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News Roundup – for May. 16, 2011



An extensive review of the research on grazing systems on native prairie rangeland over the past six decades has created some angst between research scientists and land managers.

The science is decisive, says study co-author Dr. Justin Derner who works at the USDA Agricultural Research Service Range Resource Research Unit in Cheyenne, Wyoming. In 85 to 95 per cent of the studies grazing systems alone had little or no impact on animal performance and forage production on range pastures. In many cases conventional grazing produced better results than rotational grazing. Stocking rate and weather explained most of the variation on these rangeland pastures, yet time and time again producers attest to the benefits of rotational grazing.

One large study compared conventional and rotational grazing from 1982 to 2006 on northern mixed-grass prairie near Cheyenne. Typically, the area receives 15 inches of precipitation a year, producing an average 1,380 pounds of forage per acre in a 130-day growing season. Continuous and rotationally grazed pastures were stocked at a moderate rate of 7.5 acres per steer and a heavy rate of 5.5 acres per steer. None of the pastures were grazed during the four drought years that occurred during the study.

“There was no evidence that any one grazing system produced more vegetation than another and little difference between grazing systems for livestock production,” Derner says. Moisture had the biggest impact on forage production and stocking rate on beef production. Wet or dry, conventional or rotational, gains were always less with the higher stocking rate.

Why the disconnect between what the science says and what producers are seeing? It’s no surprise, says Derner. He believes the difference is you — a grazing system isn’t the same thing as grazing management. Scientifistudies are designed to remove as much variability as possible. So stocking rates and rotations are fixed, so they can be fairly compared, which tends to remove the benefits of an experienced manager who will adjust stocking rates and grazing times to suit the weather and what he sees in the pastures.

The bottom line is conventional grazing using moderate stocking rates on native prairie pastures won’t harm forage production or animal performance. However, you may be able to improve on both with managed grazing.

If you have tame pastures, particularly when there’s not much diversity in the mix, go with a rotational system,” he says. It takes a manager to match up the demand to the forage available while keeping the plants in a vegetative stage and the experience to know which forage to stockpile for early or late-season grazing.

Derner is one of the authors of a new book coming out in June that summarizes the scientifiliterature on primary conservation practices implemented on U.S. rangelands. It’s based on the findings of the Conservation Effects Assessment Project led by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.



Olds College is selling its 53-foot self-contained mobile meat abattoir trailer built during a four-year research project to investigate the practicalities of mobile slaughter in Alberta. The project received about $1 million in federal and provincial funding.

Purchase proposals were due at the beginning of May.

A report on the project released by Alberta Agriculture in February gave a mixed review on the feasibility of multi-location abattoirs (MLAs). The mobile plant was designed in Alberta but built by TriVan Truck Body of Ferndale, Washington.

Starting in January 2008 it was outfitted to obtain an operating licence from Alberta Meat Inspection and a full set of HACCP-based operating procedures within a mobile environment. Slaughter test operations were carried out between April and November 2008. A total of 154 head of cattle, hogs, sheep, bison and deer were slaughtered at 11 different locations. Field testing showed it could produce expected meat quality without any major problems.

A bigger challenge was coming up with connections to stationary plants for cutting and processing services and possibly final cooling, freezing and storage of the meat at different locations.

It may be an MLA would be best suited to a different supply chain, one that involves freezing the meat.

The report suggested the most promising business opportunities lie in responding to a growing niche demand, mostly in cities, for naturally raised and traditionally processed meats. “This project connects to a much larger and wider opportunity for livestock producers and processors to take advantage of the growing demand in the budding local food economy. These can be further developed through government and industry initiatives assisted with support of public organizations.”



Vaccination of a cattle herd is like fire insurance, says Steve Hendrick, veterinarian and assistant professor at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in Saskatoon. “When disaster strikes it’s always good to be protected.”

In the same way Hendrick says a prebreeding vaccination strategy is important for maximizing reproductive performance and minimizing calf losses.

Blackleg or clostridial vaccines (7-or 8-way) are a mainstay in Western Canada because these diseases are common and the vaccines are cheap and effective. The clostridial bacteria survive in the soil for many years as spores and grazing animals are continuously exposed. Calves, often your biggest and best, are most commonly affected. Calves are best vaccinated at branding or just before turnout to summer pasture. Replacement heifers are commonly given a dose of blackleg vaccine just prior to turnout to breeding as a yearling. Cows and bulls are much less susceptible to developing clostridial diseases, but it is advisable to booster either annually or every couple of years. Boostering blackleg vaccines at the time of scours vaccination should help enrich the colostrum and may better protect the young calf.

Another concern is Bovine Viral Diarrhea (BVD). This virus causes abortion, infertility, birth defects, pneumonia, scours, and death. BVD is maintained in beef herds through persistently infected (PI) calves. These PI calves are created when an unprotected cow is infected with BVD during the first trimester of pregnancy. They are lifelong carriers that continuously shed large amounts of BVD through their manure, saliva, and skin. Vaccination of the cow herd, biosecurity measures and testing and removal of PI calves are the best way to eliminate BVD from your herd. In terms of vaccination, the use of a modified-live vaccine prior to breeding is the best way to ensure maximum protection in your cows and the least risk of developing future PI calves. Vaccinate bulls at the same time because BVD can be passed in semen.

Other optional pre-breeding vaccines to consider include vibrio, lepto and anthrax.

More information on these three diseases is found elsewhere in this issue.



Cattlemen with livestock on grass pastures in April and May should be aware of the possibility of grass tetany, says Ohio extension educator, Rory Lewandowski.

Grass tetany, sometimes called grass staggers, is brought on by low blood magnesium (Mg) levels in the affected animal. Magnesium is one of the macro minerals required by cattle and it is involved in crucial metabolic functions such as the transmission of nerve impulses and muscle contraction. About 70 per cent of the total body content of magnesium is stored in bones and teeth and adequate blood levels of magnesium are dependent upon daily magnesium intake.

Lush, rapidly growing forages, especially grass species, tend to be low in magnesium. High soil potassium levels have a negative effect on soil Mg uptake by plants. Many soils tend to be low in magnesium to begin with and under cool, wet conditions rapidly growing grass plants will absorb excess potassium before magnesium. This leads to lower Mg content in those plants. Pastures fertilized with nitrogen in the spring can also be a contributing factor because nitrogen increases grass growth and may limit soil Mg availability.

A cow’s requirement for magnesium increases after calving. Cows with nursing calves that are under four months of age are at greatest risk for grass tetany when grazing lush, rapidly growing grass pastures. Steers, heifers, dry cows and cows with calves over four months in age are all at lower risk for it. In general, mature animals are more at risk than young animals because mature animals are not able to mobilize Mg from bones like a young animal when blood Mg levels drop.

The first signs are restlessness, nervousness and flighty behaviour. There may be twitching of the skin and muscles that progress to muscle spasms and convulsions. The affected animal may exhibit loss of co-ordination and stagger around. Eventually the animal will collapse, lie on her side and paddle with her front legs. Death occurs as a result of respiratory failure during a seizure. Although the symptoms are known, many cattle owners find a dead animal before observing symptoms because the interval between the first symptoms and death can be as short as four to eight hours. If symptoms are detected treatment involves administering supplemental magnesium, either intravenously as a calcium magnesium gluconate solution or as an enema with solution of magnesium chloride dissolved in water.

The best way of dealing with grass tetany is through prevention. Highrisk animals grazing lush, rapidly growing grass pastures should receive supplemental magnesium. Generally this is done in a mineral mix, using magnesium oxide or magnesium sulfate. Cattlemen should switch to high-magnesium-content mineral mix in the spring of the year. Magnesium oxide is fairly unpalatable and is typically mixed with grain or a flavouring agent like molasses to entice free-choice consumption. Another strategy is to add magnesium sulfate (Epsom salts) to the water tanks.



In response to shrinking cow numbers beef packer XL Foods is shutting down its processing and fabrication operations in Calgary this month until this fall at the earliest, and its plant in Nampa, Idaho indefinitely.

In a statement the company blamed the shutdown of the Calgary cattle plant, the fourth largest in Canada with a weekly processing capacity of 5,000 head, on “the significant decrease in the western Canadian cow herd” and “challenging competitive conditions in the Canadian marketplace” which created a situation where XL could no longer effectively operate these facilities at or near capacity.

XL, however, said there’s a “possibility” that operations at the Calgary plants could resume this fall “when mature cattle numbers are historically more plentiful.”

In the meantime, the company says it will continue to be an aggressive purchaser in the fed and mature cattle

market to supply its remaining plants in Brooks, Alta., and Omaha, Neb.

The XL Four Star Beef facility at Nampa, west of Boise, is to halt production at the beginning of June.

“The economics of operating the facility, combined with the capital requirements of a plant of this age make it unfeasible to operate,” company co-CEO Brian Nilsson said in the release. According to press reports, the Nampa plant is about 85 years old.

Brooks is only about 175 kilometres from Calgary whereas the Omaha plant is about 2,000 kilometres east of Nampa.

XL’s moves follow its decision in August last year to permanently close its beef plant at Moose Jaw, Sask., after a summer-long layoff of all the plant’s staff in 2009.

Labour contract talks stalled and a lockout of the plant’s unionized staff followed, lasting until the plant’s closure. XL also cited cattle market conditions as a reason for the Moose Jaw closure.

Labour issues are also far from settled at XL’s Brooks facility, which XL bought from Tyson Foods in 2009.

United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW Canada) Local 401, which represents the plant’s unionized staff, said the company’s last offer for a new contract is “nowhere close to where it should be,” and advised the Brooks workers to “still prepare for a strike.”

The Brooks plant in February picked up $1.6 million in federal funding toward upgrades to its trim sorting and ground beef lines, which would double the plant’s beef-grinding capacity.

XL’s owner, cattle-feeding and marketing firm Nilsson Bros., entered the packing business in the late 1990s by buying Edmonton Meat Packing and XL Foods. It took over the Moose Jaw plant from the Saskatchewan government in 2000 and bought the Omaha and Nampa plants from Swift and Co. in 2006.



Hidden in Manitoba’s 2011-12 budget was a $200,000 allocation for a pilot cattle program to insure cattle producers against sudden drops in market prices.

Provincial Agriculture Minister Stan Struthers later confirmed the allocation is part of a $6.87-million funding increase to the province’s AgriInsurance program.

Manitoba would like Ottawa to contribute another $300,000, based on a traditional 60:40 federal-provincial funding split, to make the program worth $500,000 in total.

The province is also open to cooperating with Alberta and Saskatchewan in a Prairie-wide cattle insurance program, “especially a cow-calf insurance program,” said Struthers.

If neither option works out, Manitoba will go it alone, he said. Discussions with Ottawa were put on hold until after the federal election.



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