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Grass Performance Beats Compensatory Gain

New research indicates the highest returns overall come from cattle that gain the most as stockers on grass.

Flesh and condition command more money from buyers for a simple economic reason: buy the proper degree at the right price and the returns at the hands of compensatory gain can be exponential.

If you're retaining ownership in stockers through the feedlot, though, recent research indicates compensatory gains can't overcome gains made in the pasture, even if those cattle actually gain faster in the feedlot. In other words, the highest returns overall come from the cattle that gained the most in the stocker enterprise.

In fact, according to Jason Cleere, Texas Cooperative Extension (TCE) beef specialist at Overton, “Low animal performance during the grazing period resulted in lower carcass value received for each animal. As a result, it may be beneficial for producers to program animals to gain more during the grazing period.”

In the joint study by the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station (TAES) and Texas Tech University, 189 stocker steers and 72 stocker heifers were assigned to one of two winter pasture stocking rates at TAES Overton (Maton Rye and TAM 90 Ryegrass) and TAES Uvalde (TAM 90), TX, during two years. Ultimately, cattle were divided according to their average daily gain (ADG) on pasture: High ADG, Medium ADG or Low ADG (Table 1). Cattle were fed to a constant .4 in. backfat.

Table 1. Average Daily Gain Of Stockers By Location*
Average Daily Gain (ADG) Overton ADG Uvalde ADG
High 2000 2.64 2.91
High 2001 2.22 2.53
Medium 2000 1.78 2.53
Medium 2001 1.45 2.14
Low 2000 1.19 2.10
Low 2001 0.48 1.65
Cattle grazed December to May
Source: Texas Agricultural Experiment Station: Overton and Uvalde; Monte Rouquette, Hagen Lippke

Turns out, the highest gaining stocker cattle hung the heaviest carcasses at harvest. That was regardless of whether they were the top gainers in the feedlot.

Specifically, Cleere explains that feedlot gain wasn't affected by grazing gains in the steers at Uvalde or the heifers at Overton. The highest gaining steers through the stocker phase were also the most prolific gainers on feed. By the end of the trial, the highest gaining steers on grass finished at an average live weight of 1,240 lbs., compared to 1,181 lbs. for the medium gainers and 1,143 lbs. for the lowest ADG steers.

Likewise, the highest gaining heifers as stockers were also the highest gainers in the feedlot. The High ADG heifers hung carcasses 72 lbs. heavier than the Medium ADG heifers, and 94 lbs. heavier than the Low ADG group.

Even when feedlot gains were highest for cattle that gained the least as stockers — as was the case with the Overton steers — they couldn't gain enough to compensate for the extra weight gained by other steers on grass. In this part of the study, the Low ADG steers posted feedlot ADG of 4.03 lbs. Compare that to 3.94-lbs. ADG for the Medium ADG group and 3.50 lbs. for the High ADG group. Yet, the steers that gained the most as stockers and the least at the feedlot still hung up carcasses that weighed an average of 58 lbs. more than steers that gained the least on grass.

In addition to the added gains, Cleere notes that pasture gains typically cost less than those in the feedlot. As a result, the more pounds gained prior to the feedlot should equate to a lower cost of gain overall.

Yes, this notion of stocker gains beating compensatory gain does fly in the face of traditional thinking and plenty of past research. But Cleere explains this study indicates genetic improvement for growth potential is offering stocker operators more opportunity for gain than in the past.

Plus, Cleere explains this strategy is consistent with the industry's evolving focus on holistic management and exploiting the fact that a change in one segment of production necessarily affects production overall.