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Before You Pick Consider These Factors

Value Added Calf (VAC) 45 Three of these five pens were preconditioned through a VAC 45 program before they reached the feedyard. That means the cattle were weaned at least 45 days before reaching the feedyard and they underwent an intensive health vaccination program.

Most calves are healthy when they leave the ranch, but stress caused by weaning, transportation, changes in environment, etc., decreases the level of resistance to disease and increases exposure to disease. Vaccination programs raise the level of resistance to viruses and other pathogens before a disease challenge occurs.

It's critical to administer proper vaccines and allow adequate time between shots, boosters and shipping (before the stress occurs). Specific vaccination product information can be found at

VAC 45, which was developed through observations in the Ranch to Rail program, is designed for producers with resources to background weaned calves for at least 45 days prior to shipment. This program maximizes the calf's preparedness to enter various marketing and production channels.

There are two vaccination options in this program. One is based upon a pre-weaning vaccination followed by revaccination at weaning, 4-6 weeks later. The other is based upon vaccination at weaning followed by revaccination 14-21 days later.

The type of vaccines used depends upon whether the calves are nursing or weaned at vaccination. In both options, the cattle are backgrounded at least 45 days after weaning.

Uniformity of Cattle in Each Pen In order to manage feedlot cattle more effectively it helps to have uniform groups of cattle within each pen. Uniformity means more than color or breed. Often, it has a great deal to do with weight, frame size, body condition and muscling level.

Information on the genetic ability of cattle to grow efficiently and to produce valuable carcasses would be important information if available. However, this information is often not available.

Therefore, as an alternative, feeders attempt to group cattle in pens according to projected outcome based on initial live weight and visual appraisal of frame size and muscling. As you look at the pens, try to determine if the pens look uniform to you.

Frame size, or skeletal size, can be determined by evaluating an animal's height and length in relation to its age. This indicates the ability of the animal to grow and the expected size of the animal once it has reached maturity.

Feeder cattle are classified as Small, Medium or Large in frame size. It's the feedyard manager's job to finish cattle to their appropriate endpoint. Small-framed cattle will be ready for the packing plant earlier than large-framed cattle.

Feedyard pens with cattle of varying frame sizes will be ready for market at different times. Therefore, if they are harvested on the same day, the pen will produce carcasses with a wide array of carcass weights, yield grades and quality grades. This will result in many discounted carcasses. In addition, feedyard performance may be compromised if marketed too early or too late.

Feeder Steer Size Finished Weight Small Below 1,000 lbs. Medium 1,000 to 1,200 lbs. Large Over 1,200 lbs.

Thickness of muscling refers to muscle development in relation to skeletal size. Muscle thickness classifications are No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3; with No. 1 exhibiting the greatest thickness.

Cattle with a thickness score of No. 1 will have a higher muscle-to-bone ratio, and thus a more desirable (lower number) yield grade. Areas where differences in thickness of muscling are apparent include the thickness of the round and chuck and width of the rib and loin down the back or midline.

Body condition refers to the amount of finish, or the fat covering, on an animal. Thrifty (healthy) but thin cattle will often grow more rapidly in a feedyard due to compensatory gain.

Cattle with compensatory gain often have had restricted nutrition for part of their life, and when they are later fed a finishing ration in the feedyard they compensate for the earlier dietary restriction by gaining weight rapidly. It's been suggested that, at a constant weight, thin cattle will gain faster and more efficiently than cattle already on a high plane of nutrition.

An animal with a more "fleshy" body condition (fatter) will characteristically show more fat over the rib and loin, underneath in the flank and brisket regions, as well as in the crotch and around the tailhead.

How will they do on this carcass grid? Each pen will be sold on a carcass grid basis. Selling cattle in this manner rather than on a live cash basis better reflects their true quality. The grid used for this contest was established using information from feeders in the Texas Panhandle.

When the grid was established, the live cash price for a finished steer or heifer was $66/cwt. live weight. In the December issue of BEEF we will tell you which cattle are more suited to selling on a live cash basis or a carcass grid basis.

To arrive at the income from the sale of the carcass to the packer, multiply the carcass-grid price/cwt. by the hundreds of pound of carcass weight (i.e., for 750-lb. carcass multiply by 7.5). This grid appears to favor either cattle with a high USDA Quality Grade (Prime and Top Choice) and/or cattle producing USDA Yield Grade 1 or 2 carcasses.

On this grid discounted carcasses, particularly dark cutters, will have considerably lower value. From this information, we will determine the average carcass value/cwt. When these cattle were sent to the packer the spread between USDA Choice and USDA Select was narrow which will make USDA Yield Grade more important than when the spread between Choice and Select is wide.

Mixed Company

The age of hybrid and composite cattle may be dawning, but education and marketing will determine acceptance say these experts.

So far, crossbreeding in the cattle industry has been like managing a three-ton gorilla in a creep feeder.

On one hand, its low- to no-cost economic returns are too stout to ignore. "The value of heterosis in various crossbreeding and composite systems range from $50 to $100 (Table 1)," says Harlan Ritchie, a distinguished professor of animal science at Michigan State University. "Can we afford to give that up? I think not."

On the other hand, this multi-colored ape can be so tough to manage that many producers have either loused it up or become so frustrated by it that they've sacrificed the potential for a return to the more familiar waters of straightbreeding.

About 80% of U.S. commercial herds use some sort of crossbreeding, Ritchie says. "Of course, a high percentage of that would be willy-nilly bull of the month crossbreeding," he adds, explaining that swapping bull breeds and randomly mixing genetics is not the same thing as systematically matching genetics through a planned system.

In fact, rather than add to the bottom line, Dave Daley, animal science professor at California State University-Chico says, "Our unplanned crossbreeding systems have in some cases made it more difficult to hit environmental and marketing targets."

As an example, Ritchie explains a common breeding scheme, often mistaken for planned crossbreeding, is putting a Continental bull on some English cows. Across breeding seasons and crops of replacements, the percentage of the Continental blood in the females rises to the point the producer figures he needs an English bull. So, the biological type of the calf crops swing from extreme to extreme with everything in between, making it difficult to optimize either production or marketing.

Conversely, a traditional rotational crossbreeding system stabilizes biologic type and heterosis, but it requires added management, more fences to keep herds separate, more bulls and breeding pastures and keen long-term commitment.

"We have heterosis, but we don't have a systematic way to capture the value of genetic diversity," says Daley, who also operates family commercial and seedstock operations with his wife Cindy. "That genetic diversity can be just as important if not more important than heterosis."

He explains using complementary breeds of varying biological types in crossbreeding may offer as much value as the hybrid vigor that results from such a system.

That's where the potential of composite and hybrid cattle - animals comprised of two or more specific breeds combined in exacting percentages - comes in. For the purpose of this article, although the terms "composite" and "hybrid" are often used synonymously, consider a hybrid to contain two breeds and a composite to be an open or closed system that includes three or more breeds.

Furthermore, rather than represent components within a crossbreeding system, hybrids and composites represent genetics that are already blended. As such, they offer genetic and phenotypic stability, along with heterosis and management ease.

"I think there has been recognition with many of the alliances that hybrid cattle, particularly Continental by British hybrids, do more things right more of the time," says Daley. He's explaining pasture, feedlot and carcass performance of these genetics typically run ahead of straightbred cattle or hybrids built with either all English or all Continental breeding.

"So, it's hard to say the commercial industry doesn't need a systematic crossbreeding system, but it has been difficult to accomplish," Daley says.

History On A Flea's Back Of course, the notion of using composites or hybrid cattle is not new. Genetic blends incorporating the Brahman influence became their own breeds long ago; Santa Gertrudis and Beefmaster are examples. But, everywhere else in the industry composites and hybrids have earned mixed interest, ranging from intense to none.

"Certainly in the '80s there was increasing interest in composites. In some cases, that was because the commercial industry wasn't satisfied with what the seedstock industry was providing," says Daley. "Coupled with that was the fact that pork and poultry were kicking our butts with composites used systematically. The question became why can't we do this in the beef industry?"

Indeed, research from the USDA's Meat Animal Research Center, beginning with the 1978 Germplasm Utilization study, wondered the same thing. Besides exploiting high levels of heterosis - although lower levels than with traditional crossbreeding - Keith Gregory's research showed there was no more variation in the progeny of composite genetics than in that of straightbred parents.

Phenotypically, variation is similar, too. That's especially true when the complementary breeds used as composite and hybrid components are similar in biological type.

Yet, even with hard data, Daley says the perception that composites create more variation than purebreds persists, based on qualitative traits - such as hair color - rather than quantitative traits like weaning weight and fertility. "If the composite concept is to move forward, someone is going to have to take the initiative to market it," he says.

The incentive is there. If the industry exploited the true potential of planned crossbreeding, Ritchie says, "I think it would increase efficiency and lower the overall cost of beef production in this country." Moreover, the power of maternal heterosis alone can change ranch-level profitability.

How Do We Goof-Proof It? "What's so difficult about branding a hybrid, documenting the performance and parentage, then offering it to commercial producers in a simple, easy-to-use system?" wonders Don Schiefelbein, executive director of the American Gelbvieh Association (AGA).

In September, AGA and the Red Angus Association of America (RAAA) launched its SmartCross System and began promoting the genetic components of that system - registered Balancers that range from 25-75% Angus and Gelbvieh.

Briefly, Schiefelbein explains the SmartCross system boils common genetic challenges down to simple solutions that allow producers to combine breeds similar in biologic type to harvest high levels of heterosis without suffering generational swings in biotype.

As an example, in a herd of high-percentage English cattle, the system suggests using a Gelbvieh bull to bring the herd toward the 50-50 English X Continental balance it considers ideal. Conversely, the system recommends using Angus bulls on high-percentage Continental cows.

As the cow herd approaches their 50-50 target, the system recommends Balancers to stabilize the herd and fine-tune it for specific environmental and marketing requirements.

The very idea of breed associations promoting crossbreeding, let alone cattle that merely include some of their genetics, seems like blasphemy compared to traditional standards. Schiefelbein explains: "The case for crossbreeding in the beef industry is irrefutable. And, if you're honest as a breed association, the next step in breed evolution is to figure out how your breed fits into a crossbreeding system."

Besides, Schiefelbein points out, AGA members were already registering an increasing number of Gelbvieh X Angus hybrids before the SmartCross System was developed.

"If you look at our registration of hybrids, it's growing exponentially. Today, a majority of our largest Gelbvieh breeders are registering a percentage of their cattle as hybrids," says Schiefelbein.

Likewise, Bob Hough, RAAA executive secretary, says, "We've always embraced crossbreeding because we think it is in the best economic interest of our customers... I don't think a program like the SmartCross system and Balancers takes anything away from our breed. It adds to it."

Rather than sounding the death knell for breeds, Hough points out pure breeds of cattle must be used to establish and maintain composite and hybrid lines.

In the same vein, Jerry Lipsey, executive vice president of the American Simmental Association (ASA), explains, "Large herds in this country learned early on that by utilizing stabilized crossbred cattle (composites) they could maintain the breed type that was most beneficial to their business.

"I think we're just beginning to see the realization from smaller herds that they can use the same technology... Our records database shows a dramatic increase in the proportion of percentage Simmental reported for performance and registration." ASA currently offers the only multi-breed genetic evaluation in North America.

Daley believes that vertically integrated companies and vertically coordinated systems will soon stop worrying about breeds and focus on what's offered by breed composition.

"And, that will likely be composites," he says. "And, if these large-scale operations can't find the seedstock producers to do what they need, they will build their own bulls."

Some Things To Ponder As producers wrap their arms around the potential of composite and hybrid genetics, Daley emphasizes it is no different than making traditional breed, bull and supplier selections.

"From a technical standpoint, this composite and hybrid concept makes sense. But, if someone plans it poorly or uses the wrong parental breeds or the wrong cattle within those breeds, the result is still poor cattle.

"Anyone can say they have a composite," he explains. "Breeders should offer the same documentation that goes with purebreds. If I was really interested in buying hybrids or composites, it's just like buying purebreds - go to a breeder you can trust."

While hybrids make systematic crossbreeding easy, Ritchie cautions producers to limit the amount of inbreeding in the genetics they buy; inbreeding dilutes the level of heterosis. And, Daley urges producers to consider how many suppliers there are of a particular composite or hybrid before they begin a new breeding system.

From a supplier standpoint, Schiefelbein suggests, "You can worry about breed identity if you want. But, if you're not worrying first, second and third about serving your customer, you may end up preserving your identity, although it may not be a positive identity to have at that point."

Organic Matter: The Real Pay Dirt

Most people aren't aware that 70-90% of the organisms in a rangeland ecosystem live underground, or that one cup of healthy soil contains more than 6 billion living organisms. The key to creating and maintaining a healthy soil is providing habitat and nourishment for the organisms that live there.

Just as microbes break down fiber in the cow's rumen, microorganisms in the soil break down fiber and other organic matter. As the microorganisms decompose organic matter, they create humus.

Humus stores nitrogen in the soil. With all our technology, that's something we have not figured out how to do. Humus holds 30 times more nutrients than clay. It absorbs five times its weight in water and increases oxygen availability in the soil. Microflora that live in humus attack soil pathogens. Humus is essential in a healthy soil.

Carbon Makes Things Go The primary food required by plants is the same as the primary food required by cows, sheep and people. It is carbon. Carbon is energy. It makes things go.

While organic matter in the soil has a high proportion of carbon, plants get nearly all of the carbon they use from the atmosphere. Through the miracle of photosynthesis, plants take energy from sunshine, carbon from the carbon dioxide (CO subscript 2) in the air and water from the soil.

From these, they produce starch, cellulose, sugars, proteins and other carbon-based compounds. These substances are consumed by animals and decomposed by soil organisms, releasing CO subscript 2 into the soil. In nature, unless consumed by fire, nearly all carbon is recycled into the soil.

Maintenance of organic matter is important for many reasons, not the least of which is providing adequate carbon to feed the soil microorganisms. It's critical that sufficient crop and root residues be provided to replenish the organic matter.

While nature returns nearly all-organic matter to the soil, modern agriculture removes most of the organic matter. Farming and ranching will not be ecologically (or economically) sustainable until we replenish and maintain soil organic matter.

According to Australian soil scientist Christine Jones, "pulsed" grazing (short graze periods with adequate recovery periods) adds organic matter to the soil and is the most effective grazing method for maintaining healthy soils.

Nitrogen Makes Things Grow If carbon makes things go, nitrogen makes them grow. Our atmosphere is 78% nitrogen. But unlike carbon, nitrogen in its gaseous form is not useful to plants. In order to pass from the atmosphere to plants, nitrogen must first be "fixed" by the soil microorganisms.

Almost all of the nitrogen in the soil is in the organic matter. But, plants are not able to use the complex protein molecules in these materials. Only after the microorganisms have broken down these complex molecules into ammonium and nitrate molecules will the plants have a nitrogen source.

Just like the microbes in the rumen of a cow or sheep, the soil microbes need protein (nitrogen) in order to use the energy (carbon) in the soil's organic matter. And, just like the rumen microbes, the soil microbes need carbon and nitrogen in the correct proportion.

Too much carbon (relative to available nitrogen) and the microbes can't convert the organic matter to humus. The microbes will tie up all the available nitrogen, making it unavailable to plants. Too much nitrogen (relative to available carbon) and the microbes, in search of carbon, will devour the humus leaving the soil impoverished. A carbon:nitrogen ratio of 25-30:1 is ideal for the microbes.

Returning adequate organic matter to the soil and encouraging its decomposition into humus are essential for healthy productive soils. But, most farming practices deplete organic matter and destroy humus.

Replenishing soil organic matter and maintaining a thriving soil microbe population are essential in any business that is ranching for profit.

Fewer But Larger

The number of cattle on feed has increased, while the number of smaller feedlots continues to shrink, a new report says.

A greater proportion of feedlot cattle inventory is being placed in feedlots with a large capacity, while the number of small-capacity feedlots is declining.

That's one of many feedlot industry trends highlighted in a new report from the USDA's National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS).

"Changes in the U.S. Feedlot Industry, 1994-1999" compiles information from NAHMS's 1994/1995 Cattle On Feed Evaluation and Feedlot '99 study, the National Agricultural Statistics Service, Cattle-Fax and the NAHMS sentinel feedlot monitoring program.

On Jan. 1, 2000, nearly 14 million cattle were on feed in the U.S. - 1.6 million more than in 1995. And, feedlots with 32,000-head or more capacity had 35.9% of the U.S. feedlot inventory. From 1997 to 2000, these feedlots had a steady 2% increase/year in their contribution to the total number of cattle on feed, the report says.

Meanwhile, the total number of feedlots declined steadily from 1996 to 1999 - a 9% decline that was predominantly in feedlots with a capacity of fewer than 1,000 head.

According to statistics from 1996-1999, the largest number of cattle is placed on feed during October; the second largest number is placed during September.

Respiratory Deaths Increase Within the NAHMS sentinel feedlot program, death loss as a percentage of cattle increased from 1% in 1994 to 1.4% in 1999. Fewer cattle died from digestive deaths, but more died from respiratory deaths.

In the major cattle-on-feed states, the percentage of dead cattle that had a postmortem examination increased substantially - from 45.9% in 1994 to 53.9% in 1999. This increase was primarily from postmortems by non-veterinarians, the report says.

The profile of cattle entering feedlots also changed during the six-year period. Heifers constituted 41.4% of beef placements in 1999 compared to 34.1% in 1994.

Feedlots owned a greater proportion of placements in 1999. The percentage of cattle placed on feed that were owned by feedlots with an 8,000-head or more capacity increased from 20.5% in 1994 to 34% in 1999, the report says.

A greater proportion of placements were purchased at auction in 1999 than in 1994, and the percentage of placements provided for custom feeding decreased slightly.

Pre- And Post-Arrival Management In 1999, a higher percentage of operations reported that pre-arrival procedures were "extremely effective" or "very effective" in reducing sickness and death loss in cattle placed at less than 700 lbs.

Most of this increase may be from feedlots that responded "does not apply" or "don't know" in 1994. That may indicate producers have become more knowledgeable about the effectiveness of pre-arrival processing, the report says.

While similar percentages of feedlots branded cattle after arrival in 1994 and 1999 (40%), a greater percentage of all cattle were branded in 1999 (29.1%) than in 1994 (20.2%).

The percentage of feedlots that fed new arrivals a ration containing 1% to 35% energy concentrate (such as corn, wheat or barley) decreased from 1994 to 1999. And, the percentage of feedlots that fed a ration containing 75% or more energy concentrate to new arrivals increased during that time, the report says.

The complete report is available online at, by contacting NAHMS at 970/490-8000 or by e-mailing

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A special thanks

Editor's note: Andrea Daine, the daughter of Heather and Lynn Thomas, was severely burned fighting a sage fire on July 5. She suffered second- and third-degree burns over 51% of her body.

A fund has been established for donations: Andrea Thomas Daine Fund, First Security Bank, PO Box 810, Salmon, ID 83467. The family requests your prayers.

I want to thank the many kind folks who read about our daughter's accident and responded. She received dozens of wonderful cards and letters, which are still pouring in.

The heartfelt concern and many prayers have been very helpful to her, and our family is very grateful. Some folks have shared their own experiences about personal burn accidents or those of family members with encouragement for her road ahead.

That's been the upside of this terrible tragedy - the sharing. The dedicated nurses and doctors who cared for Andrea, and the other burn victims and their families we met have touched our lives deeply. The depth of sharing and caring is both humbling and elating, and there's a strong network of support. Anyone who goes through this can never be the same again.

Once a week, the recovering burn patients who come back for checkups meet for a group therapy session with a counselor and the families of burn patients and any in-hospital patients who are well enough to attend. The "survivors" share their experiences and progress. It's greatly encouraging to patients whose burns are still severe and their families - still in agony and shock and struggling through the challenge to cope.

It's a long, hard and painful road with a lot of rough spots along the way. But, there are wonderful side experiences, too, as people help one another. When a person has come through this trial enough to start being an inspiration for someone else who is just starting along this road, that in itself is good therapy.

Andrea is healing faster than the doctors originally expected. She was released from the hospital Aug. 13 and had extensive physical therapy in Salt Lake City for three weeks. Lynn stayed with her at a cousin's home, driving her to physical therapy sessions daily and helping with the constant stretches she must do to keep the grafted areas from tightening up, as well as doing her daily scrub and bandaging.

She's now been fitted for the pressure garments that help keep the grafted areas from overgrowing and creating excessive scar tissue. She must wear these constantly for a year or two. She was able to come home Sept. 2 to finish her therapy here, which will be ongoing for many months.

We are fortunate to have a good therapist in our small town. Otherwise, she'd have to spend a lot of time somewhere else. Being home is wonderful - for Andrea and us. Little Emily (her 2 1/2-year-old daughter) is especially glad to have Mommy back!

Heavy Smoke At Home Here at home, we were still immersed in smoke until Labor Day weekend when we actually got some rain. Several large fires are still burning out of control, but the rain has helped. The firefighters and military forces are mainly trying to protect homes and buildings in the fires' path.

We are hoping for more rain. The range pastures have been so dry for the past two months that there's no protein in the feed and much less feed than usual. Many cattle have been brought off ranges early, and some had to be evacuated due to fires (some cattle were lost in the fires).

We will be bringing our cattle home early, too, but our fall pasture at home is short and dry. The elk ate most of it earlier in the summer when it was still green.

We'll be needing more hay since our hay crop was short due to lack of irrigation water, and fall pasture will be short. We may sell a few cows, however, rather than buy a lot of hay.

It might be wise to make our calving just a little easier this year, since Andrea won't be able to help us. At present, we are fixing fences and getting corrals ready for when we roundup the cattle from the range in mid September.

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2000 calf market may be the best ever

The August fed cattle market in the Amarillo feedlot area traded lower until mid-month but then recovered slightly. In the final weeks, the movement was light, and markets were untested. U.S. Choice slaughter steers started September in the $64 to $65/cwt. level.

In contrast, feeder cattle and calf prices displayed some improvement in the middle of the month but showed considerable volatility. Heavier weight feeder price quotations have become very rare in the Amarillo livestock auction reports. As a result, other markets or direct sales may have to be substituted in our tables to get a consistent flow of price information.

Beef Demand, Concentration Notes - Some of the optimism about improved beef demand this year may be fading. Retail prices for Choice beef moved off the record highs set in June, but they are still 4% above last year. Cattle slaughter in July was off 4% from a year ago. Even with higher slaughter weights, commercial beef production for July was still 2% below a year earlier.

Despite lower beef production and a reduced total commercial red meat production, cattle prices fell substantially. By August, Choice fed cattle in the High Plains were below year-ago levels.

- The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) just released its Packers and Stockyards Statistical Report. In 1999, four packing firms accounted for 81.4% of the steer and heifer slaughter in the U.S. That figure was 80.4% in 1998. These four firms acquired 24.9% of their cattle through their own packer feeding, forward contracts and marketing agreements.

Cattle On Feed Cattle and calves on feed for the U.S. slaughter market in 1,000-head-or-more-capacity feedlots totaled 10.2 million head on Aug. 1. That's 11% greater than the year-ago level. The largest numerical increase came in Texas with a 240,000-head gain. The greatest percentage gain was in Nebraska with 15% more cattle on feed.

Fed cattle marketings in July totaled 2.1 million head, 2% below last July. Five states reported larger marketings; Nebraska was down 10%.

Feedlot placements of cattle and calves into feedlots in July totaled 1.9 million head, 6% above a year earlier. Texas and Nebraska had 8% gains.

Placements weighing less than 600 lbs. totaled 424,000 head; those 600-699 lbs. totaled 366,000 head; the 700- to 799-lb. class totaled 597,000 head; and animals 800 lbs. and greater totaled 530,000 head.

Larger Marketings Loom With July feedlot placements moving back over year-ago levels, the expectation of larger marketings this winter looms again. Fall feedlot movement appears to be modest, but supplies could become burdensome by year's end.

Fed cattle may show a price pattern the rest of 2000 similar to a combination of both last year and 1998. That would mean price stability with some possible improvement in the September-November period, and some weakness following that into the new year.

Feeder cattle and calf prices are expected to follow the direction of feds. The recent weakness of that market has pushed feedlot returns into the negative side of the ledger. That will impact directly upon the demand for feeder cattle and calves.

At the same time, the availability and market timing of such animals will be strongly influenced by drought conditions in the South. Despite these negative factors, returns to cow/calf ranchers this year may be the best ever.