Last year, 50 producers from a five-county area near Jackson, selling cattle via a marketing pool through U.S. Premium Beef (USPB) at Dodge City, KS, produced carcasses with 85% Choice or better and 50-55% Yield Grade (YG) 3 ratings, says group organizer Gerry Shinn. Plus, the pool produced 9% Prime carcasses and 22% Certified Angus Beef carcasses, with only 7-8% YG 4s.
Their formula combines artificial insemination (AI), expected progeny differences (EPDs), individual animal ID, and a lot of data sharing.
Shinn and son Geoff operate their Performance Blenders feed business near Jackson. Their livelihood focused on hog production until the demise of the area's smaller farrow-to-finish operations gravitated them toward the beef side.
Shinn began talking to producers about retaining ownership of their calves. Above all, he says he wanted to help customers capture performance data to help them make more informed management decisions that would hopefully lead to premium prices.
Shinn made the marketing effort possible with the USPB shares he began buying and leasing in 2002. The shares allow him to send a set number of head to the plant each year. USPB's pricing grids are premium-carcass grids and pay best for carcasses grading better than Choice and YG3.
With the industry consolidating, Shinn knew some area farmer-feeders were beginning to see the writing on the wall. Jackson farmer-feeder Glen Birk was one.
“I kept telling Gerry I needed individual carcass data on my calves,” says Birk, who was feeding his own calves but had just one packer calling. He was sure he had the quality to sell fed cattle by carcass value, but needed data to confirm it.
Shinn's formation of the pool and USPB's willingness to deliver individual animal ID and carcass data gave Birk and others the feedback to better select the genetics needed to fit the grid.
When Shinn went looking for cattle feeders, among his first calls was to University of Missouri Extension livestock specialist Roger Eakins. Eakins already had a group of people producing high-quality calves for the Missouri Show-Me-Select Heifer Sale, many of whom were using AI and timed heat synchronization.
Eakins says the participants were great candidates for the feeding/marketing pool. These were high-quality cow herds able to produce high-quality, consistent offspring. The feedback is what's primary responsible for the marketing pool's success, he says.
Most of the bulls selected initially have been close to the target, though a few had to be discarded. Most of the sires are Angus, with a few Simmental. The cow herds are mostly British-based.
“We've seen more than a $200/head difference from using two sires in some herds, and on cows very genetically similar,” Eakins says.
Eakins reports a $450 spread in some herds, with some bulls producing more than 50% Prime carcasses on multiple cow herds with calves under similar feeding management.
Most successful Performance Blenders feeders select for moderately positive EPD rankings in performance, carcass and maternal traits. It seems to work.
Data provided selection direction
Before Birk began feeding cattle for the USPB grid, he selected bulls on maternal traits, milk production and calving ease, with an eye always to moderation. He also emphasized bulls with relatively strong performance-trait EPDs, especially high yearling weight and moderate frame size.
His data told him to add more marbling, which he did, while keeping an eye on frame size. He aims for a mature frame score of 6 on commercial cows and 6.5 on purebreds. His commercial cows produce the bulk of his Show-Me-Select heifers and feedlot cattle.
As he's amassed more carcass data, Birk has made minor adjustments, but not on cow type. He found many cows that produced good carcasses were good cows anyway.
Birk says he'll “double up” on genetics from high-producing bulls, something he's done in his purebred herd. His commercial herd, however, has been so profitable with current prices that he's retained few heifers.
Jim Wallis, another Performance Blender feeder, uses similar selection standards.
“When I first started feeding, my marbling scores were a little low,” Wallis says. More emphasis on marbling and ribeye area brought him the profits he sought.
He also chooses slightly plus numbers on maternal trait EPDs, but in moderation. The one exception is in choosing calving-ease or light birthweight bulls for his heifers.
Like others in the program, Wallis found some bulls produce poorer carcasses, but the efficacy of timed AI lets him move away quickly from unprofitable genetics.
Above all, the group members put a lot of emphasis on the combination of age and predictability rankings for bulls they use.
“Just because a young bull has good accuracy doesn't prove anything,” Wallis adds. He also examines pedigrees of bulls he uses to see if his preferred “foundation” bulls appear more than once.
Such attention to detail, and openness toward change and technology, has put this group of feeders in a higher-profit zone. Eakins recalls how the system's value was shown when the marketing pool first started.
One producer, who had just sold a load of fed cattle to the nearest packer, was paid a single price for 100% Choice, YG3, he says. After Eakins convinced him to sell a load through Shinn's marketing pool based on actual performance, his next load went 30% Prime and 48% CAB. The net premiums totaled $128/head.
Alan Newport is a freelance writer based in Carnegie, OK.
Feeding counts, too
One more factor appears to help these Missouri cattle feeders produce top-quality carcasses. University of Illinois research shows early weaning and adequate energy intake between 500-700 lbs. helps cattle marble while holding fat cover to a reasonable level.
The Champaign-Urbana researchers say getting calves on a high-energy diet as early as possible is critical. They say the practice has shown to be more important than the calves' genetic merit for marbling. They also found calves fed a low-energy diet after development on a high-energy diet for some period of time may loose the initial marbling and grade poorer.
When Bill Ellis, Southeast Missouri State University cattle operation manager, began placing university calves into Performance Blenders' marketing pool, he found this to be very important.
They got a jump to higher quality grades when they switched to the right bulls, he says. But the first year, even with the same bulls they use today, their calves didn't grade as well as they do now. When they added earlier weaning and supplemented a high-energy ration to their already-good pastures, the calves went from averaging 53% Choice and Yield Grade (YG) 3.34 in 2001 to 82% Choice and YG 2.94 in 2002.
The number of Prime carcasses increased 5-6% that second year, but jumped to 17% and 12%, respectively, the next two years.
One caveat from the Illinois research — heifers showed decreased milk performance when fed a high-energy diet early in life. Thus, heifers intended as replacements shouldn't be fed energy at these levels.
The magic of timing
One wrinkle making artificial insemination (AI) functional for these Missouri cattlemen is new timed synchronization products and techniques. Both heifers and cows achieve high first-service settling rates based strictly on timing, with no heat detection necessary.
All three producers interviewed for these stories use timed synchronization with great success. Jim Wallis, who's used AI for 30 years, says timed synchronization is much easier. And, Southeast Missouri State University's Bill Ellis says student crews settled 62% of cows and 70% of heifers on first service this year using timed protocols.