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'15 Cattle Industry Convention: What’s So Hot in San Antonio?

The 2015 National Cattle Industry Convention kicks off this week, and they’re calling it Sizzling Hot in San Antonio. You might think it’s in reference to the spicy food, or maybe the summer-like weather in this south Texas metropolis. But, you’d be wrong. It’s mostly about the sizzling-hot cattle markets, which have been in record territory for all of the last year – feeder calves at $2.50 a pound, fed steers at $1.50, even cull cows well over $1 a pound.

Smiles abound at this annual gathering of cowboys and cowgirls. More than 7,000 of them will stroll the River Walk and tour the Alamo before the week is over. The convention, which will run through Feb. 7, is the largest annual gathering of the beef industry.

National Cattlemen’s Beef Association President Bob McCan says this year’s convention in his home state will not disappoint. It will feature the largest cattle trade show ever, and provide a forum for debating the big cattle issues of the year in the NCBA committee meetings. Among them are expanding the beef checkoff from $1 a head to as much as $2, and charting a course for herd expansion that will begin to replenish the nation’s half-full feedlots after a decade of drought and high feed prices.

The first day of Cattle Convention is always dominated by the popular Cattlemen’s College, with over 20 sessions devoted to ranch and cattle management topics. Here are a few highlights from the early sessions.

More Cows, Same Acres. 

One of reasons cattle producers give for not expanding cow herds already is that they can’t get more pasture acres, says Ted McCollum, Texas A&M beef cattle expert. Ranchers don’t want to convert their own row crop ground to pastures, and there isn’t any rental pasture in the neighborhood. But, there are ways to run more cows on the same number of acres, McCollum says.

One is to spread cows out so they graze all of your pastures, and not just the acres they like the best. One study put GPS devices on cows in a large pasture and tracked their movement over many days. They actually grazed only 39% of the land base! “You can get them to move around better to all corners of a pasture with better distribution of water supplies, clearing brush, cross-fencing, and supplemental feeding locations,” he says. “Some of the things you do may look like they cost a lot of money, but consider them 15- to 20-year investments in property improvements,” he says. And, he continues, it may be easier to justify them now when cash flow is good, than it will be in a few years when the market turns down.

He also says investment in pasture fertility may expand grazing resources on the same acres. In one real example he’s seen, a $20 investment in fertilizer added an extra animal unit of grazing potential, and that’s far less than renting extra pasture to get the same carrying capacity. 

Get to Know Your Veterinarian . . . Better

The Food and Drug Administration has given notice about how they want you to use antibiotics in feed for cattle and other livestock. Up to now, you’ve used antibiotics in basically three ways: therapeutic use (when the animals are actually sick); prevention and control (when the animals are stressed and may be on their way to being sick); and growth promotion (no sickness, but the animals still respond with faster growth). The last of those – growth promotion – is about to go away, says Mike Apley, a Kansas State University veterinary professor. He says the FDA, in a recent Guidance for Industry statement, asked the industry to voluntarily phase out the growth promotion use of antibiotics in food animals, and to make that happen by the end of 2016. Without exception, the drug industry intends to comply, Apley says.

FDA has also made it clear that it wants you to use the mid-level antbiotics – prevention and control – more judiciously when it comes to “medically important” antimicrobials, mostly those that cross over to human use. So, they are asking that they be used only with veterinary oversight. That means you won’t be able to buy and use those products without your veterinarian writing a prescription. “Many of these drugs have been available without a prescription up to now, but not after December 2016,” says Apley. “And I support that, they should have vet oversight. But it’s going to take more planning with your vet.”

FDA’s concern is the growing threat of bacteria resistance to antibiotics. “It’s a real thing, no question,” says Apley. “It’s in everyone’s best interest to figure out when is the best time to use antibiotics.”

Designer Animals

Frankly, we’ve been designing animals since animals were first domesticated, and people began making breeding decisions. But it’s gotten a lot more complex in recent years, says Colorado State University animal reproductive expert George Seidel. He tells Cattlemen’s College attendees about the benefits of sexing semen, where you can use AI to get all bull or all heifer calves with 90% accuracy. Or cloning, where you can essentially get an identical twin of a prized bull should he be injured or become unable to breed.

Those techniques are not all that controversial today. But then Seidel goes to one that is: animal transgenesis. It’s a genetic modification, a GMO. We haven’t commercialized it in farm animals yet, but the salmon industry is close, he says. What is being explored, he explains, is the addition or deletion of genes from an animal while it is still a one-cell embryo. Then, the animal develops with the change, and its offspring maintain the change and pass it on to offspring. One way this could work is you could change chromosomes to make a bull polled (no horns). Or you might give an animal disease-resistant genes that they would pass on. “It could take an almost-perfect bull, and make him really perfect by adding the right genes,” says Seidel. 

Of course, he says, there’s a downside, and that is consumer reaction to transgenic animals. “I think it is safer than many other things we do. But it’s going to take a lot of education. I compare this to vitamins that people take. They take all kinds of them. But if you said, ‘Here, take these chemicals,’ they’d say, ‘No way,’ “ says Seidel.

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