on the cow. With Continental cross calves, the longer they stayed on the cow some calves were stunted and it added to variation in weights and size,” Faulkner says. “Early weaning works particularly well with Continental cross cattle because it adds uniformity to the calf crop all the way through the system. Extremely small frame cattle don't work.”
“Producers interested in early weaning need to pay close attention to frame size,” Turner says. “There are some heavily British influenced cattle we have trouble getting to acceptable harvest weights. Early weaning goes hand-in-hand with a terminal crossbreeding system.”
The age at the time these calves are pulled off the cow varies a little, but an average of 60 days seems to be the consensus opinion. Knowing how critical health is to end product consistency would lead one to believe cattle at this age would be more prone to disease, but the opposite has held true both in the research trials and in a ranch setting.
“We like to early wean calves when they average 100 days of age and they range from 60 days on up,” Turner says. “Immune levels in calves at 100 days are a lot higher than with calves at seven months.”
“Calves at a young age have some colostridial immunity. We pre-wean vac before we take them off the cow and then boost at five to six months of age,” Faulkner says. “This works real well, because calves don't build proper titers at a young age. We need to keep calves healthy we have to learn to manage cattle without antibiotics.”
“Sometimes colostridial immunity will interfere with immune response. We get a lot better immunity by using vaccines in a therapeutic manner,” Maddox says. “To early wean on our ranch, calves have to be at least 60 days of age.”
When the program is in place, it adds flexibility to the management program. Calves started on the right track at a younger age could help place the end product in a more favorable market.
“Once we started early weaning, we saw the benefits. The health is excellent on calves of this age because they still have colostridial immunity, at five to six months of age that colostrum is a memory. We can also wean calves in consistently warm weather, with no variation in temperature,” Maddox says. “For our system to work we have to sell in the March/April fat market and we can't afford to calve any earlier. With early weaning we can get that three-weight calf on feed and have March calves in that market. We harvest cattle at 12 to 13 months and they'll grade around 60 percent Choice with our British calves. Our whole system is based on having a fat steer when no one else does.”
The early weaning program seems to take advantage of built in efficiencies in calves at this age. Increasing the days on feed has a positive affect on quality grade especially with Continental genetics.
“When we lock up a three weight calf, the cost of gain is incredible. They can put on gain competitive with a hog, when they don't weigh that much,” Maddox says. “We can really decrease break evens, because the first few hundred pounds are pretty cheap to put on.”
“Continental cattle in the feedlot, every 100 days on a grain diet, will put a quality grade in them. We can harvest these cattle at 11 to 13 months of age weighing 1,300 to 1,400 pounds and 70 percent will grade high Choice and above,” Faulkner says. “These cattle are tremendously efficient to about 900 pounds. Early weaning adds efficiency and decreases feed costs, which helps pay for extra days on feed.”
“By early weaning, we increase carcass uniformity and producers can increase quality grade in some cattle,” Turner says. “Early weaned calves have an advantage in weight that stayed with them through harvest. On the average, early weaned calves will be ready for harvest 30 days before calves weaned at the traditional time.”
Through the research process, discoveries have been made in cattle that were previously unknown. Early weaning should help some producers, because they are providing proper nutrition to genetics at the right time.
“Calves have intramuscular fat. It is mobilized during the weaning process and never comes back,” Turner says. “By getting certain genetic combinations on feed early, they never go a day without getting all the energy they need.”
No matter what method producers use to wean cattle, other factors can determine where their cattle stand at the finish line. Implants have been a part of beef production for a long time and are another one of the traditional practices employed on many ranches to add a boost to the genetic population.
“If cattle do not have the genetics to marble, it does not make any difference what program they are on they won't hit quality grade expectations. Most cattle still benefit from a reasonable implant strategy. A steer will weigh 100 pounds more than his non-implanted herd mate. This makes us more efficient as an industry,” says Dr. Robbie Pritchard, South Dakota State University.
Implant strategies have to fall in place with the management goals of each producer. Some classes of cattle may be hurt by too aggressively implanting them, but like most protocols, timing makes a big difference.
“Timing is everything with implants. If you are growing cattle on prairie hay for a 1.5 pound per day gain, don't implant those cattle,” Pritchard says. “Wait until those cattle have been in the feedlot for three weeks before you implant them. It only takes an implant two days to hit full steam, by then cattle have increased caloric intake enough to handle the boost from the implant.”
The need to manage genetics differently is evident with high growth cattle. According to Pritchard, most cattle will benefit from a reasonable implant strategy if they are managed correctly.
“The problem with a lot of Continental cross cattle is we have not managed them correctly to allow them to grade. Number one, we leave them on the cow too long. A benchmark of 550 pounds should be used instead of waiting until October,” Pritchard says. “People with high performance cattle need to quit bragging about weaning weight and start bragging how fast they can get them to 550 pounds. If we keep trying to increase weaning weights by leaving them on the cow, we'll take the grade out or buy a lot of creep feed.”
Continental influenced cattle often face strict criticisms for their inability to grade at harvest. At this point, genetics may not be to blame for the lost quality grade. Mistakes made with implanting strategies may have been helped in recent times by the development of implants that are better matched to livestock needs.
“Today, there are 11 different products to use at different levels of potency. A lot of the mistakes were made when we only had three choices,” Pritchard says. “If you have an implant of moderate potency with British cattle that will allow them to gain 2.2 pounds per day, Gelbvieh cattle will gain 2.5 or 2.6 with the same implant and you have to put more grain in the diet to meet their needs. Implanting a Continental cross on the same ration is like giving them two clicks of frame size and they can't eat enough to maintain quality.”
There are critical points with all cattle during the feeding phase that will help form the balance between performance and grade. When genetics are properly managed, the right implant strategy will provide a boost in growth and maintain quality.
“Marbling increases as carcass weight increases. If we over implant, marbling quits at implant and won't catch up,” Pritchard says. “We can influence marbling greater through management a lot of times than genetics. It is a balance between flesh and growth rate, somewhere between 500 and 800 pounds is where we make or break quality grade.”
Researching different methods of beef production can help improve future generations of cattle. Identifying factors that can add to end product consistency is often the underlying factor in such trials. It seems as the industry takes a step in the right direction another question is left unanswered.
Today, beef producers find themselves in a very demanding business environment. Changes often take place at a time of duress to help the financial sustainability of the operation. Methods that once seemed off the wall can add a new dimension. If the production chain is not in sync to capitalize on the benefits of added management, all the hard work may be for naught.
“Market timing is critical,” Strohbehn says. “We can do everything right, but if cattle aren't harvested at the right time from a finish standpoint, we won't have a good product.”