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How To Eyeball Fed And Feeder Cattle

argill buyer Tyler Friesen of Moose Jaw, Sask., and JGL order buyer Alan Jackson of Prince Albert, Sask., gave participants at this year’s Western Canada Feedlot Management School in Saskatoon some timely tips about what they look for when purchasing finished and feeder cattle.


What Friesen looks for in a finished beef animal depends on what Cargill needs to fill its orders. Some weeks that may be more quality grade Canada AAA and other times it may be more Canada AA. One packing plant’s needs aren’t always the same as another plant’s needs, he says.

He looks at the brisket, topline and tailhead when assessing the degree of finish on live animals. A finished animal will have a squarish look about it, Friesen explains. It will be full through the brisket and tighter through the ribs. Rounds of fat deposits on either side of the tailhead are a general indicator that the animal is ready to market, though it depends on the breed. Some breeds tend to deposit fat in the tailhead area more readily than others or before they are totally finished. Oftentimes finished animals will move with what appears to be a stiff gait relative to their penmates that have a ways to go yet. He tends to focus mostly on the brisket — if it is full, the animal is most likely finished, he adds.

Friesen also considers the genetic potential for the animal to fatten, marble and grade well. Some breeds tend not to fatten as easily as others. Sometimes the frame size will be larger than what the Cargill plant can handle without slowing down the line. Animals that yield oversized carcasses are difficult to manage on a moving rail because the length of the carcass stretches to the floor. As well, the primal cuts may be larger than what the retailers want.

He says it’s important for feedlot operators to avoid discounts by marketing animals before they get too large. Many feedlots identify the largest animals in a pen by giving them a unique tag, which makes it easy to spot and ship them before they become overweight.

There are always exceptions if you know the genetic background of the cattle. The age of the animal, days on feed, as well as the feedlot’s management style will have a bearing on how it will grade, Friesen explains.

Yield grade is determined by the percentage of lean meat on the carcass. More fat in the carcass generally translates into a lower lean yield. The big question on producers’ minds was whether it was better to manage the feed program for grade or for yield.

Friesen advises feeders to consider the type of cattle they are placing, the time they want to sell them, and whether they want to sell on a live-weight or dressed basis. If you are selling on dressed weight, managing for yield may be in your best interest.

A pitfall to avoid is feeding to lay down extra fat at the end of the feeding period. It’s inefficient for the feedlot because the cheap gain is out of the cattle by the end and the last pounds are the most expensive to put on. If the animal becomes overfat, it becomes expensive for the plant as well because the extra fat has to be trimmed away.

“Have a Cargill buyer come out to look at the cattle,” Friesen suggests. “That’s what my job is — to be out there looking at and buying high-quality cattle.” When he visits feedlots, he also looks at what’s up and coming. Your cattle might fit the bill for an order sometime down the line.


When Jackson looks at feeder calves he has specific criteria in mind to meet the specs of clients who have placed orders with him. Overall, he’s looking for “good feeding animals” that meet those specs at the price each buyer is willing to pay.

He avoids buying fleshy calves — the kind that look roundish and have already started to put fat across their backs — because they have a tendency to go backward once they get to the feedlot and often end up burning out around 1,000 pounds. Calves that have been on creep feed while still on the cow can tend to be on the fleshy side.

He wants loose-hided cattle with lots of hair, versus the tight-skinned, fine-haired (slick) types.

They have to have good bone or frame to them, but not all in the legs. Calves with a tucked-up look in the gut area or peaky rumps don’t gain as well as calves with good gut capacity, he explains. You want to see some depth and width across the belly area.

Proper castration is a big consideration. Some buyers are willing to deal with bull calves, but most stay away from calves with belly nuts because finishing the job is more complicated than castrating an intact bull calf.

Purchasing pre-vaccination calves can give you extra confidence that you are purchasing healthy calves even if you plan to vaccinate on arrival at the feedlot. Jackson says it’s a good idea for producers who do pre-vaccinate their calves to let the buyer or auction market know because it can be of benefit.

Consider whether age verification is or could be important when marketing your backgrounded or finished calves. Some auction markets pen and sell age-verified calves separately. Cow-calf producers are advised to write it on the manifest and send the required paperwork to verify the claim in order to have them sold as age-verified calves. Some markets are prepared to help producers age verify their calves in the database, he adds.


The majority of fall calves are still sold through the auction market system, however, producers are coming up with all sorts of ways to sell yearlings, Jackson says. You can buy them by contract, sealed bid deals, private treaty and ranch auctions — either in the yard or moving from pasture to pasture. He’s even been on conference calls with other potential buyers arranged by the seller.

You might do OK buying calves sight unseen straight off the ranch, he says, but it’s pretty important to get out there to look at yearlings coming off grass. The ability of the calves to continue gaining when coming off dry feed at a backgrounding lot onto fresh grass depends a lot on the year. This year, yearlings that have been grazing lush grass in areas that have had high precipitation seemed to take a long time to get their shine back and will likely be on the green side.

It’s up to the buyer to stipulate the weigh conditions. Most buy on the standard empty bunk in the morning with a pencil shrink based on the miles the cattle have to be transported. For example, a four per cent shrink with an empty bunk in the morning, means that the cattle eat through the night and the bunk is slick by morning. It doesn’t mean that the calves get fed in the morning then stand all day and night before being weighed the next morning.

If a producer has or can get a portable legal scale, you can work out an arrangement to have the calves weighed at the yard. Using a truck scale to weigh a liner load of calves in the summer works OK, he says. In the winter, ice and snow can build up or fall off the trailer and make a considerable difference on the weight of the load. To make sure there are no surprises, you’re best to have them weighed off truck at the nearest scale and figure in a pencil shrink according to the miles to the scale.

The marketplace establishes the slide. It’s usually around a nickel to a dime a pound on the actual weight minus the shrink. For example, if you offer $1 a pound for 600-weight calves, the price on the lighter calves will be adjusted upward and the price for the heavier calves will move downward according to the slide.

Of course, order buyers can take the stress out of buying calves on your behalf either through the auction markets or off the ranch. Likewise, you can take the stress out of your order buyer’s job by telling him exactly what you want and don’t want. It pays to keep in touch with order buyers about what’s going on in the marketplace. Sometimes there is a soft spot in the market and he’ll have you in mind.

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