Up, down but never out, the North American beef industry keeps going on optimism in between profitable closeouts. The most upbeat producers are those who see the consumer as final player and have learned to focus on beef with taste and tenderness.
Western Feedlots, with locations near High River, Mossleigh and Strathmore, Alta., fits that mode. The company works co-operatively with cow-calf producers, specialized feeders and market investors, sharing carcass data to help improve herds so that subsequent calf crops keep improving.
Indeed, Western pioneered the concept of returning both feedlot and carcass information to ranchers in the mid-1990s. Travis Hickey, general manager of cattle strategies for the company, called that program successful even though carcass data wasn t linked to individual animals in those days.
Today, we can provide weights on arrival, average daily gain during the feeding period, death loss, carcass weight, quality grade and yield grade, all on an individual basis, he says.
Quality-oriented ranchers who sell direct to Western earn premiums above the market better-than-average prices because feedlot managers knows their cattle will perform better than average. Ultimately, they will feed for less and/or earn carcass-merit premiums from the packer.
Charlie Fullerton, who uses only Angus bulls on black and black baldy cows north of Pincher Creek, Alta., has been feeding with Western for more than 20 years. He retained ownership until the last two years when he sold direct to the feedlot, which has shared performance and carcass data for several years.
That lets us see which cows and bulls are doing the best; I ve culled some cows partly on their carcass data, says Fullerton. I still have a few to cull. He attributes an improvement in grade from 50 per cent AAA to 75 per cent AAA to that and adding more Angus genetics, but it has not moved up much in the last five years.
I select bulls mainly on looks, he admits. I m kind of old school, but will look at numbers to a point. More attention there could lead to premiums from higher grading calves, but at least he sees that potential.
A lot of people don t think about premiums for quality, or even know what they have. You don t unless you feed them, says Fullerton. Then if they don t perform on the grid, you ve got to start changing something.
Another 20-year customer, Twin H Cattle Co., near Goodsoil, Sask., looks forward to getting individual data now. Trevor Himmelsbach calves 800 Angus-base cows there with his brother Roy, father Paul and uncle Gerhardt, starting in late winter. They are weaned in October and custom fed at Western Feedlots.
We were glad to hear Western is sharing the individual carcass data, says Himmelsbach. We ve seen the group data for many years, but could not link that to our own records until now. The group data has shown an improvement over time similar to that of Fullerton s cattle.
We ve had a big improvement, but looking forward to more, says Himmelsbach. The bulls I use for AI, I try to select those that will marble well, get a good ribeye and a little less fat high-grid bulls you might say.
Being able to select on the cow side as well, we can make more improvement in those traits.
Group data showed Certified Angus Beef (CAB) brand acceptance less than 20 per cent and no more than one per cent Prime. That s not where I want those to be, he says. We can make a lot of progress there, looking back on which cows are producing CAB and Prime, and AI ing those to get even better replacements in their progeny.
It pays to know
Known genetics can be an advantage at the feedlot, helping performance predictability, but especially in the first few years, there are still a lot of variables. Experience shows the effect of a change in feeding program, implant or market weight. The more that is known over the years, the more value, but it s an ever-changing body of knowledge, says Hickey.
Genetics change from one year to another with the use of different bulls, and there can be large variation within a herd, he says.
He would like to feed more cattle from repeat sources like Fullerton and Himmelsbach, but those currently amount to less than 10 per cent of Western-fed cattle. Hickey would like to see that reach 50 per cent in the next few years, and then even higher into the next decade.
Building up information saves money, but current information can help, too. If there are enough calves from one ranch to fill a pen with no mixing, and if vaccinations can be verified, a feedyard can avoid duplication and thereby lower the break-even price.
Predictable performance will bring a premium, as long as it s better than average, notes Hickey. Commodity calves make up the average with very predictable health outcomes for the most part, and we ve built our protocols to reflect that.
To gain more knowledge whether from one ranch or a put-together pen, Western set up an individual animal management (IAM) program. We re using phenotypic and other characteristics to aid us in predicting what we don t know and how we should manage the unknowns from year to year, he says.
IAM goes beyond
The renewed, more detailed information-sharing initiative strives to return more than individual carcass information, adds Hickey. We work with producers in understanding how their cattle performed relative to their cohorts managed using similar protocols, in the areas of performance, health and carcass attributes.
The program sets goals for every pen of cattle when they arrive at the feedlot, but Western research data determines how the cattle should be managed. For example, one pen of placements may be sorted into more than six different groups based on their individual attributes.
Attention to detail is paramount when using these IAM strategies, says Hickey. If you miss a marketing date by one week on a group of cattle, it can be hugely detrimental.
Western sorts individuals off from a pen as they are ready for market to reduce the variation in carcass weight and manage optimal end points.
We encourage cow-calf producers to get more than just carcass data back, because carcass data without other information is of very little value, adds Hickey. For example, as the industry adopts beta-agonists and new implant technologies, it drastically alters the carcass composition. If you don t know how cattle were managed when you re looking at your carcass data, it may push you toward a herd selection decision that may not be the right direction.
Producers who want to retain ownership can, and Western has several financing options to make that happen. The IAM program has meant less focus on traditional custom feeding, since all data is available to the producer simply by selling to the feeding company or one of its dealers.
In the last couple of years, I ve actually encouraged producers not to feed their own calves but just simply sell to us and focus their attention on what they re good at, says Hickey. Then we ll work with them on the areas we d like to see them focus on.
That s usually different for each producer, but marbling and quality grade are often up for discussion.
It s a complex puzzle, and high quality grade doesn t necessarily mean profit, but all else being equal, an average-yielding carcass that grades upper AAA and fits the CAB brand can be worth $50/head more than AA of the same weight, says Hickey.
It s not uncommon for a load of Western-fed cattle to go 80 per cent AAA, and some have gone 100 per cent or better, but the CAB share has been more commonly in the 10 to 15 per cent area. That can improve while making progress on feed efficiency at the same time, says Hickey, based on company data. That is, you don t have to give up quality when selecting for feed efficiency.
Not every rancher would make a good fit in this kind of a relationship that includes beef quality. For those who have no experience feeding, he suggests working backward from end-product marketing goals.
We are very focused on carcass quality; we ve built our production protocols with that in mind, he says. Canada can produce high-quality beef consistently, says Hickey.
When you combine the advantages of our barley-fed cattle with our national traceability systems, strict animal health protocols and highly regulated food safety standards, I truly believe we have some of the safest and highest-quality product in the world.
These factors help explain Canada s record of regaining access to international markets relatively quickly, post BSE, he says.
I have the opportunity to tour foreign delegations through our feedlot on a regular basis, and I can tell you with 100 per cent confidence that these international customers are blown away with how much information we have on cattle, says Hickey. They really like our traceability and trust our feeding programs. This is becoming more important with the average consumer everywhere, so Canada is in a great position moving forward. Cattlemen should continue to record and provide data on their cattle even if they sell them, he adds, so the industry can grow in the higher-value marketplace.
That s especially true if everyone in the cattle business gains a better understanding of the whole industry. Seeing how changes in production practices impact health, performance and carcass quality, they can manage cattle to better fit the market.
High grain prices forces cattle feeders to look at efficiencies in more detail, especially feed efficiency.
One of our challenges is to improve feed efficiency without sacrificing quality grade, says Hickey. Even though the company database indicates it can be done, it won t just fall into place.
New technologies are available that can drastically decrease carcass quality, so understanding which animals should get these products and which ones shouldn t will be more important in the future, he notes. That is IAM in a nutshell, and that s one of the areas where Western is focused.
Predictable performance will bring a premium, as long as it s better than average& Travis Hickey