For years we have missed marketing pre-arrival management of calves into Canadian feedlots. Practices important to feedlots are commonsense things most producers follow as they prepare calves for fall markets and yet producers still have difficulty extracting value for their efforts. Does the system for marketing calves need to change?
U.S. feedlot owners and managers — participants in the 2011 National Animal Health Surveillance (NAHMS) feedlot study — sanctioned key pre-arrival management practices that help reduce death loss and sickness in feedlots. It turns out that management practices most likely to improve resistance of calves to infectious disease during early stages of the production process in many cases happen before calves arrive at the feedlots.
The NAHMS study included on-site visits at feedlots with at least 1,000 head and telephone interviews of owners or managers of feedlots with less than 1,000 head. Twenty cattle-feeding states were involved in the study. Large feedlots, representing 2.8 per cent of U.S. feedlots accounted for 82.1 per cent of the January 1, 2011, inventory of feedlot cattle in the U.S.
Topping the list of on-ranch practices most beneficial to feedlot-bound calves were castrating and dehorning at least four weeks prior to shipment. Over 90 per cent of those polled agreed that this practice was extremely to very beneficial.
Vaccination against respiratory diseases was next on the list of practices considered highly beneficial. The application of respiratory vaccines to calves two weeks prior to weaning was considered important to 85 per cent of feedlots participating in the study. Vaccination given at weaning was considered highly beneficial by 80 per cent of feedlots.
Eighty-one per cent of feedlots considered introduction of calves to a feed bunk an important part of preparations for entry into a feedlot. Exposure to a feed bunk ranked just ahead of the benefit seen in calves being weaned four weeks prior to shipping at 79 per cent.
Treatment of calves for parasites prior to being shipped to feedlots rounded out the list of top six practices considered highly beneficial by major feedlots receiving calves. Seventy-one per cent of feedlots considered parasite control highly beneficial.
The six pre-arrival management practices deemed to be extremely or very effective received a nod from at least 71.0 per cent of the feedlots surveyed. The results of the NAHMS survey, last conducted in 1999 and repeated in 2011, showed in both instances that pre-arrival practices were considered important by feedlots when purchasing replacements. The ranking of importance did vary by feedlot, which emphasizes the importance of understanding what your customers want.
Although feedlot operators believed that pre-arrival management practices were crucial to the health of animals, information on pre-arrival processing was frequently unavailable to operators. Only about one-third of U.S. feedlots (34 per cent) consistently obtained pre-arrival information.
With animal identification and traceability initiatives in full swing, supplemented by the networks established through programs like Quality Starts Here and Verified Beef Production, the situation in Canada should be better. Recently published codes of practice for cow-calf producers and feedlots will take the exchange of information between producers and feedlots to another level. Having the technical ability to deliver information up and down the supply chain in a way that benefits producers, processors and consumers is close at hand for the Canadian industry.
The holes that still exist reflect the challenge of moving data and information between sectors of a highly fragmented industry. The Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute’s (CAPI) September 2012 report on Canada’s beef food system highlights that the industry suffers from a minimal amount of collaboration among its stakeholders. The problem is magnified when many smaller groups of cattle are involved. There is also the reality that when price discovery for calves depends on traditional marketing systems based on “averages” rather than “quality,” that the cost of adding value and transmitting data may be higher than the cost differential between those with and without special pre-arrival management.
Increasing the percentage of feedlots that always have pre-arrival information available should be a rallying point for the cow-calf sector. Working with the different groups involved in marketing channels to improve communication and consistency is one way we can improve the situation. Developing a more systematic method of transferring data as ownership of cattle moves from supplier to feedlot will help. It may start with a simple document endorsed by a veterinarian, certifying that key practices have been completed.
Is a durable fix easy? Certainly not. Many recognize that change is required; that the beef sector suffers from a minimal amount of collaboration among stakeholders; and that a long-term strategy that brings players together is missing. Knowing where calves go, what the customer wants and ensuring conditions are satisfied seems simple enough. What is more difficult is galvanizing the many voices that speak for the beef sector, coupled with a new brand of leadership that will help align the transition toward change.
For now, knowing what pre-arrival practices are most important to feedlot operators will help producers adopt practices that are most beneficial and provide options to market them in a way that can be financially rewarding.
— Dr. Ron Clarke prepares this column on behalf of the Western Canadian Association of Bovine Practitioners. Suggestions for future articles can be sent to Canadian Cattlemen ([email protected]) or WCABP ([email protected]).