When Are Cattle Done?

By: Katrina Huffstutler

Once upon a time, cattle were considered done when they were fat enough to grade, big enough to sell or when the feed was about gone. But times have changed and so have the cattle.

Robbi Pritchard, South Dakota State University emeritus professor, said our management must, too, when he spoke at the Feeding Quality Forum in Grand Island, Neb., and Amarillo, Texas, in August. The events, which attracted more than 200 cattle feeders and members of allied industry, were sponsored by Feed•Lot Magazine, Certified Angus Beef LLC, Roto-mix, Micronutrients and Zoetis.

“Genetics are better and our growth enhancement tools are better and we know a lot more about them,” Pritchard said, noting the term “precision ag” is typically reserved for row-crop discussions. It doesn’t have to be. “We could go that way in the cattle business and we could make big strides.”

That means matching cattle type to technology and ration. p6

“If they’re coming out of 1,600-pound cows, they probably don’t need any implants,” the ruminant nutritionist said. “The DNA was there. The implants just fill in for a lack of DNA.”

Using those growth promotants in an animal with high growth potential will give you a “nitro-burning car that flames out. It’s not a good thing.”

But another class of cattle would benefit from the technology, as a single implant can add 75 pounds of carcass weight.

“All we need to do is match up stage of growth, potency of the implant and caloric intake,” he said. “We’re getting much better at using our implants like scalpels instead of axes.”

Pritchard said determining when cattle are done has become a billion-dollar game of cat and mouse.

He explained: Feedlots make their money on live weight gain, so more gain per head equals more profit per head. Both feeders and ranchers want cattle to get bigger, and set carcass weights to match that goal.

From 1980 to 2015, the hot carcass weights have increased an average of 5.18 pounds per year, and Pritchard said he expects that to continue.

“We arbitrarily set the carcass weight for the cattle gaining with our placement weight and the diet we’re going to feed them and the implant strategy that we’re going to use,” Pritchard said.

However, bigger is not always better, especially from the packers’ and consumers’ perspective.

“Packers are going to fight back,” he said. “As those carcasses get bigger, there’s more work to do.”

In addition, he said, bigger carcasses lead to facility problems at the packing plant.

“This morning there was a big concern expressed about the packers making too much money right now,” Pritchard said. “Actually, if they would invest in taller rails and coolers with that profit I’d say it’s a good thing they’re making some money now.”

He said while some have already done that on their kill floors, they have not caught up on the back side yet.

“They’re going to slow down our rate of change,” Pritchard said. “They’re a governor, but so far they’re not going to stop it.”

And then there’s consumer concerns: They don’t want a steak as large as what’s coming off today’s big carcasses.

“For the person who can afford to go out and eat a CAB steak at a white tablecloth restaurant, about the biggest they want is 13 ounces,” Pritchard said. “Last November, carcasses averaged 900 and something pounds. Low yield grade 4s were in the right range for a one-inch-thick steak. If they were yield grade 2s, somebody needed to pull the trigger at 800 pounds. But they were still making money on a live weight gain, so why pull the trigger? What is my definition of done supposed to be? When I make the most money or when I make the right product?”

He noted cattle producers and feeders have responded to consumers’ wants in the areas of quality assurance, food safety and animal care. But so far it’s been hard to address their concerns on size when economic signals suggest we should keep making them bigger.

“We keep worrying more about this,” he said. Feeders want to do what’s best for everyone, “but right now we don’t have a price structure system that’ll encourage us to do that.”