The primary goal of every cow/calf producer should be to get each cow to raise a healthy calf to weaning every year.
Between the initial task of breeding cows and maintaining pregnancy, having a live, healthy calf at birth, keeping the calf healthy and growing, and then successfully weaning the calf, there are a number of places along the way where this goal can be missed.
For too many cow/calf producers, however, the process ends when the calves are sold dafter weaning.
To truly understand the quality of the calves produced, cow/calf producers should consider following their calves further down the production chain to determine how well they perform in the feedlot and what type of carcasses they produce. Through utilization of feedlot performance and carcass data, cow/calf producers can see if the traits they select are being expressed down the line.
When cattle buyers are looking for calves to place into feedlots, they are looking for a number of positive traits: uniform groups, healthy, pre-weaned, ability to gain weight quickly and efficiently, and ability to produce a high-quality carcass.
In general, cattle feeders are looking for value and predictability. It is therefore up to the cow/calf producer to provide calves that meet these expectations.
Some of this can be done through breeding and genetics, but that only provides the input. To accurately determine the output of these genetic and breeding decisions, cow/calf producers need to evaluate what happens after weaning.
There are basically three ways to do this: retain ownership and feed the calves on-farm; track the calves after sale through a relationship with a cattle feeder; or place cattle into a custom feedlot.
Feedlot performance measures that cow/calf producers should utilize are final body weight, days on feed to reach finishing weight, average daily gain, feed intake, feed efficiency, and cattle health.
All of these measurements will help assess the feeding quality of these cattle, and will all affect cost of gain, which is the bottom line for cattle feeding. Utilizing these measures can help cow/calf producers determine if the genetics they choose are allowing for fast and efficient growth in the feedlot.
Carcass quality has become increasingly important to cattle feeders due to grid marketing programs that provide premiums for desirable carcass traits. These grids generally emphasize either quality grade, which is determined primarily through assessment of intramuscular fat (marbling); or yield grade, which is basically a measure of the amount of retail yield each carcass produces.
Part of the responsibility for producing quality carcasses is on the cattle feeder, who will need to provide optimal nutrition, keep cattle healthy, determine the proper endpoint, and make management decisions on feedstuffs, implants, etc.
Genetic decisions by the cow/calf producer will also play a large role, and quite possibly a larger role than any management decisions made at the feedlot.
The key carcass data measures to evaluate are carcass weight, ribeye area, backfat, marbling score, quality grade, and yield grade. Quality grade and yield grade are both determined by trained USDA personnel, with the quality grades for fed cattle (less than 30 months of age) being USDA Prime, Choice, Select, and Standard.
Fewer than 3 percent of fed cattle reach the Prime quality grade, and about 65 percent of fed cattle are currently reaching the Choice quality grade. Yield grades range from yield grade 1 through 5, with yield grade 1 being the leanest carcass and yield grade 5 being the fattest carcass.
In fed cattle grid marketing systems, the minimum requirement generally is for a carcass that weighs between 550 and 1,000 pounds, and reaches a Choice quality grade with a yield grade of 3. If carcasses do not meet these requirements, they will receive discounts, while carcasses that grade better than these requirements will receive premiums.
One of the dangers of grid marketing is that the potential discounts are much greater than the available premiums.
For instance, if a carcass has a yield grade of 2, it will receive a premium of approximately $1.80 per 100 pounds of carcass weight. However, if the carcass is a yield grade 4, which is considered to be a lesser yield grade due to a lower percentage of retail cuts, it will receive a discount of approximately $12.50 per 100 pounds of carcass weight.
Large discounts also exist for carcasses that are Standard quality grade, yield grade 5, either under 550 pounds or over 1,000 pounds, over 30 months of age, have a bullock or stag appearance, or dark cutter carcasses. Smaller discounts exist for Select quality grades and dairy-type appearance.
Therefore, when it comes to carcass quality, the goals are clear: produce a carcass that can reach a quality grade of Choice or better with a yield grade of 3 or less, and do it all with a carcass that weighs less than 1,000 pounds, while avoiding all the other potential discounts.
As mentioned earlier, cow/calf producers have a few options to follow feedlot performance and carcass data of the calves they produce. Specialized calf feedout programs, such as the Minnesota Carcass Merit Program, exist that focus on providing detailed feedlot performance and carcass data reports to cow/calf producers who enter calves into the program.
These programs differ from typical custom feeding programs in that they often are able to accept smaller groups than most custom feeders, who often require a full pen of cattle or more. Information on the Minnesota Carcass Merit Program can be found at www.carcassmeritprogram.com.
After all the work that goes into raising and weaning a healthy calf, cow/calf producers can go a few steps further to determine the effectiveness of their breeding programs and genetic selection.
Following the performance of calves through the feedlot and to the packing plant will help cow/calf producers determine what changes need to make the most out of their feeder calves.
For more information on this or any other beef-related topic, please visit the Beef Team website located at www.extension.umn.edu/beef.