Lack of forage and increased input costs for beef producers continue as we move ahead in 2013. However, there are several tools that producers can use to increase efficiency of cattle planned for market and in doing so increase margins. All it takes is a little prior planning for cattle that may be hitting the ground as we speak or calves that producers may be thinking about weaning this spring.

Information and documentation on a cow herd always adds value. Keeping records allows producers to make informed culling, marketing, nutrition and planned mating decisions, after all a quality calf is what adds the most value when it comes to marketing. Good records also allow producers to document the types management practices that they have implemented, and records can be easily passed from one segment of the beef industry to the next making a more integrated system, adding value at every step.

Improved record keeping and collecting calf birth dates and weights often times leads a defined calving season. This may include a spring or fall calving herd or possibly both and typically be 90 days or less in length.  Defining a calving season for your cow herd adds value to calves in several ways: a shortened calving season allows reproductively efficient cows to be easily identified and cows that do not settle with a calf within the time allowed can be palpated as open and culled. A defined caving season means producers can better target calving during a time of the year where high quality forage is more readily available and are able to meet a cow’s increased nutritional requirement during early lactation without increasing supplementation.

Also, a more uniform calf crop is realized, management of calves for the producers is easier and we often see 2-7$/cwt premium for those uniform calves as they are sold at market. Along with uniformity, increased lot size adds value at auction. Cattle sold in lots of 6 head or more can bring 10-16$/cwt more than smaller lots (Stuts et al. 2012).  Larger sale lots can be achieved not only through a calving season but also through alliances, whether that is locally with a neighbor or participating in a specific alliance program that requirements have been met.

Improving feed efficiency at any time, especially during a drought can help increase profit for any producer. A lesson can be taken away from feedlots; who 99% of, use implants and ionophores to improve margins. The use of such technologies would be warranted in a traditional marketing program if a natural or organic program has not been established and is not planned by a producer. Approved implants can be used on suckling calves and can increase average daily gain (ADG) by .12 lbs/d but may be more effective during the stocker phase as calves are weaned and retained for a period of time. Increases in ADG have been documented at 8-20% on calves post weaning. This can easily be a $10 return for every $1 invested in implants. Similarly, ionophores are a cost effective way to increase feed efficiency in cattle. Fed at 100-200 mg/head/day, it can increase gain by 0.15-0.2 lbs/day with a cost of about $0.02 a day and act as a coccidiostat and bloat preventer in grazing cattle on high quality forage.

Dehorning calves as well as castration of intact males are management tools that require little overhead cost to accomplish and can add substantial value. Horned cattle can be discounted up to 15-20$/cwt. Similarly, bulls may be discounted from 3-6$/cwt as compared to steers. Some people believe that an increase in weight gain can be obtained by leaving a steer intact, but castration of steers at weaning, adds stress and decreases post-weaning gains while leaving the calf more vulnerable to disease. An approved implant for a suckling calf can obtain the same results with less stress at weaning. Bottom line, the earlier a calf can be dehorned or castrated the better off and less stress occurs when that calf goes to market.

Drought effects over the last two years are becoming more apparent as cattle enter the grower yard or feedlot. Death loss recently in yards has been upwards to 8-10%, in some instances, for calves that are not considered high risk. Research has shown that cattle, which have been restricted from adequate diets, have calves that lack proper immunity (Hough et. al, 1990). This coupled with high feed prices add just another difficult hurdle for many producers who are feeding cattle. Proper vaccination and mineral supplementation by the cow/calf producer can aid in prevention of disease and sickness whether or not retained ownership is part of the marketing plan.

Preconditioning cattle prior to sale can seem like an expensive investment when forage is limited and feed prices often times are over 400$/ton. Research shows that incidences of sickness and death loss can be decreased significantly if calves are weaned a minimum of 45 days.  However, if value of gain from calves continues to be high simply the added gain in a weaning program can off-set those high feed costs, especially if feed costs are properly managed and calves can gain 2 lbs/day or more. Individual producers need to assess their particular situation to see what fits their management program best and see if preconditioning is right for them during a drought year. Calculators are available at to aid in making retained ownership decisions.

Vaccinations, along with a preconditioning period over 45 days, qualify many cattle to be enrolled in a value added program. These programs work by combining many of the management strategies listed above and offering those cattle for sale to buyers for a premium. Buyers will pay premiums for cattle that have been managed correctly because they perform better in the feedlot with less sickness and death loss as compared to cattle not previously weaned. Pfizer’s “Select Vac”, Merial’s “Sure Health”, OSU’s OQBN VAC-45 are only examples of value added programs and all have slightly different requirements. Cattle that qualify in a value added program normally see premiums from $6-10/cwt over non- weaned calves. 

These are only a few of the “tools” that a producer can choose to put into their tool box that comes from what is considered a “traditional” beef cattle system. Some producers may choose to use only some of the tools or some may choose not to use any of them, but the bottom line is for producers to have the information at hand to make informed decisions as they go to market calves in 2013 and not leave any money on the table when they do so.

Source: Gant Mourer, Oklahoma State University Beef Value Enhancement Specialist