BEEF March/April 2022
We take great pleasure in welcoming you to a brand-new issue of BEEF.
We take great pleasure in welcoming you to a brand-new issue of BEEF. The beef cattle industry’s authoritative source for business management and production information with a focus on end-product quality and marketing insight, BEEF is pleased to unveil a new bi-monthly interactive digital offering.
Just as our nation's beef industry has continued to evolve, adapt and innovate to keep our modern cattle productions systems competitive and profitable, so too has BEEF in order to deliver the most up-to-date market, production and legislative trends and analysis to beef producers and allied industry members in the United States and beyond each day.
Every other month we aim to bring the latest in cattle research and beef production content to life — digitally. Each BEEF digital edition will offer a unique audience experience, with content packaged like print but with digital benefits such as video, podcasts, slideshows, animation and more. This new platform will also give users the opportunity to engage, share and download content.
We hope you enjoy diving into the first issue in 2022 and appreciate your feedback, questions and submission ideas. Please send to BEEF contributor Ann Hess at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In this March/April edition, we explore the following topics:
BEEF Industry Snapshot
Market outlook and consumer trends
Cattle prices should be headed higher
By Dennis Smith
Last year beef production, at 27.937 billion pounds, was up 2.8% from 2020 and record large. Production for 2022 is projected, by the USDA, to be down 2.1% at 27.375 billion pounds. With feed costs rising dramatically early this year, odds favor a sharp downturn in fed cattle weights forcing production to be revised down further.
Last year beef exports were up 17% from 2020 which is an explosion in export business. Exports for 2022 are projected to drop off slightly (down nearly 5%) but historically remain highly elevated. Data just released for January indicated beef exports for the first month of the year were up 18% from January of last year.
The beef industry has been culling beef cows for over a year. This liquidation continues into early 2022. The beef manufacturing capability has been reduced for the foreseeable future. We believe that current on-feed inventory is at a peak with numbers headed lower from here forward.
Large numbers of light weight calves have been placed on-feed due to the drought in the Southern Plains. The rule of thumb says that when cattle are placed at lighter weights they’ll be marketed at lighter than normal weights. Certainly, with feed prices rising dramatically one should anticipate lower trending weights during the course of 2022. In addition, last year’s calf crop was down 3%. It’s extremely unlikely to experience higher placements this year when the industry is working with a smaller calf crop.
Beef packer processing margins have been historically wide, profitable, for months. In fact, they’ve been highly profitable for over two years. However, this is slowly changing with leverage moving back to the feedlot and away from the beef packer. Current processing margins remain profitable, but they’ve narrowed substantially. Margins have been excellent mostly due to outstanding demand for U.S. beef. Due to adequate numbers and heavy weights, production last year was record high.
I project that a tightening fed cattle supply combined with continued robust demand for beef will work to drive live cattle prices, both cash steer prices and futures prices sharply higher in the weeks ahead.
We’re now approaching the best demand time of year for the beef market. Domestic springtime demand is huge as retailers and purveyors' book for the return of grilling weather, baseball season, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and the Fourth of July. As mentioned above, beef exports remain robust. Rising cash steer prices have driven live cattle futures toward 7-year highs with steer prices at six-year highs. However, wholesale beef prices have corrected off recent highs and current reside at 11-month lows. This sets the table for some very attractive retail beef features for the upcoming summer season. I suspect the current rash of large placements into the feed yards will soon give way to smaller numbers.
Calves have been run off of dried out wheat pasture this winter. The trend of lower placements, active marketings and lower trending cattle weights should trigger a huge rally in cash steer prices and live cattle futures prices in the weeks ahead. The number one hazard to my bullish outlook would be if the U.S. economy sinks into recession. Recently one of my research sources told me that the end of the world only happens once and this is most likely not the end of the world.
Dennis Smith is with Archer Financial Services, Inc. and has been a full service commodity broker specializing in grain and livestock trading for over 25 years. Contact him here.
What's Next in 2022?
According to the Beef Checkoff, beef lovers can expect to see these three trends in 2022.
Healthy Recipes - Home cooking and healthy habits were big in 2021 and are expected to continue this year. Beef’s versatility means there are a variety of lean cuts to choose from and beef pairs perfectly with vegetables for a protein-packed, delicious meal.
As an added bonus, healthy diets with beef can provide immunity-boosting benefits. Classic Beef Stuffed Peppers and Beef Confetti Taco Salad are just a few of the many recipes that make sticking to new year’s resolution easy.
Cook once, eat twice - Quick meals that leave you with leftovers make things a little easier.Easy Roast Beef Potluck Rolls recipe makes for the perfect weeknight meal, with plenty to save for another. Or turn leftovers into a completely new dish, enjoy a roast one night and save the leftovers for Cuban Crispy Shredded Beef.
Beef on any budgetWhether it’s a special occasion or a regular weeknight meal, beef’s versatility means there’s something for everyone. For those on a budget, Ground Beef, Chuck Steak, Chuck Roast and Top Round Steak are all great options with big flavor.
Explore more beef cuts and find easy budget-friendly roast swaps on BeefItsWhatsForDinner.com.
Supplementing heifers transitioning
to wheat pasture
Performance, net returns of feeding supplements
from preconditioning through the transition
to wheat pasture.
By Britt Hicks
Research has shown that cattle transitioning to wheat pasture after preconditioning require an acclimation period before significant body weight gains occur. For example, 2003 Oklahoma research reported that calves grazing wheat pasture in central Oklahoma lost weight during the first 10 days of grazing, but by day 20, they recovered to their initial weight at the time of turnout.
A three-year grazing study (2015 – 2017) conducted in Ardmore, Oklahoma evaluated three supplemental strategies for heifers preconditioned for 56 days (in grass traps) prior to being turned out on wheat pasture. The three strategies were:
- Supplement at 1% of body weight (BW) during the preconditioning period (1%PC).
- Supplement at 2% of BW during the preconditioning period (2%PC).
- Transitional strategy of 2% of BW during the preconditioning period and the first 21 day on wheat pasture (2%PCWP).
The objective of this study was to determine the effects on weight gain and net returns of feeding supplements from preconditioning through the transition to wheat pasture.
The supplements were limit-fed on a dry matter (DM) basis and adjusted weekly based on average daily gain (ADG) targets of 1.50, 1.98 and 1.98 pounds/head for cattle in the 1%PC, 2%PC and 2%PCWP treatment groups, respectively.
Cattle were fed daily beginning on day 1 and lasting through the length of the preconditioning period.
On a DM basis, the major feed ingredients in the supplement were soybean hulls (40%), dried distillers grains (30%), corn gluten feed (17%) and wheat middlings (10%). This supplement contained 19.8% crude protein and 77.3% TDN on a DM basis.
The effects of the treatments on performance and net returns are shown in Table 1. These researchers reported that during preconditioning, cattle fed at 2% of BW gained 0.44 lb/day more than cattle fed at 1% of BW (P < 0.000; 1.92 vs 1.48 lb/day) and were ~25 lb heavier at the end of preconditioning (P < 0.000).
|Animal and Economic Variable
Receiving weight lb/head
|Days on feed
|Total gain lb/head
|Ending Weight lb/head
|Wheat Pasture Phase
|Grazing duration days
|Total accumulated gain on day 1 lb/head
|Total accumulated gain on day 7 lb/head
|Total accumulated gain on day 14 lb/head
|Total accumulated gain on day 119 lb/head
|Final weight lb/head
|Net return $/head
Table. 1 Measures of animal performance and expected values of net returns by treatment
Adapted from Moore et al., 2021.
a-c Means within a row with differing superscripts were different at a 95% level of confidence. 1%PC, 2%PC and 2%PCWP represent supplement on a DM basis of 1% of BW during the preconditioning period in grass traps, supplement of 2% BW during the preconditioning period in grass.
The cattle on wheat pasture lost weight quickly (<3 day) and rebounded slowly following the transition onto pasture.
By the end of the first week on wheat pasture, total accumulated gain for the 1%PC and 2%PC treatments remained negative at -9.5 and -7.5 lb/head, respectively, but the transitional (2%PCWP) treatment group had a positive gain of 0.7 lb/head.
Concluding week 2, cattle in all three treatments had positive, but different (P = 0.0145) accumulated total gains of 9.5, 8.8 and 20.5 lb/head for the 1%PC, 2%PC and 2%PCWP treatments, respectively.
At the end of the wheat grazing period, total accumulated gain did not differ significantly between treatments. In addition, ADG did not differ (P = 0.20) among treatments over the entire grazing period.
Feeding at 1% of BW generated the highest net return of ~$23/head. The feeding at 2% of BW treatments had per animal net returns of ~$22 less with no feeding on wheat pasture and ~$61 less when fed on wheat pasture.
In conclusion, providing a high-energy supplement to cattle transitioning to wheat pasture affected their weight gain during the first two weeks.
However, the gains were not sustained in the long run, resulting in cattle in the treatment group that were fed at 1% of BW during preconditioning being more profitable than the other two feeding strategies.
The additional cost of feed in grass traps and the additional cost of feed on wheat pasture outweighed any additional revenue that was received by cattle gaining more weight than cattle fed at the lower rate.
These data suggest that the most economically sound practice is to not provide any supplement with the intent of aiding cattle transition to wheat pasture.
Lippke, H. T., D. A. Forbes and W. C. Ellis. 2000. Effect of supplements on growth and forage intake by stocker steers grazing wheat pasture. J. Anim. Sci. 78:1625-1635.
Phillips, W. A., S. W. Coleman, and H. S. Mayeux. 2006. Case study: Changes in body weight, fill, and shrink of calves grazing wheat pasture in the winter and spring. Prof. Anim. Sci. 22:267–272.
Phillips, W. A., and G. W. Horn. 2008. Intake and digestion of wheat forage by stocker calves and lambs. J. Anim. Sci. 86:2424–2429.
Phillips, W. A. and G. W. Horn. 2008. Intake and digestion of wheat forage by stocker calves and lambs. J. Anim. Sci. 86: 2424-2429.
Moore, B., J. T. Biermacher, B. W. Brorsen, M. Johnson, B. Nichols and E. Whitley. 2021. Effects of a transitional supplement on beef heifers grazing wheat pasture. Appl. Anim. Sci. 37: 602-613.
Hicks is a beef nutritionist and Extension livestock specialist with Oklahoma State University.
Direct marketing beef
Management considerations for enhancing
carcass quality and cutability
By Amanda Blair and Christina Bakker
Consumer interest in purchasing beef directly from farmers and ranchers has been trending upwards in recent years. A variety of factors may lead a consumer to purchase directly from a producer. They may have an interest in purchasing local, a desire to know the source of their protein or an interest in a specific quality or credence attribute (grass finished, exceptional marbling, specific breed, organic, etc.).
However, when purchasing beef directly most consumers expect an eating experience that would be as good or better than buying beef from retail. Individual preferences will ultimately dictate a consumer’s decision regarding which beef to purchase.
To gain customers and market share, it is important to know what you are producing and be able to consistently provide a quality product. It is also critical to be able to accurately communicate the attributes of your product and explain the traits that may differentiate it from others in the market, thus creating demand.
Raising beef cattle for a successful direct marketing program requires specific management considerations, an understanding of meat processing regulations, an appreciation for factors that influence carcass yield, and knowledge of traits that influence palatability and consumer satisfaction. Direct marketing enterprises can also be enhanced by good communication, aptly managing customer expectations, and providing excellent customer service.
One of the first considerations for direct marketing beef is where to feed the cattle. Cow-calf producers interested in direct marketing may not have adequate facilities or feed resources to feed and finish cattle on their own operation.
One option is to work with a local feedyard or nearby producer with cattle feeding knowledge and resources. Paying feed and yardage to finish cattle at another location allows producers to retain ownership of their cattle and oversee marketing decisions without the potential need to develop facilities, acquire feed resources, or have the knowledge and skills to feed finishing diets with high levels of grain.
However, finding a custom feeder that can accommodate the number of cattle a producer would like to finish (whether it’s a few head or a pen full) and fits their management and marketing needs is key. If a custom finisher is not available or if a producer desires to manage cattle throughout the finishing period on their own, they should consider how their facilities align with their management and marketing goals.
The type of feed resources (grain- or forage-finishing), number of animals to finish, and time of year cattle are finished will determine the land and facilities needed.
General facility needs
Customers interested in purchasing directly from a producer may make their purchasing decision based on the perception of how they believe cattle should be raised. For example, providing shade and windbreaks could provide the dual benefit of improving animal performance and offering a market benefit. Similarly, selecting a feeding location that is well-drained to avoid muddy conditions and considering the addition of bedding to drylot pens can improve animal comfort and performance, as well as consumer perception.
Producers interested in finishing cattle should have handling facilities that are capable of handling cattle with minimal stress and safely restraining cattle up to the desired finished weight. Consideration should be given to possible points of injury to cattle such as protrusions that could cause bruising to finished animals resulting in product loss. Use of a scale is highly recommended.
Weighing animals at the beginning of the feeding period will help target desired feed intake and final weight. Weighing cattle periodically during the feeding period can allow monitoring of animal performance to ensure cattle are meeting targeted rates of gain. A final weight can also be useful in determining if intended weight endpoints are met and determining sale price, but care should be taken weighing finished cattle to avoid bruising just before harvest.
Access to feed on a consistent basis is critical to maintain performance. Adequate bunk space is necessary to ensure all animals have access and that competition is not an issue between animals of different sizes. Designated areas for feed storage should be planned to keep feed clean, dry and minimize pests.
The adage “begin with the end in mind” is a good one to follow when producing beef for a direct marketing program. Producers should consider their end-product goals when selecting animals to finish. The majority of consumers desire beef that is flavorful, juicy, and tender.
One of the most common selection criteria to achieve high quality beef is selecting animals with the genetic potential to marble. Marbling is the common name for intramuscular fat, which is fat deposited within muscle. Marbling is positively correlated with beef flavor, juiciness, and tenderness (Savell and Cross, 1988; Garmyn et al., 2011; O’Quinn et al., 2012) In general, as marbling increases the likelihood of a positive eating experience also increases.
Dairy breeds such as Jersey are known for exceptional eating quality (Arnett et al., 2012) and Japanese Wagyu cattle are known for exceptional marbling (Gotoh et al., 2014), however they generally take longer to finish and have reduced cutability (lower yields) compared to conventional beef breeds (Arnett et al., 2012; Gotoh et al., 2014). In contrast large-framed, heavy muscled beef breeds are higher yielding, but often lack the potential to deposit adequate levels of marbling.
If your aim is to produce cattle with acceptable marbling, there is flexibility to the breed composition, but it is important to select cattle with the genetic potential to deposit marbling. Cattle that are moderate-framed and early maturing with adequate muscling and marbling potential are ideal for many direct marketing programs.
Tenderness is another attribute related to consumer satisfaction and is a trait that can be influenced both before and after harvest (Warner et al., 2021). Producers should consider pre-slaughter factors that can influence tenderness including animal age, breed and sex.
Older animals tend to producer tougher, darker colored meat that is less desirable for whole muscle cuts such as steaks (Weston et al., 2002). While there can be a market for older animals for use in ground beef, it is not recommended to market older cows or bulls for traditional steaks and roasts due to potential issues with toughness. Additionally, cattle with Brahman influence are known to produce tougher meat due to an increase in calpastatin, which is a protein that inhibits the aging process (Warner et al., 2021).
While most American consumers prefer the taste of grain-finished beef that is tender and highly marbled, that isn’t the case for everyone. There are consumers that desire extremely lean beef with little marbling, others that prefer the flavor of grass finished beef, or others that may desire a non-tangible attribute such as an environmental practice employed on your operation.
Selecting cattle that will consistently achieve your end-product goals in the desired time frame is a critical decision that will impact profitability of the direct marketing enterprise as well as customer satisfaction.
With high demand for the services of small processors, producers are often scheduling harvest appointments one to two years in advance for cattle that may not even been born yet. In the current market, it is very difficult to procure a harvest appointment on short notice, which highlights the importance of coupling proper cattle selection and nutritional management to optimize direct marketing opportunities.
A good nutrition program is one of the most significant aspects of producing a high-quality carcass. A wide range of ingredients can be utilized to formulate rations to grow and finish cattle, and these diets will vary in energy and protein density resulting in different rates of gain.
Typically, with a grain-based finishing ration a growing phase is recommended that emphasizes skeletal and muscle development, and a finishing phase for enhanced marbling deposition and fattening.
Regardless of the ration being used, it is important to make changes to amount and ingredient composition gradually to allow adaptation by microbes in the rumen and avoid digestive issues such as acidosis and bloat (Harty and Rusche, 2021a). If finishing cattle on a high concentrate diet (80-90% concentrate) it is important to include roughage (10-20%) to maximize rumen and microbial health.
Cattle thrive on routine and feeding twice a day at the same time every day can help maximize performance and avoid digestive issues (Harty and Rusche, 2021b). Ionophores can help maximize feed efficiency and minimize digestive disorders; however, inclusion may not fit with some customers perception of “natural."
Grain-finishing can require 80 – 200+ days on feed to meet harvest endpoints depending on the energy of the ration, age, weight, and health of the cattle, and genetic potential for growth. In grass-finishing systems, providing high quality grass via grazing or harvested forage is necessary to maintain growth. Supplementation may be necessary at different times of the year to maintain growth. If supplementation with grain is used this should be communicated to customers to ensure their expectations are met. Grass-finished beef generally takes longer to reach their endpoint and cattle may be 18-28 months of age at harvest (Capper et al., 2012).
The key to any finishing program is to keep cattle growing efficiently using balanced feed rations. Given the variety of feedstuffs available and specific needs of each operation consulting a nutritionist or University Extension beef specialist to help design and balance rations is highly recommended.
The type of finishing ration utilized can impact animal performance as well as palatability. While there is room for both grass- and grain-finished beef in the beef marketplace it is important to understand and accurately represent your product. It’s important to note that the typical U.S. beef consumer is accustomed to the flavor profile and palatability attributes of grain-finished beef (Van Elswyk and McNeill, 2014).
Beef from grass-finished animals may be identified as having a grassy flavor and can have a different cooking aroma compared with grain-finished beef. Also, consumers may note a difference in the visual appearance as the fat of grass-finished beef can be more yellow in color and the lean tissue can be darker (Crouse et al., 1984; Leheska et al., 2008). Grass-finished beef is also generally finished at a lighter weight than grain-finished beef and, as a result, are often leaner with less marbling (Leheska et al., 2008; Van Elswyk and McNeill, 2014).
Health and growth promotants
Customers may inquire about the use of antibiotics or growth promoting implants. This information should be shared as appropriate without disparaging others who chose to use or not use these technologies.
Herd health programs generally involve prevention of disease through vaccination protocols and control of internal and external parasites. When animals become sick and antibiotics are used as appropriate to restore health, they can be marketed after the appropriate withdrawal time, but they should not carry an antibiotic-free claim.
While it may be tempting to try and capture value from a sick or poor doing animal by selling it as freezer beef, it should be noted that animals that have been sick and treated multiple times can produce lower quality carcasses (reduced marbling score) (Holland et al., 2010).
Proper use of hormone implants to improve growth rate allows for cattle to be finished earlier thereby requiring less time on feed and fewer resources per pound of meat produced (Johnson et al., 2013; Webb et al., 2020). However, the implant strategy, potency and timing should be considered to ensure they are meeting your growth promotant goals without detrimental impacts on marbling and tenderness. A nutritionist, pharmaceutical representative or University Extension feedlot specialist can be consulted to meet these goals for your specific operation.
The resource savings created by using implants could be promoted to consumers that are environmentally conscious. Conversely, if you are seeking to market beef raised without added hormones, avoidance of these technologies can also be promoted.
With all animal health products and technologies, it is critical to follow the label instructions on slaughter withdrawal time and it is recommended that all producers adhere to the Beef Quality Assurance guidelines for administration of these products.
Determining endpoints; Avoiding carcass defects
Evaluation of market readiness is a skill that improves with experience. Typically, cattle grow skeletal and muscle mass until they near a mature frame and reach their muscle growth potential. Marbling has been shown to be continuously deposited throughout growth, given that the animal is on an adequate plane of nutrition, whereas subcutaneous fat deposition increases substantially once skeletal and muscle growth potential has been met.
Assessment of subcutaneous fat is one means of determining market readiness. Fat is deposited from anterior (front) to posterior (rear) of the animal, so it is important to observe how fat deposition has progressed for timely marketing.
Common points to observe are fat fill in the brisket area, fat cover over the back (particularly over the 12th and 13th ribs), fat accumulation on either side of the tailhead, as well as in the udder or cod area of heifers and steers, respectively.
Cattle vary widely in their weight at market endpoint; however, it is common for grain-finished cattle to weight 1200-1450 pounds at harvest and grass-finished cattle to weigh 1000-1200 pounds.
The desired 12th rib fat thickness for marketing beef has traditionally been in the range of 0.4 - 0.5 inches, however with current genetics and larger carcass weights it is not uncommon to see grain-finished cattle with 0.6 - 0.8 inches of backfat. Grass-finished cattle will typically finish with less backfat (0.2 – 0.4 inches).
Evaluation of actual hot carcass weight is also important to assessing market readiness. Typical beef carcass weight should range from 650-950 pounds, depending on sex, feeding program, and cattle type. However, customer preference may influence your decision to harvest at a leaner or fatter level.
It is recommended to evaluate the actual carcass by measuring fat thickness at the 12th rib, ribeye area, and marbling score. These measurements will determine the level of finish, muscle size, and marbling that was actually achieved. This data can help with future decisions regarding animal selection and market timing (a University Extension meat science specialist can be consulted to train or assist with these measurements).
Influence of stress in finished cattle
Cattle producers have long appreciated the connection between proper animal care and the health and productivity of their herds. Producers involved in directly marketing beef should adhere to best management practices with the goal of consistently producing a quality end-product that meets consumer demands.
Using low-stress handling techniques on finished cattle that are close to slaughter is especially impactful to beef quality because they reduce stress, and stress is a major contributor to several quality defects in cattle (Grandin, 2020).
Dark cutting beef is the result of a prolonged stress such as mixing animals, fighting, feed deprivation, drastic changes in ambient temperature, chronic illness, heifers in heat or any combination of events that deplete muscle glycogen prior to slaughter (Scanga et al., 1997; Grandin, 2020). Glycogen is the storage form of glucose and serves as an energy reserve to fuel muscle contraction. Stressors cause the release of hormones such as epinephrine that function to break down muscle glycogen as an immediate source of energy.
If glycogen stores are exhausted at the point of slaughter muscle does not progress through the normal conversion of muscle to meat. Instead, the lack of glycogen leads to lower-than-normal lactic acid production resulting in a limited pH decline and a product characterized by extremely dark colored lean tissue, high water-holding capacity, limited shelf-life and a sticky texture. In addition, dark cutting beef is highly variable when analyzed for tenderness, one of the most important beef quality attributes (Wulf et al, 2002).
Bruising is caused when a blow or impact ruptures the small blood vessels under the skin. A bruise could be caused by a stick or stone, animal horn, metal projection from holding or working facilities, or animal fall and could happen anytime during transport, handling or holding prior to slaughter. Stress during these events can increase excitability and the chances of bruising.
Normally a bruise will resolve when the underlying blood is degraded and clears from the area. However, if a bruise occurs close to the time of slaughter and the body is not able to heal from the event the bruise will be present on the carcass. Bruised areas of the carcass are trimmed away, and that tissue is condemned therefore contributing to a reduction in total meat yield and carcass value (Grandin, 2017, Harris et al., 2017).
Blood splash is a condition that occurs when small blood vessels located in muscle rupture allowing blood to leak into the surrounding tissue. This blood then appears in the meat as a dark red spot and is visually undesirable. Stress can elevate blood pressure and contribute to the incidence of blood splash in beef cattle (Meat Technology Update, 2006; Grandin, 2020).
In the last two years has your cattle operation considered or made the move to direct marketing beef ?
- Thought about it
- Yes, made the move
- No, not for me
Carcass / product considerations
When cattle are ready for harvest, farmers and ranchers must choose a locker facility to take their animals to for processing. In a direct marketing system, cattle are typically harvested at small, local butcher shops. Depending on the customer base and business goals, cattle producers have three meat inspection options to have their beef processed: custom exempt, state inspection, and federal inspection.
Custom exempt processing facilities are very common in rural areas. These facilities provide slaughter and processing services and return the meat to the owners of the animal. The meat that is processed by custom exempt facilities is for in-home use by the owner, their household and their non-paying guests. The meat produced at these facilities must be labeled “Not For Sale” and may not be sold by the owner or donated.
Cattle producers can still deliver cattle to custom exempt facilities; however, at the point of slaughter, the animal must be owned by the individual(s) who will be taking the meat home. This means that the consumer will pay the producer for the live animal and the processor for the slaughter and processing services.
State or federal inspection
Cattle producers intending to direct market retail cuts to consumers need to have their animals processed at state or federally inspected facilities. South Dakota and Wyoming operate state meat inspection programs while Colorado and Nebraska only operate under USDA inspection. The requirements of state inspection programs are that they are at least “equal to” the rigor of federal inspection.
The largest difference between state and federal inspection is that state inspected meat can only be sold within state lines while federally inspected meat can be sold in interstate commerce and be exported.
One of the most important factors for customers to become repeat customers is consistency of product. While no cattle producer can guarantee that every animal will produce meat with the exact same eating experience, there are live animal and carcass management decisions that can help improve consistency.
As mentioned earlier, younger animals generally produce more tender meat than older animals. Because of this, it is important for tenderness consistency to slaughter animals at roughly the same age every time. Another factor that impacts tenderness of meat is postmortem aging (also referred to as hang time). Research has shown that considerable improvements in tenderness can be observed until 14 - 21 days of aging (additional improvements can be made after that point but they are not as noticeable).
Meat flavor can be impacted by a variety of factors. One of the most influential factors is animal diet, specifically finishing diet. Animals from a grain finishing system produce meat that has a different flavor than animals from a forage finishing system. While neither system results in unacceptable meat quality or flavor, consumers tend to have a strong preference for one flavor over the other.
On the carcass side, aging method (wet or dry) has one of the strongest impacts on flavor. Dry aging can be done on a whole carcass or on primal cuts and is accomplished by leaving the meat exposed to the air in the cooler. Wet aging is done on primal or retail cuts and is done by vacuum sealing the meat and leaving it in refrigerated conditions. Dry aging tends to impart a more intense beef flavor than wet aging.
A very common question meat science Extension specialists receive is “I only received 500 pounds of beef back from a 1200 pound steer. Did the locker steal my meat?” The answer to that questions is “probably not”. Individuals buying bulk beef can expect 30 to 50 percent retail cut yield from an animal’s live weight (Wulf, 1999). Where exactly an animal’s retail cut yield will fall depends on dressing percentage and cutting yield.
Dressing percentage is the percentage of live weight that makes up the carcass. Average beef animals have a dressing percentage of about 63% while dairy steers yield about 59%. This number can be impacted by a variety of factors including gut fill, muscling, fatness, hide cleanliness and breed characteristics.
The influence each of these factors has on dressing percentage depends on if the weight contributed by each factor stays with the carcass or not. For instance, animals with more fat or muscling have increased dressing percentages compared to leaner or lighter muscled animals because muscle and fat stay on the carcass. If an animal has a lot of gut fill or mud stuck to their hide, the dressing percentage will be decreased because that weight does not stay with the carcass. Dairy or dairy influenced animals tend to have lower dressing percentages because they generally have larger heads and longer (heavier) legs that do not remain with the carcass.
The cutting yield is the percentage of the carcass that ends up packaged for the consumer and is influenced by the cutting specifications set by the consumer as well as carcass composition. Carcasses that are leaner and heavier muscled will have an increased cutting yield than fatter, lighter muscled carcasses. This is because most retail cuts are trimmed to 1/8 to 1/4 inches of subcutaneous fat (also known as back fat). Fatter carcasses require more trimming than leaner carcasses.
Another factor that determines cutting yield is whether the cuts are made boneless or left bone-in. Bone-in products such as T-bone steaks or bone-in chuck roasts will weigh more than their boneless counter parts and increase the yield of the carcass.
Another factor that affects cutting yield is the fat content of ground product. A common ground beef blend is 80% lean and 20% fat. However, if the consumer desires leaner ground product the overall yield will decrease as more fat is removed from the packaged product.
The final factor that impacts cutting yield is the skill of the butcher. The more experience a butcher has cutting certain cuts of beef, the better they are at maximizing the yield of that cut. The producer should keep this in mind if they are asking the butcher to fabricate different cuts than what are normally offered as it could negatively impact the cutting yield.
Many custom processors fabricate beef carcasses using a band saw and may not be willing or able to cut boneless steaks and roasts. If boneless cuts are important to the business model or customers, the producer should make sure the meat processor is willing to make them before scheduling animals for slaughter.
A beef side can be fabricated into eight primal regions: chuck, rib, loin, round, flank, plate, brisket and shank. The chuck and the round are the largest primals in the carcass, collectively making up ~50% of the weight of the side (Holland, et al., 2014). Except for steaks such as the flat iron, chuck eye, and eye of round, these two primals are primarily cut into roasts, stew meat and ground beef. The rib and the loin make up the “middle meats” and provide the well-known steaks such as the ribeye, T-bone, New York strip, and filet mignon. However, these primals only make up ~27% of the carcass.
This concept can be difficult to grasp for a customer who is new to buying beef in bulk and was expecting to get all of their product back as steaks. The flank, brisket, plate, and shank comprise the remaining 25% of the carcass, yield few retail cuts, and are predominately used for ground beef.
Providing cutting instructions is potential area producers can enhance customer service by providing education on carcass breakdown and approximate amounts of each type of cut to expect. This information can be requested from most University Extension meat science specialists, or producers can work directly with their butcher to create a personalized cut list. It may also be beneficial to include recommended cutting and packaging information; including steak thickness and quantity per package, the weight of ground beef per package, or the desired weight of roasts.
It is also important to convey to the consumer that some popular cuts may not be available if others are chosen. For example, if they want T-bone steaks, they will not get New York strips and filet mignon because they are cut from the same muscles; T-bones are just the bone-in version. The same is true for bone in chuck or arm roasts and flat iron or Denver cut steaks.
Another concept that may surprise consumers is the size of a bone-in sirloin steak. While the average consumer is used to boneless baseball sized sirloin steaks, custom butchers commonly cut sirloin steaks that include all sirloin muscles and can feed two to three people.
Once the meat is cut, packaged, and frozen, the consumer must then store it in their home freezer. The space needed for storage is dependent on both the yield of the animal, the types of cuts that were ordered, and how the meat was packaged.
An average beef animal with a 1200 pound live weight could produce approximately 500 pounds of retail cuts. A consumer who purchased a quarter of beef from this animal will likely need 4.5 to 5.5 cubic feet of freezer space (University of Minnesota, 2020). Large cuts such as a whole brisket and ground beef stuffed in chubs will require more space to store than smaller roasts and steaks and ground beef packaged in bricks simply because of stacking efficiency.
Addition of a direct marketing enterprise has the potential to increase income of a cattle operation and allows producers to have control over animal quality, nutrition, management, and health throughout the finishing period. Producers should consider the attributes that differentiate their product and seek ways to consistently produce beef that meets their customer’s demands. Consumers generally desire flavorful, juicy, tender beef with a bright cherry red color.
To meet this expectation, it is recommended to market beef that is healthy, young, and has been on an appropriate finishing ration. Direct marketing also requires cattle producers to be knowledgeable salesmen and provide guidance to their customers on processing decisions, so they have a better idea of what to expect from the final product.
References can be found in The Range Beef Cow Symposium XXVII Proceedings.
Blair is a professor Extension meat science specialist and Bakker is an assistant professor and Extension meat science specialist, both with South Dakota State University.
Effects of late gestation nutrient restriction
Correlations between maternal performance and colostrum quality;
thus impacts on offspring performance.
By Garland Dahlke, Devin Jakub and Erika Lundy
Swings in weather patterns, of which have inconsistently altered feed availability to cow-calf producers, and a demand for increased calf performance have unfolded a need to further investigate the negative impacts of inefficient beef cow nutrition. Extensive research in the dairy industry and even in other species such as sheep has shown correlations between maternal performance and colostrum quality, and thus, impacts on offspring performance.
Though beef cows are efficient in utilizing protein and energy, their nutrient requirements are often compromised in late gestation and lactation due to events in which the producers have poorer quality feeds at their disposal. Such instances may have negative effects on colostrum quality as the cow allocates nutrients towards fetal development and eventually lactation.
This plays a crucial role in the initial development and passive immunity of the calf because there is no fetal-placental transfer of antibodies in utero; thus, the calf must acquire those antibodies through colostrum. In addition to immunoglobulins, colostrum also delivers essential vitamins, proteins and fat to the calf.
There is little known permeability of fat-soluble vitamins across the placenta, meaning the calf must acquire important vitamins like A and E through colostrum as well. The calf is able to absorb intact proteins for approximately 24 hours after birth before intestinal closure; thus, quality and quantity of colostrum is key to survival and growth of the neonatal calf.
Materials and methods
To investigate the effects of nutrient restriction on cow and subsequent calf performance, multiparous Angus cows (n=48) were blocked by body weight and randomly assigned to one of four treatments. All fall cows were given one A.I. opportunity before being exposed to cleanup bulls for 90 days. No fetal aging was utilized for this study.
Cows were grouped into four groups within each treatment, for a total of 16 groups. Average empty cow weights per pen ranged from 1,040 to over 1,400 pounds.
Treatments consisted of ground hay (HAY), ground hay and whole-shell corn (HC), ground hay and dry distillers grains (HD) or ground hay with dry distillers and whole-shell corn (HCD).
Table 2 includes percentages of metabolizable protein and net energy for each treatment.
Cows were fed at constant levels throughout the trial with the expectation that their caloric intake may not be adequately met from approximately month-8 of gestation (day 0 of trial) until the time they calved. Nutrient analyses of feedstuffs along with manure samples were collected biweekly during the study.
At the end the analysis of these feedstuffs including total tract NDF digestibility along with starch digestibility was performed to calculate the available caloric and metabolizable protein content of the feed. Upon calving, all pairs were returned to normal herd management which involved grazing tall fescue pastures at the McNay Research and Demonstration Farm.
Table 1 outlines the timeline of measurements taken for both the cows and their calves. Twelfth rib backfat (BF) and ribeye area (REA) were measured via ultrasonography at day 0 of the trial and then at day 49 (just prior to calving).
|July 8- Day 0
||Aug. 26-Day 49
-Rib Fat depth
Body condition score
Repeat measures of Day 0
-Collect 100cc of colostrum
-Calf birth weight
|Table 1. Timeline of events for trial.
Body condition score (BCS) was calculated as: [(BF/REA*100) + 2.5]. Empty body weight (EBW) was calculated using the following equation:
(EBW = shrunk weight x 0.96). The weight of the fetal calf plus fluids was also accounted for using the following equation: [Wt of cow x (.01828 x 2.7/\(.02 x dp-.00000143 x DP x DP)] (DP represents days pregnant).
At calving, a composite colostrum sample of 100mL was collected from the left front and rear quarters of the cow within 24hr of parturition and frozen at the time of collection.
Samples were later analyzed for IgG, milk urea nitrogen (MUN) and total protein (TP) concentrations at the Cornell university Diagnostic laboratory.
Performance variables were analyzed using repeated measures for least square means. These procedures were carried out using the MIXED procedure in SAS 9.4 (SAS Inst. Inc., NC, USA).
|Table 4. Cow Colostrum igG, total protein and milk urea nitrogen relative to treatment.
1Abbreviations: IgG= immunoglobulin g; TP=total protein; MUN=milk urea nitrogen.
abMeans with different superscripts differ (P≤0.05).
Results and discussion
As expected, there were no significant differences observed at day zero or day 49 for live and empty body weight, despite a decrease in body weight over all treatments. Table 3 displays cow performance values on and off test, and at calving. HCD cows had the greatest increase in final visual BCS (P = 0.03), but because all cows showed a decrease in body weight, calculated BCS was included to eliminate potential bias of visual BCS.
All cows had less final calculated BCS, with no significance observed between treatments. For BF, all treatment groups exhibited a decrease from initial to final, but no significant differences were observed between groups. HAY, HD, and HCD cows had a decrease in REA from initial to final, with HC cows staying the same; however, no significant differences were observed between groups.
|NE % of requirement
|MP % of requirement
|Table 2. Percentage of metabolizable protein and net energy requirements met for rations and percentage of crude protein, fat, neutral detergent fiber and total digestible nutrients per ration.
1NE and MP were determined using the NRC 2016 methodology and provided above in terms of percent calculated requirement met.
2HAY=hay diet; HC=hay and corn diet; HD=hay and dry distillers diet; HCD=hay, corn and dry distillers diet.
Cow colostrum composition relative to treatment was also analyzed for this study. No significant differences were observed for IgG and total protein concentrations between all treatment groups (Table 4).
For HD cows, MUN concentrations were significantly higher than the other treatment groups (P=0.02). Correlations of cow colostrum content to growth performance are displayed in Table 5.
IgG and TP tended to be positively correlated, while IgG and MUN tended to be negatively correlated (P≤ 0.10). MUN and initial backfat (IBF) tended to be negatively correlated (P ≤ 0.10), while significance for a negative correlation (P ≤ 0.05) was observed for MUN and final backfat (FBF). Significance was observed for a negative correlation (P ≤ 0.05) between TP and final ribeye area (FREA).
Measurements of calf performance relative to maternal treatment were also recorded for this study (Table 6). Though there were slight variations in birth weight and calf vigor scores across all treatments, no significant differences were observed between groups.
Similarly, there were no significant differences observed across all treatments in BW at 18 weeks and at weaning. Overall, it was observed that restricting cows of energy during late gestation could potentially lead to a decrease in cow performance.
|Initial data, day 0 of test
|Live BW lbs
|12th rib BF, in.
|REQ sq. in.
|Final data, day 49 of test
|Live BW lbs
|Empty BW lbs
|12th rib BF in.
|REA sq. in.
|Data at calving
|Table 3. Cow performance measurements during test.
1Abbreviations: BW=body weight; EBW=empty body weight; BCS=body condition score; BF=backfat; REA=ribeye area.
abMeans with different superscripts differ (P≤0.05).
HC was the only treatment that met energy requirements and had the least decline in BW, BF, REA, and BCS.
All other treatment groups exhibited moderate decreases in BW, BCS, BF, and REA; suggesting a potential negative energy balance in which cows were mobilizing more fatty acids from adipose tissue to compensate for an energy deficit.
A high value of MUN in the HD treatment group was expected because of a large oversupply of metabolizable protein (MP) in that diet. Thus, the negative correlations between MUN and IBF and FBF could point toward a higher energy demand by the cows that were oversupplied protein to excrete that extra protein via the milk and urine.
Consequently, at a certain point, oversupplying protein can be counter- productive as the cow mobilizes more fat to meet the energy demands of excreting excess protein from the urea cycle.
|Table 5. Simple correlations of cow colostrum content to growth performance.
1Abbreviations: IGG=Immunoglobulin G; TP=total protein; MUN=milk urea nitrogen; IBW=initial body weight; IBF=initial 12th rib backfat; IREA=initial ribeye area; FBW=final body weight; FBF=final 12th rib backfat; FREA=final ribeye area.
2Values in bold indicate significance (P≤0.05). Values in italics tend to be significant. (P≤0.10).
Another takeaway from this study is the importance of BCS. Accounting for fetal weight and fluid can be difficult when visually assigning BCS, as is evidenced by the data.
Thus, measuring BF and REA can be an important tool in determining the actual BCS of a cow, while keeping BW in mind.
|Birth wt. lbs.
|BW at 18 weeks lbs.
|BW at weaning lbs.
|Table 6. Calf performance measurements relative to treatment.
Looking forward, what this third trimester nutrition means in terms of cow productivity is summarized in Table 7. This table provides information on the subsequent breed-back or the next year’s productivity.
Note that the more energy deficient ration (HAY) resulted in the greatest weight loss but not significantly poorer breed back from the HCD and HD treatments.
The HC ration, which based on cow measurements did not seem to differ much from the others in results, but appeared to have the best balance from feed analysis and calculated requirements performed considerably better at this point with no cows in this group coming back open and the
days already bred being a month ahead of the other treatment groups.
||Lactation Wt. Change
||Days Bred @ Preg. Check
|Table 7. Subsequent cow reproductive performance-averaged over treatment groups.
In summary, restricting cows of energy during late gestation can negatively effect cow performance, as evidenced by colostrum content, but it is both a function of the extent of the restriction and the type of diet being fed.
Further research is needed as to how maternal nutrition during late gestation may affect passive immunity in calves, and hence, calf performance.
The McNay Research and Demonstration Farm was used for this study. Thanks to Brad Evans, Logan Wallace, Chase Altenhofen and Charley Philips for assisting with research. Also, thank you to Dan Loy for coordination and review of research.
Dahlke is an Extension and outreach program specialist at Iowa Beef Center; Jakub is a graduate student with the department of animal science; and Lundy, is an Extension and outreach beef specialist at Iowa Beef Center; all with Iowa State University.
Using GPS technology
Real-time tracking to better understand livestock grazing behavior
By Jameson Brennan and Mitch Stephenson
Quantifying and understanding grazing livestock behavior and resource selection on extensive rangelands has been an important question for researchers and grazing practitioners for decades.
A Nebraska study conducted in the early 1940s evaluated livestock grazing behavior over several days during the summer grazing period (Brinegar and Keim 1942). Researchers followed cattle over a 24-hour period and recorded cattle location and behavior (resting, grazing, etc.) every 30 minutes.
Nighttime was a noted challenge, with researchers indicating that full moon nights were best for recording observations because it limited the need for car headlights. Though challenging to conduct, this study provided some of the first insights into the amount of time cattle spent grazing (11 to 12 hours per day) as well as grazing selection on different landscapes in the central Great Plains.
Other studies have used visual observations to evaluate differences in individual animal habitat use on the landscape, predict spatial patterns of livestock behavior within pastures and quantify the effects of distance to water and pasture size on cattle activity and forage utilization (Senft et al. 1983; Hart et al. 1993; Howery et al. 1996). These early studies were pivotal in understanding the influence water and landscape features on livestock behavior and pasture utilization, and helped shape management recommendations for livestock producers.
In the late 1990s, the use of visual observations for studying cattle behavior was replaced by GPS tracking systems. The development of GPS technology allowed researchers to continuously monitor livestock locations over longer time frames and greater frequencies across a range of environments.
GPS-tracking technologies provide increased opportunities for researchers to ask novel questions to better understand grazing behavior under diverse management scenarios. These devices store animal location (latitude/longitude) at defined intervals (e.g. 10 minutes) that are accessed and analyzed following deployment (Swain et al. 2011; Bailey et al. 2018).
One of the main benefits to using GPS data is the ability to continuously monitor cattle locations and pair these locations with landscape features mapped using computer software (Putfarken et al. 2008). For example, GPS technology has been used to study livestock grazing patterns within patch burned pastures (Augustine and Derner, 2014); influence of landscape topography on grazing patterns (Raynor et al. 2021); strategies to improve livestock distribution through placement of low moisture blocks and low-stress herding (Bailey et al., 2008; Stephenson et al. 2017); and the relation of forage quality to livestock distribution (Zengeya et al. 2013).
Other studies have utilized GPS tracking to better understand the relationship between individual cows within a herd (Stephenson et al. 2017a) and the influence of livestock genetics on grazing distribution relative to the distance cattle travel from water and average elevation climb (Bailey et al. 2015).
Though much knowledge has been gained through the use of GPS technology to study factors that drive livestock distribution on the landscape, adoption of these technologies has been limited primarily to researchers within university and government organizations. This is in large part due to the previously high cost (~$1,500) of commercially available livestock tracking devices which are often cost prohibitive for both researchers and producers alike.
Recent adoption of off the shelf GPS tracking devices has effectively been used to track range beef cattle at a substantially reduced costs, potentially increasing accessibility of this technology to livestock producers.
Lab/homemade GPS devices
Relatively inexpensive, readily available GPS components can be purchased and retrofitted with larger batteries and homemade collars (Knight et al. 2018, Brennan et al. 2021; Sprinkle et al. 2021). For example, Knight et al. (2018) used a commercially available, all-in-one GPS receiver and data logger common for vehicle fleet tracking and retroactively fitted a larger battery to extend the life for GPS collection. Total cost for the final GPS collar (including collar strap, housing for GPS unit and battery, etc.) was approximately $200.
Karl and Sprinkle (2019) developed GPS-collars using open source GPS, data logging and battery components with a total cost of only $54.78. However, the authors indicated three limitations to their collar design were reliability of their design construction, poor battery life and more GPS fix misses than the GPS receivers used by Knight et al. (2018).
McGranahan et al. (2018) developed a similar low-cost GPS unit with open hardware components for approximately $125. These lab made devices can also include motion sensing technology such as 3-axis accelerometers that can help identify GPS locations associated with animal behaviors such as grazing, resting and walking to better understand livestock selection on the landscape (Augustine and Derner 2013; Brennan et al. 2021, Sprinkle et al. 2021).
The referenced articles above have detailed lists of components and costs to develop low-cost GPS-units; however, skills required to build these devices can vary from soldering on larger battery packs on electrical boards, to altering and uploading computer code to microprocessors. In addition, deploying GPS collars on free ranging livestock also poses practical challenges including the ruggedness of the collars, battery life and accuracy of the GPS receiver.
Researchers and producers utilizing GPS collars, can expect a proportion (5% to 15%) of those collars to 1) run out of battery sooner than expected, 2) break or fall off cattle, or 3) stop working because of exposure to elements. This failure of the technology has been observed in both commercially built and home-made options for GPS tracking and should be considered in determining the number of animals to collar with GPS units.
Applications of GPS technology for producers
Livestock grazing distribution, stocking rate, class of livestock and timing of grazing, are some of the primary grazing management variables that can be directly influenced by a livestock producer (Valentine 2001).
Livestock grazing distribution refers to the uniform dispersion of grazing across a given landscape or management unit. Poor livestock grazing distribution can cause rangeland degradation in specific areas, even if stocking rates are appropriately set for the pasture (Bailey 2005). As a result, grazing distribution is one of biggest challenges on rangelands, with many livestock producers having areas of their pastures that are either under- or over- utilized.
Livestock grazing distribution is influenced by a number of abiotic and biotic factors on rangelands. Abiotic variables in the pasture include horizontal and vertical distance cattle need to travel from water, topography, slope position and elevation rise. Biotic variables include the quantity, quality, type and distribution of vegetation available for forage within the pasture. GPS-tracking of livestock has been used to evaluate how these variables influence grazing intensities across a landscape.
Raynor et al. (2021) utilized data from GPS-tracked cattle at seven research stations across the United States to evaluate the effect of topography on grazing use. These researchers found that topography alone could be used to predict grazing locations and that GPS-tracked cattle utilized lowlands 120% more intensively than associated uplands. Rugged topography, large distances to water and low stock densities contributed to poor grazing distribution in the study, whereas small, well-watered pastures grazed at higher stock densities exhibited more uniform grazing across a landscape.
In addition, breed of cattle and genetic traits can also influence grazing distribution on the landscape (Bailey et al. 2015), and livestock producers may consider utilizing heritage livestock breeds that best match their climate and rangeland (Allred et al. 2013; Nyamuryekung’e et al. 2020).
While livestock grazing distribution challenges are not new, GPS tracking of cattle grazing may become an important tool for monitoring grazing use across the landscape at production scales. Modeling livestock grazing patterns can help researchers and grazing practitioners better understand how differences in management strategies influence rangeland health, wildlife habitat or livestock production objectives.
These data could be used to assist in developing grazing strategies or guiding grazing decisions. For example, visualization of cattle grazing intensity based on time spent grazing in specific areas of a pasture provides clear opportunities to improve pasture management by strategic placement of water and fence (either temporary or permanent) in areas that would improve grazing distribution (Fig. 1). More uniform utilization across a landscape reduces overgrazing at preferred areas and increases grazing use at locations that are only lightly grazed, thereby increasing harvest efficiency.
Figure 1. A point density map for a 1,500 acre pasture highlighting point densities of 10 GPS-track cows. BLUE represents areas of the pastures with high point densities, or areas with higher grazing intensity. BROWN and NO-COLOR represents areas with low point densities, or areas with minimal grazing intensity.
The information received from GPS tracking could also inform conservation management decisions such as identifying livestock use within environmentally sensitive areas, and give producers insight into differences in vegetation structure and composition to tailor grazing rotations based on production and conservation goals.
Water and fencing locations are one of the most effective tools for manipulating grazing distribution on the landscape. However, water and fence development are expensive and may not always increase output and therefore economic return on the investment (Dyer et al. 2021).
As highlighted above, GPS technology can help identify over- or under- utilized areas of pasture to inform decisions on cross-fencing or water development to:
- Separate preferred and avoided locations.
- Decrease distance cattle need to travel to grazing sites.
- Increase stocking density.
The use of high-tinsel electric fence has allowed for more opportunities to divide pastures into smaller paddocks at a more reasonable cost; however, some areas are too remote, rough or lack adequate water to use these tools effectively. Other techniques to improve livestock grazing distribution include strategic supplementation placement to attract cattle to underutilized areas.
In a Montana study, cattle were attracted to upland areas away from water with the use of low-moisture block protein supplement (Bailey et al. 2001). In this study, grazing uniformity of upland areas was increased within 600 m of low-moisture block protein placements. A combination of low-moisture block and low-stress herding effectively increased grazing use at strategic locations away from water that typically received low grazing pressure during winter in the southwest USA (Stephenson et al. 2017).
This research indicated that as time spent near supplement locations increased, grazing utilization within surrounding areas also increased. If cattle did not consume supplement because of supplement unpalatability, novel supplements, or adequate nutrition in available growing forage during the spring, then supplements did not provide any added benefit to attracting cattle to lightly grazed areas in the pastures.
These studies highlight the applicability of using GPS technology to study supplementation and herding strategies on livestock distribution. One benefit of GPS-technology research is to better understand management strategies that can be implemented by producers without the need for tracking their own animals within a herd. This can be beneficial as the learning curve for processing and analyzing large geospatial datasets in meaningful ways can be steep and often requires specialized skills.
Advances in GPS data processing tools have been created to make data analysis more accessible to producers and researcher interested in collecting their own GPS data (Fig. 2) (Champion and Sukianto, 2020). In addition, as technological costs have come down for GPS tracking technology, many commercially available options are available for producers interested in tracking livestock. Often times these commercially available options provide data analysis platforms, mapping software and built in analytics to help users gain insights from their data on animal health, efficiency metrics and landscape use.
Figure 2. Screen shot of Animal Tracker web application developed by Oregon State University. The web application allows researchers and producers to upload, display, and create analyses of GPS data.
Exploring the benefits of commercially available products may be more applicable to livestock producers that want a more user friendly off the shelf option. In addition, by incorporating radio or satellite communication technology into GPS collars or ear tags, a greater number of commercial options offer the ability to monitor livestock locations in near-real time, greatly adding to the utility of GPS technology for making timely livestock management decisions.
Real-time GPS data
Numerous studies have demonstrated the utility of tracking livestock with GPS technology, but limited research exists using real time data capture on extensive rangelands. The possibility of having real-time GPS tracking opens up multiple options for application to livestock producers including immediate alerts for when animals are outside of pasture boundaries, or help locating animals in large pastures (Fig. 3). This may be especially valuable in remote locations where rough terrain or travel distance limits frequent opportunities for livestock managers to visually observe cattle welfare.
Knowing when cattle escape or are not within defined areas would also provide reassurance to managers that cattle are where they are supposed to be at any given time with alerts to phones or emails if cattle escape a pasture.
Figure 3. Real-time GPS tracking data for a yearling steer at the SDSU Cottonwood Research Station. Large yellow points in the upper right corner are locations where the steer escaped the property perimeter fence into the neighbors pasture. The animal was quickly located and returned to the property upon escape.
In addition, real-time tracking of animals may help identify sick individuals within a pasture or other issues of concern. For instance, tracking variability in movements associated with GPS-tracked cattle is an effective way to monitor livestock welfare such as water failure (Tobin et al. 2021) or disease detection with the added use of motion sensors (Tobin et al. 2020).
Having real time information on grazing behaviors could also assist livestock producers with decisions on when to move cattle to a new pasture.
For example, real time heat maps of grazing locations within a pasture can be used to identify areas that are being overgrazed and may need to be fenced out using temporary fences (Fig. 4).
Figure 4. Real-time heat map of livestock use within a pasture. Red indicates areas of heavy use by the herd.
Additionally, the amount of time spent within riparian zones could be a metric for when cattle need to be moved or other management employed to reduce overgrazing on these sensitive rangeland areas.
Social association patterns, herd spread and distance traveled among cattle could also be used as metrics in determining when cattle are searching for more palatable forage as utilization increases at preferred locations (Tobin et al. 2021a).
In the future, this technology may provide options to grazing managers to monitor locations of the entire herd, track changes in individual or herd behavior, and identify key metrics to monitor health, welfare or grazing management remotely and with little added input.
According to the USDA National Agricultural Statistical Service (NASS), the number of farmworkers declined from 9.93 million in 1950 to 3.19 million in 2000, a 68% reduction (ERS, 2021, Accessed 10/10/2021). In addition, an estimated 82% of U.S. farm income comes from off-farm work (Bunge and Newman, 2018). This shift in the work force will continue to require creative solutions to accomplish agriculture objectives.
The advancement of technology may provide opportunities to efficiently improve range beef cow management while simultaneously reducing labor costs for the producer. This technological transformation has become commonplace in row cropping systems where the use of drones, precision seeders, yield monitors, and targeted applications have helped maximize yields and reduce inputs.
Consider the advancement of grazing management tools for many ranches in the Great Plains. The history of manipulating where cattle graze on a landscape has evolved from herding cattle to new grazing locations in expansive and open rangeland systems, to barbed-wire fence providing constraints on where cattle graze, to the less expensive electric fence that has changed our ability to employ more intensively managed grazing for specific animal and rangeland objectives.
In the future virtual fence technologies with GPS-tracking abilities may provide economically viable options to further limit cost and labor associated with managing cattle grazing dispersion (Anderson et al. 2014). The use of GPS-tracking to better understand and facilitate management is currently a real possibility.
Utilizing data derived from GPS-tracked cattle provides a resource that can assist with grazing management decisions, but these tools are best used with a thorough understanding of the rangeland and forage resources, livestock behavior, and other husbandry practices.
Though technology offers many opportunities to increase farm efficiency, it will not be able to replace producer experiential knowledge of their operation and herd. Many skills such as visual observations of rangeland utilization, health and body conditioning, and livestock handling will continue to require active management by trained practitioners.
Key to the success and adoption of these technologies for range beef cattle production is input and insight from livestock producers.
References can be found in The Range Beef Cow Symposium XXVII Proceedings.
Jameson Brennan is an assistant professor/research and Extension specialist in livestock Grazing with South Dakota State University, and Mitch Stephenson, is an associate professor with the University of Nebraska - Lincoln.