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Still a long way to go

A number of recent agriculture publications has questioned whether or not we are approaching the biological limit of individual animal production. The big question: How might this influence long-term sustainability of the cattle business?

To think our industry might be approaching biological limits to how fast a feedlot steer grows, how efficiently it converts feed to meat, or the limit as to how many kilograms of calf a brood cow can produce year after year seems daunting, especially when we are constantly reminded that the industry’s future rests with its ability to meet the growing demand for animal protein by building on efficiency.

One researcher goes as far as to say that finding another Secretariat in the beef industry isn’t in the cards.

Examples cited that cracks are beginning to show include ambulatory problems in cattle on finishing rations, the appearance of foot and leg problems in cattle on pasture, the fact there is no credible evidence suggesting the average weaning weight per calf has increased in the last 10 years, and the view shared by many researchers that beef cow productivity is stagnant. Work in the U.S. looked at performance numbers for the periods of 1991-99 and 2005-09. From the first period of time to the latter one, average weaning weight declined 36 pounds, average calving rate declined 1.3 per cent, and average pounds weaned per cow exposed — a product of the other two measures — declined 25 pounds.

Tom Field, director of the Engler Agribusiness Entrepreneurship Program at the University of Nebraska reminds us that, “We haven’t made dramatic improvements in reproduction in any species without increasing inputs, which works when inputs are cheap, but what happens when interest rates increase to 10 to15 per cent, or corn prices move from a historic average of $2-$2.50 per bushel to more than $7 per bushel?”

In my view we don’t need to worry! Even if science might be closing in on what is biologically possible with the domestic cow, the potential to get better is huge.

Consider an August 2012 report from the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology that examined agricultural production relative to land and water use. The report points out that beef production increased 72 per cent from 1961 to 2003, while chicken and pork production increased 198 per cent and 143 per cent, respectively. Milk production increased 126 per cent.

Take into consideration some of the simple things this industry needs to look at, things like:

  • The number of cows exposed to bulls in the breeding field compared to those weaning a live calf in the fall.
  • The number of cows that fail to conceive.
  • The number of calves that die between birth and weaning.
  • The number of producers who neglect to manage length of the breeding season and, over time, the impact it has on the calving season.
  • The significant percentage of weaned calves that require treatment for respiratory disease as they enter feedlots despite improved weaning and vaccination programs.
  • The number of producers who do little about controlling BVD and Johne’s disease.
  • The long-term effects of the undernourished beef cow.

An often-neglected facet of infertility is the seven per cent of cows that become pregnant, but fail to calve or fail to wean a calf. Open and late-calving cows remain the most costly factor in beef production and run on average 10 per cent in most herds. On many ranches, only 80 calves are weaned per 100 cows in breeding herds. Then there is the negative impact of cows that calve late in the calving season.

Pre-breeding nutrition remains high on the list of factors that affect conception rates followed by bulls that are not in condition to breed, or are reproductively unsound. Bull-to-cow ratios on most pastures should be 1:25, a number often not met.

It doesn’t take long to calculate that the beef industry may be running on about 75 per cent efficiency, and has for many years. Add to that the vulnerability that becomes inherent when an industry fails to diversify markets and expand its customer base, and the constant issue of quality — the 15 per cent of steaks that fail to provide an enjoyable eating experience. Getting better at what we do now includes incorporating growing consumer interest not only in meat quality, but how food is produced.

The “new kid on the block” is fetal programming. A concept that more closely links what the brood cow experiences during pregnancy and performance of her progeny down the road will change management practices in beef production. Recent research provides evidence that the maternal environment of the fetus during early development, especially nutrition, can override the genetic blueprint to affect future performance.

Over the last 20 years, a rapid change in technology, science and consumer activism has had an enormous impact on the agriculture sector. The change brings us closer to the limits nature decrees on all we do, and while biological limits should be respected we cannot overlook the basics that hold the greatest opportunity to improve beef production.

Tom Field perhaps sums it up the best: “We have celebrated per-animal production as the Holy Grail of livestock production. It serves as the basis for our sustainability message, our pride in being productive and the pride we take in feeding people, but we need to idle for a second, apply our full senses to look, listen and smell, and then apply those observations to what we know as stockmen.”

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].

About the author


Dr. Ron Clarke

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]).



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