State of Beef Conference focuses on profitabilityWritten by Gayle Smith
North Platte, Neb. – With cattle prices declining, scientists and industry analysts are showing producers ways to raise calves more efficiently. Close to 150 producers were in attendance at the second annual State of the Beef Conference in North Platte, Neb. on Nov. 2-3.
With the event kicking off with a market report still showing declining cattle prices, research specialists focused on showing producers how to reduce costs and encouraging them to try new ideas to get the best return.
Randy Blach with CattleFax said he expects beef production to continue to increase in the U.S. but at a slower rate.
In 2000, packers were harvesting 30 million head, but now that number is closer to 20 million head. This significant decline in harvestable cattle over the last several years has caused some packing plants in the U.S. to close.
Based on a 40-hour week, Blach said packers are harvesting about 460,000 head a week, which is a decline from 570,000 head several years ago.
After prices started to decline in 2015, feeders began holding fat cattle, and the market responded by not staying current. When those cattle did go to market, processors began to see too many yield grade fours and fives. To prevent this from reoccurring, packers have put a 1,600-pound weight limit in place.
Despite ongoing market adjustments, Blach said consumer demand for beef at the retail level is still good, and exports are picking up with stabilization in U.S. currency.
“Trade is going to be essential,” Blach said. “We will need to increase exports to handle any additional cattle expansion.”
Blach doesn’t predict a lot of Brazilian beef moving into the U.S. this year because of the tariff quota.
“We will have to monitor the exchange rate,” he said.
Role of genetics
Matt Spangler, geneticist with the University of Nebraska, discussed ways to maximize profitability of the cowherd. He told producers to focus on traits that will maximize profitability.
“If our cows excel in the same areas as our bull battery does, we are not maximizing profitability,” he said.
Spangler added that cows can be cheap to maintain, so producers should focus on selecting bulls that have a good rate of gain and growth.
“Smaller cows can reduce maintenance requirements,” he explained.
The geneticist cautioned producers about genetic selection.
“More is not always better, depending on what the goal is,” he said.
Despite that, most breeds have elected to continue increasing weaning weight and yearling weight.
Environment is also important, Spangler noted. In some areas, producers continue to select for increased weaning and yearling weights, but the calves won’t get any bigger. He said resources can be limited, so cattle can’t get any more out of the inputs.
“The environment just can’t handle anymore,” he said.
Spangler said producers need to look at their labor costs.
“I know we don’t do this because it is important to us to save every calf we can, but have we ever determined how many dead calves we would have by not checking them at night?” he asked producers.
Spangler told producers that if they want to reduce their input costs, first they need to determine all their costs.
“Sometimes we just make selections based on profit, not just revenue. We know how much we got out of our calves, but we don’t always know what it costs to produce that calf,” he says.
Calf health considerations
Stewardship is the careful and responsible management of the cattle entrusted to one’s care.
Jerry Stokka, livestock stewardship specialist at North Dakota State University, explained to producers how they can better protect the health of their cattle. Using a chart showing the relationship of calf health and genetic potential, Stokka told producers that 90 percent of health failures relate back to stress.
“We impact a lot of these factors,” he pointed out.
“How do I know, from a health standpoint, that the bull I select will produce cows suitable for the environment?” he asked producers. “It is easy to make genetic selections to make the cows bigger. It is a lot harder to keep them moderate.”
The question, according to Stokka, is how to determine which cows will produce healthy calves.
“As a producer, we want calves that will get up and nurse immediately to take advantage of passive immunity,” he said.
“If we abandon the pillar of health and genetic selection, we will get to the point where we will need to cull heavily, sell out or start over,” he explained.
Stokka also questioned whether late gestation supplementation can help. Many believe runt piglets are the result of uterine crowding, causing a failure of the runt to obtain adequate nutrition.
In the case of cattle, Stokka said how the cow is fed relates to the health of the cow and its unborn calf.
“Plumbing also makes a difference. Most producers cull cows with bad bags because it is a health issue,” he explained, recalling an incident where a cow kicked her calf off while it was nursing because it had mastitis, and it hurt her to allow her calf to nurse.
Colostrum is also crucial.
“The cow passes live cells to the newborn to protect it from diseases and antigens,” Stokka said. “It is very important that they get colostrum. My question is, have we done everything we could to make the environment so that calves can get up and nurse all the colostrum they need to the full mark?”