Can cattle be “fattened up” on pasture without grain supplementation?

News Roundup: Virtual on-farm necropsy, VBP animal care module progresses, and calls to suspend COOL

Can cattle be “fattened up” on pasture without grain supplementation?


Can I do that on grass?
By Jack Kyle, Ontario forage specialist

With increased interest in grass-fed beef, people ask if it is possible to fatten cattle on pasture without grain supplementation. The answer is yes, with a few conditions. When grass finishing animals remember that the market is generally not looking for as much fat cover as normally found on grain-finished animals. If you are not looking to finish cattle but rather achieve maximum growth on pasture the same pasture management principles will apply.

First and foremost, what is the quality of the pasture? To achieve optimum production you need lots of good-quality pasture. However, unlike with stored forages and grains, producers often don’t have an accurate quality assessment of their pastures. This is because pastures grow and are utilized directly by the animal without ever being formally harvested or analyzed.

Stored forage and grains have a known quality and energy level — either from feed analysis or from a long consistent history of grading standards and nutritional analysis. Although it is often produced on farm, you still have a good indicator of the feed quality, especially in the case of grains.

With pastures, there is a wide range in species makeup, including any number of mixtures of legumes and grasses, with each species having a different feeding value. There is also the maturity factor — pastures may range from lush and vegetative to those which are mature and woody. Obviously, the lush and vegetative pastures will provide much higher-quality feed, and you will have far greater success finishing cattle on this than a mature, woody pasture. This range in quality has a tremendous effect on animal performance, especially with livestock requiring more than a maintenance ration.

In a research project conducted at the Ontario Agricultural College in the 1960s, forage quality at various stages of growth was determined. For alfalfa, the range was from a high of 20.8 per cent CP (crude protein) and 70.6 per cent IVD (in vitro digestibility) in the younger plants to a low of 15.6 per cent CP and 60.1 per cent IVD in the more mature plants. For orchardgrass, the protein ranged from 13.3 per cent to 6.6 per cent and digestibility ranged from 74.7 to 51.8 per cent, showing a decrease in value as the plant matured. Timothy and brome grass showed similar declines in quality as orchardgrass.


When the digestibility of forage decreases, the intake also declines. This comes as a double hit because the animals are eating less of a lower-quality feed, resulting in poor performance. To finish well, cattle will need high intakes of quality forage. If pastures are managed to be grazed when the plants are in the vegetative state, with maximum animal intake, excellent growth and production results are achievable.

The second condition required to successfully finish on pasture is good pasture management. How do you manage your pastures and your grazing to achieve these results? Staging the pastures to create a wedge of forage with the last pasture grazed being the thin edge of the wedge and the next pasture to be grazed is the thick end of the wedge. If animals are moved every one to two days they will always have fresh high-quality forage available that will meet the nutritional requirements for excellent growth. To support pasture finishing, pastures should be maintained with forage grasses in the boot stage and legumes in late-bud to early-flower stages. By maintaining and monitoring this “wedge” you will have the opportunity to adjust your grazing program to maintain quality pasture from May through to October.

Take the example of a 12-paddock system. The animals will start in paddock one and by the time they get to paddock 12, the first one will have regrown to provide abundant high-quality forage.

Animals come out of paddock 12 (the thin end of the wedge) when the forage is sufficiently grazed and moved into paddock one (the thick end of the wedge) where there is ample supply. Animals will rotate through the 12 paddocks so that while one is being grazed the other 11 are in a state of regrowth. Ideally, by the time animals have grazed through paddocks one to 11, and are ready to be back in paddock 12, it will have regrown enough to be the thick end of the wedge again.

Perennial pastures have minimal input costs and very low maintenance cost when compared to annual crops, stored forage or grain crops. By maintaining quality pasture throughout the grazing season, you create the lowest-cost feeding program, while still achieving gains comparable to any other feeding program. It is the dollars you have left that determine your profitability, not the gross revenue. Well-managed pastures are an opportunity to have a profitable bottom line and access a niche but growing market for grass-fed beef.


Virtual on-farm necropsy hunts out disease

Researchers believe the next epidemic or health concern for the cattle industry may well be in the story told by the animals that die on the farm. Therefore, the ability to collect relevant and timely information and samples from an animal that has died is crucial to making an accurate diagnosis. But this process can be costly and may not be deemed necessary by the animal owner.

For animal health practitioners, cutting down necropsy costs and finding new tools for producers and veterinarians to promote the sharing of knowledge and learning opportunities on cattle diseases has always been the challenge to overcome.

That’s where the use of imaging technology to make a diagnosis “at a distance” comes in. Over the years, its use has increased in many applications such as feedlots, wildlife monitoring and parasitism.

However, the methodology of making a diagnosis “at a distance” by a diagnostician has never been formally compared to making a necropsy diagnosis over the Internet.

But Dr. Eugene Janzen at the University of Calgary believes a necropsy diagnosis over the Internet holds potential in improving intelligence on animal health.

Currently, he is involved in an innovative research trial on “virtual” long distance diagnosis. With support from the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency (ALMA), Dr. Janzen’s research aims to eventually advance the concept of “on-site” diagnosis of cattle cadavers. This project will use a complete necropsy examination in a diagnostic laboratory as the “gold standard” and compare that to a diagnosis made by using the images of that necropsy viewed by a “blind panel” of veterinarians with different levels of experience and expertise.

The process involves the active participation of cattle producers and their employees in the selection process. For instance, when an animal of interest dies, the producer or employee will notify the research group at the University of Calgary faculty of veterinary medicine (UCVM). A dedicated animal health technologist (AHT) will proceed to the property, collect the cadaver and submit it to the diagnostic laboratory at the UCVM. The duty pathologist will examine the animal at necropsy; the AHT will take a standard set of images of that necropsy and present them to the panel. The objective is to measure the agreement between the “gold standard” necropsy done, “no holds barred” by the pathologist and compare that to the accuracy of examining images alone.

Ultimately, it is envisaged that producers or their designates, under instruction from their own veterinarian, will dissect the cadaver, take photographs and email the images to the herd veterinarian who may forward them to a designated diagnostician at a veterinary facility. The involvement of a veterinarian is to instruct the producer group thereby maintaining the integrity of the veterinary client-patient relationship.

Dr. Janzen believes this virtual diagnostic process will reduce the cost of animal necropsy significantly. A producer will now spend $20 to $50 per case as opposed to $300 to $500.

“The key aspect of this project is that it will advance the veterinary field by providing new tools to veterinarians and cattle producers. The project will advance knowledge sharing and learning opportunities,” he said.

In addition, Dr. Janzen says the convenience of a reduced cost will enable cattle producers to conduct more necropsies, which translates to more knowledge and information about the prevalence of animal diseases.

“This will also help producers to manage the disease issue more appropriately,” he says.

“You may need to know why that animal died to prevent others in your herd from being affected, says Janzen. “Some reasons such as foot-and-mouth disease would have severe implications to your national industry.”

The Alberta Veterinary Medical Association (ABVMA) says Dr. Janzen’s research holds potential to improve animal health and to improve producer-veterinarian contact.

“Information collected by necropsy examination is an essential piece of the data that must be collected to ensure the health of the individual herd. Gathering and reviewing this information also serves to support surveillance and is essential in managing the entire animal population of the province,” says Dr. Duane Landals, senior adviser with the ABVMA.


VBP animal care module moving ahead

The new animal care module to be added to Canada’s established Verified Beef Production (VBP) on-farm food safety program will include a formal approach to assessing animal care for self-evaluation and, if the producer chooses, third-party audits to verify that beef cattle code of practice animal care requirements are being met.

VBP is a free and voluntary program offered by the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association (CCA) for all beef production sectors. Funding was secured late last year to develop modules for animal care, environmental stewardship and biosecurity over the next three to four years.

Ryder Lee, CCA’s manager of federal, provincial relations, says the animal care technical package was formed in August and is set to move forward with writing the program. The next step will be to test it on beef operations to make sure it’s workable and meets the intended purpose before it is finalized.

The committee will follow the Animal Care Assessment Framework developed by the National Farm Animal Care Council (NFACC) starting back in 2007. The process was tested by the Dairy Farmers of Canada in 2012 before the framework was finalized and released earlier this year.

The framework is a species-neutral document that lays out six steps for designing a transparent, credible animal care assessment program consistent with the HACCP (hazard analysis and critical control point) approach and the relevant code of practice requirements.

It’s then up to the national commodity or specialized industry group that wants to develop an assessment program or revise an existing program using the framework’s process to flush out the details. The group needs to contact the NFACC, designate a program co-ordinator to take the lead, put together a well-rounded program development team that includes knowledgeable stakeholders as outlined in the framework, develop program content for the specific commodity, test the draft program on farms (optional, but strongly recommended), and report to NFACC at various stages of program development.

Developing program content is a complex task that must follow certain principles related to use of code-of-practice requirements, establishing performance targets or critical levels, make use of three types of assessment measures and define sampling procedures.

If NFACC deems that the process has been followed, it will support the program and recognize the group’s use of the framework on the NFACC website.

The framework document is available under the resources tab on the NFACC website at

VBP’s manual and checklist for the food safety program, which was also developed using international HACCP guidelines, is an example of what an assessment program looks like. It and information about how to participate are online at


Suspend COOL if WTO rules against U.S., says coalition

Following a report that says the World Trade Organization has sided with Canada and Mexico in the dispute over U.S. country-of-origin labelling rules, a coalition of American food and agriculture organizations is urging Congress and U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack to immediately suspend COOL if the WTO rules against the U.S.

Although the ruling had not yet been made public, a report in the Wall Street Journal said the WTO has determined the U.S. is not complying with its international trade obligations.

The decision was shared confidentially with the governments for all three countries involved in the trade dispute in early July. It’s now expected the ruling will be made public this month.

Speaking on behalf of the COOL Reform Coalition, the U.S. National Corn Growers Association issued a statement saying suspending COOL would “neither prejudge the pending WTO litigation on this matter nor allow an ongoing period of knowing violation of international trade obligations.”

The Canadian cattle and hog industries say COOL is costing producers north of the border around $1 billion per year.

While the Canadian government has already published a list of U.S. products that could face retaliatory tariffs, a WTO compliance panel ruling against the U.S. would likely be appealed. If the appeal decision is also in Canada’s favour, there’s a possibility those retaliatory tariffs could be implemented by the middle of 2015.


Alternative phosphorus-based manure applications evaluated

Alberta feedlot operators are interested in knowing how a potential shift to phosphorus-based manure application-rate regulations or guidelines will affect their operational costs and income.

To examine these questions Dr. Elwin Smith, a bioeconomist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) in Lethbridge evaluated the impact of different manure application rates on the returns of a medium-size beef feedlot in southern Alberta.

The current practice in Alberta is to base manure applications on crop-available nitrogen, which is the first limiting nutrient for most Alberta crops. However, by applying manure based on nitrogen, other nutrients such as phosphorus may be applied at rates that exceed plant nutrient requirements. Long term this can contribute to phosphorus buildup in surface soils and surface water from run-off raising a number of environmental concerns. The Alberta Nutrient Management Planning Guide states that: “Depending on the natural risk (e.g. presence of neighbouring water bodies, high soil test phosphorus)… it may be advisable to consider basing (manure) application on phosphorus recommendations.”


Smith’s study looked at the impact of such a regulatory change by constructing an economic model to compare costs and returns when manure application rates are based on annual crop nitrogen limits or annual phosphorus requirements.

“We also looked at the case of applying manure at three times the annual phosphorus requirement but applied every third year on a rotational basis to one-third of the land base,” says Smith.

This high rotational rate was based on the work of Dr. Jim Miller with AAFC in Lethbridge. When he rotationally applied manure at three times annual phosphorus requirements, phosphorus concentrations in the run-off were 50 to 94 per cent lower than when the application rate matched the crop’s annual nitrogen requirements.

“Our findings suggested no environmental benefit for annual phosphorus-based manure application over once-every-three-year phosphorus-based manure application with respect to phosphorus and nitrogen in run-off, says Miller. “However, manure application at three times the phosphorus crop requirement sometimes caused a spike in total phosphorus in run-off the year of application.”

“Basically, in the year after manure application, there is a higher risk of potential environmental impact, such as phosphorus moving into water bodies,” he concludes.

“Similar nitrogen concentrations in run-off for the phosphorus- and nitrogen-based manure application trials indicated that shifting to a phosphorus-based manure application would not significantly influence nitrogen in run-off.”

The economic analysis was based on a 10,000-head feedlot with access to 39 quarter sections of cropland within 12 kilometers of the feedlot. Manure application costs were set at $2.67/tonne for loading, $0.70 for transport and $1.64 for application. Cropping costs were analysed for irrigated and dryland conditions in southern Alberta.

The model also factored in supplemental inorganic fertilizer costs because a phosphorus-based manure application strategy requires supplemental nitrogen to meet crop requirements.

Key findings

Annual applications based on crop phosphorus requirements had substantially higher costs than the other two options examined because the manure had to be transported farther and applied over more acres at a low rate. Returns were reduced by $7.50/head compared to annual applications based on crop nitrogen requirements. Hauling costs alone were 65 per cent higher (from $13.76 to $22.46/head); transport and application costs added another $10.12. These extra costs were partially offset by savings in fertilizer purchases (77 per cent less phosphorus and four per cent less nitrogen).

Applying manure every third year at three times the phosphorus requirement to a third of the acres was a cheaper alternative than annual applications based on phosphorus levels but still reduced the return per head to the feedlot by $1.70 compared to annual applications based on nitrogen requirements.

“The Provincial Nutrient Management Planning Guide identifies scenarios where manure application rates based on crop phosphorus recommendations makes sense,” says Smith. “Based on our economic study, the application of manure to targeted fields once every third year, and based on three-year crop phosphorus requirements, appears to be a reasonably sound alternative manure application strategy. And Dr. Miller’s work appears to confirm that it is a reasonably sound environmental strategy, as well. ”


Heavy feeder exports will continue — analyst

Market analyst Kevin Grier with the George Morris Centre in Guelph doesn’t foresee any significant let-up in the flow of western feeder cattle to the U.S. this fall, particularly from Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

Writing in the August 25 issue of his Canadian Cattle Buyer newsletter, he says one of the most interesting developments over the past year is the flow of feeder cattle off the eastern Prairies.

From July 2013 to June 2014, 390,000 western feeders were shipped to U.S. feedlots in Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado and Washington. “The big increases have been to Nebraska and Colorado. Numbers to Washington are down notably,” he says.

Most of those cattle will end up being fed for slaughter at the Tyson plant in Lexington, Nebraska which has a capacity of 4,800 head per day.

“The important point, however, is whether or not the flow is going to continue at year-ago levels this fall. The answer is yes it will.

“First of all and most importantly, the western grain advantage has not only eroded but is likely gone. Beyond the grain advantage there are other factors that will pull cattle south, even beyond the fact that numbers are short in the U.S. relative to Canada.”

The other factor is related to country-of-origin labelling. The Lexington facility takes “B” cattle and as such has a need for a critical mass of this type of cattle.

“Tyson is likely supportive if not outright encouraging of Nebraska and Colorado feeders pulling cattle out of Canada. In addition while the feeder cattle are marketed and procured in a variety of ways there are steady relationships developed with established roles regarding the trade.”

Finally, he says, U.S. corporate feedlots and their bankers are more able to sustain the exceptional levels of capital and risk that have evolved in the beef industry over the last few years.

“The bottom line is that numbers are going to continue to flow south off the Prairies in material numbers. While numbers have always flowed, the volumes constitute a new form of competition which will impact not only the feeder basis but also the fed basis.”

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