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A Step Forward, A Step Backward

Change doesn’t come easy to the cattle business. Sometimes, it doesn’t come at all.

Texas A&M beef cattle specialist Gary Smith made that point in a presentation at the Cattle Industry Convention this year. He analyzed industry progress over the last 27 years on production indicators such as reproduction, death loss, and weaning weights. 

For the look back, Smith used a 1991 report by a prominent beef industry economist. It identified several areas where money was being left on the table – to the tune of $12 billion! 

Smith recently surveyed current beef industry experts, asking them where they think we are today on those same issues, and he averaged their responses.

reproductive efficiency

In 1991, it was estimated that just 80% of all the beef cows and heifers in the U.S. actually weaned a calf every year. The rest either didn’t breed, failed to maintain pregnancy, or the calf died. The goal was set at a 95% weaning rate.

Experts today say we are up to 85%, which is still far short of the goal. Smith thinks two things would help: selective breeding for fertility traits and more crossbreeding in commercial cowherds. 

death loss

The 1991 report said 6.5% of calves that were born alive died before harvest weight. Today, the experts peg it at 7.6%. 

Some of the contributors include weak calf syndrome, heavy birth weights, drought, nutritional deficiencies, calf diseases, and BRD at several steps along the life cycle.

“What we need,” says Smith, “is a concentrated effort to zero in on this. Let’s make an industry-wide effort to reduce death loss.”

weaning weights

In the early 1990s, weaning weight averaged less than 500 pounds per head. Today, experts estimate it’s 555. 

“I give genetics 70% of the credit,” says Smith. “We’ve added about 2 pounds per year over 25 years.” 

Better animal identification and record keeping have helped locate the right breeding animals.

feed efficiency

The industry average feedlot feed conversion in 1991 was estimated at 7:1. The target goal was 6.5:1. Experts think it’s now 5.92:1. 

Several things are likely at work here, including genetics, better feedlot management, and growth promotants, says Smith. He expects more to come. The industry is just starting to identify breeding stock with improved feed efficiency. 

“Sometimes, progress does seem slow in our industry,” summarizes Smith of his look back. “I really believe the top 25% of producers are doing all the right things. We have to get the rest to follow along.”

Other Victories

In addition to the big-ticket cattle issues like weaning rates and death loss, Texas A&M’s Gary Smith also reviewed 27 years of progress on some lesser, though still money-robbing, issues.

Calf processing redundancy. In 1991, it was estimated that 100% of calves got at least one unnecessary trip through a chute – maybe a vaccination at a sales facility or feedlot. Now, it’s estimated that rate is 25% due to better record keeping and more retained ownership.

Carcass condemnations. Meat processors say docks due to bruises, abscesses, and injection lesions are significantly lower, with credit to Beef Quality Assurance efforts.

Outlier cattle at harvest. These could be poor grading carcasses, but the bigger issue is overweight carcasses – typically over 900 pounds. Processor data say it’s about 12% now compared with just 4% in 1991.

   “We must figure out how to use heavyweight carcasses,” Smith says of the bigger cattle favored today.

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