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Articles from 2017 In October

Fed Cattle Recap | Cash prices catch a gear

Fed Cattle Recap

The cheering heard throughout cattle country didn’t just come from football stadiums large and small. It also came from feedyards large and small as cash sales for fed cattle took flight.

The weekly weighted average cash steer price for the Five Area region was $116.98 per cwt for the week ending Oct. 28. That’s $6.11 higher than the $110.87 that cattle feeders saw the previous week. The Five Area weighted average cash dressed steer price was $181.54, compared with $174.92 the previous week, a jump of $6.62 higher.

The Five Area average formula price was $177.16, compared with $175.87 the previous week, $1.29 higher. The Five Area region includes the major feeding areas from Texas up through Kansas and Nebraska, along with Colorado and Iowa. 

The Five Area formula sales volume totaled 205,928 head, compared with about $199,767 the previous week. The Five Area total cash steer and heifer volume was 110,446 head, compared with about 95,400 head the previous week.   

The estimated weekly total federally inspected cattle harvest was 617,000 head, compared with 614,000 the same week last year, only 3,000 head over last year. 

Nationally reported forward contract cattle harvest was about 48,000 head, compared with about 55,000 head the previous week. Packers have about 242,000 head of forward contracts available for November.       

The latest average national steer carcass weight for the week ending Oct. 14 was 896 pounds, 1 pound higher than the previous week but down significantly from 915 pounds the same week last year.    

The Choice-Select spread was $10.82 on Friday, compared with $8.72 the previous week and $12.95 last year.  

The latest national steer and heifer grading report for week ending Oct. 20 was 78.68% Choice and Prime, well over last year which was 75.39%. But it did slip a little from the previous week, which was over 79%.




For all of the partisan wrangling, for all of the criticisms we see every hour, it’s amazing how good we feel about things right now. Consumer Confidence hasn’t been this high in 17 years. Considerably higher than Wall Street expected.

A pair of criminals from California, both got arrested twice, in the same county, less than 24 hours apart.

There was some corn harvest progress made last week, gaining 16% points. Illinois is ¾ done. Iowa and Nebraska aren’t even half done yet.

93-year-old Iowa farmer brought to cab of John Deere combine by grandson.


Did you know this about Halloween? Immigrants from Ireland and Scotland brought Halloween to the U.S. On average, we’ll spend $86 a person on Halloween.

There’s a new report out on quality of health care in U.S. LeapFrog grades medical errors and surgeries. There was three-way tie for worst: North Dakota, Delaware and District of Columbus.

USDA Crop Progress report said Illinois is three-fourth done with corn harvest. Minnesota still has 62% of its corn crop still in the field.

Animal rescue folks rescued deer that had jack-o-lantern stuck on its head.

Farm Progress America, October 31, 2017

Max Armstrong shares insight on farmer-designed tech including a program by the American Farm Bureau Federation aiming to match farmer-entrepreneurs and investors. Max shares information about a program AFBF has started that helps entrepreneurs connect with investors.

Farm Progress America is a daily look at key issues in agriculture. It is produced and presented by Max Armstrong, veteran farm broadcaster and host of This Week in Agribusiness.

Photo: KrulUA/iStock/Thinkstock

Fighting the (never-ending) brush battle

Brush management
Brush control works, as this picture clearly shows. Juniper and mesquite provide a beautiful setting on Palo Duro Canyon rangeland, but brush-infested pastures benefit neither cattle nor wildlife. In contrast, areas of extensive brush control provide the JA Ranch with more open grazing and more diverse habitat for wildlife.

It’s a fight he’ll likely never win. But with an extensive prescribed burn, herbicide and grubbing program, Andrew Bivins hopes to eventually mimic Mother Nature in minimizing forage loss caused by the pasture predators of brush and weeds.

Those are the tactics in Bivins’ battle with water-robbing woody plants like juniper and mesquite. And while he still has a long way to go, he’s pleased with the outcome so far.

Bivins is part of a long-standing Texas Panhandle ranching family. He runs the historic JA Ranch about an hour southeast of Amarillo. One of the first ranches in the area, James Adair and famous cattle baron Charles Goodnight established the JA in the 1870s. In addition, Bivins’ family continues to operate the XL Ranch outside of Amarillo, as it has for over a century.

Much of the JA lies in Palo Duro Canyon, where the terrain is rough and rocky, and grass is a premium. The ranch averages 18 to 20 inches of annual rainfall. It relies on native grasses, mainly side-oats grama, buffalograss and little bluestem.

Since grass can be scarce, virtual forests of juniper and widespread mesquite and prickly pear cactus are more than a menace. “Brush control helps us open up more grazable acreage and reduces gathering costs,” Bivins says.

Bivins works with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Texas A&M University AgriLife Extension to identify methods of controlling woody plants and cactus. He also consults with herbicide company reps to develop prescription spray programs.

“In early years, natural prairie fire would normally set back about 10% of encroaching woody species,” Bivins says. “Our red berry juniper was much less prevalent 100 years ago. However, when ranchers and others began working to suppress wildfires, the juniper spread deeper into grassy areas.

“Now, we’re attempting to do what nature once did through prescribed burns. We try to idle 10% to 15% of the ranch a year to mimic the fire cycle the region evolved under.”

Rebuying the ranch  

Simply grubbing the land won’t work. “If you cut red berry juniper at ground level, it’ll grow back because you haven’t hurt the bud zone, which is belowground,” he says. “Fire, along with grubbing, helps set back the juniper problem seven to 10 years.”

What’s more, juniper grubbing is extremely cost-prohibitive. “It costs $400 to $450 per acre. You’re basically rebuying the ranch.” Following grubbing, a cost-efficient prescribed fire costs $10 to $12 per acre to clean up re-sprouts and dead trees on the ground.

Brush management has opened significantly more grazing for the Angus-Charolais-cross cattle on the JA Ranch. With better grazing come higher stocking rates; costs and returns must be considered, though, to ensure brush control adds to the bottom line.

For mesquite that isn’t within a juniper area, Bivins relies on herbicides. “An aerial application will usually control mesquite,” he says. “Cost is about $30 per acre. Native virgin mesquite responds well to chemical. However, follow-up chemical treatments have not been near as effective in controlling the trees.” 

If a pasture has a mesquite-juniper mix, “we will typically just burn it,” he adds. “I’d be happy with having a mesquite monoculture problem over the red berry juniper.”

Prescribed burning is usually done between January and March, when grass is dormant. With the Texas Panhandle region’s reputation for strong winds, Bivins monitors weather forecasts for mild days and 23% to 35% humidity.

“Fire is a very valuable tool when done correctly,” he says. “If folks don’t respect fire, they will end up losing [control of] it — and possibly cause loss of property or even loss of life.” That’s why safety of fire and property managers, livestock and wildlife is the main concern.

The burn, along with herbicides, also helps manage prickly pear. “We have a window for spraying prickly pear,” Bivins says. “When prickly pear are growing, they develop new pads about the size of silver dollars. After the late-winter fire, we can obtain good coverage using about 75% less herbicide as to when plants are in full bloom.”

Long-term weather can also impact the effectiveness of a prescribed burn, says Tim Steffens, professor of rangeland resource management at West Texas A&M University in Canyon, and Extension rangeland specialist for Texas A&M AgriLife.

“In the long run, different plant species react differently to wet and dry conditions,” he says. “For example, if a dry winter is forecast, a full burn will desiccate prickly pear and kill it in one winter. But if it turns out wet, prickly pear will see regrowth.”

Herbicide management 

Steffens says producers must decide which pasture management program can best handle their problem. For herbicide selection, Steffens relies on AgriLife and other Extension research findings.

“My bible is the ERM 1466 publication on chemical weed and brush control,” he says. “It’s updated regularly on the correct usage and application of various herbicides on specific weeds.”

The trick is assuring herbicides are used correctly on the correct plant. Some producers see one weed and immediately spray. Others have never used a herbicide in their lives. 

“The first may be spending more money than will be paid back from increased production, and the latter may be losing productivity that could be improved with a timely herbicide application. Alternatively, maybe management in the first case is causing the weed problems; and in the latter, he is avoiding them and doesn’t need to control the weeds.”

Before taking immediate action against weeds or brush, consider why they are there. “Take a drive down the highway,” Steffens suggests. “Look on one side of the fence with weeds or brush, then look on the other, where the pasture is clean. That shows it’s probably a management issue for the infested pasture. One guy is having a problem, and one guy isn’t,” he says.

“If a producer uses a herbicide and the problem keeps coming back, he may be putting on Band-Aids and could end up with nothing but a big ball of Band-Aids — and the situation is probably getting worse.”

If a ranch depends on wildlife management and hunting as a profit center, precautions may be needed before using herbicides. “Plants may be good for quail, deer or other wildlife, but not for livestock,” Steffens says. “That requires producers to be more surgical in making herbicide applications. Kill what you want to kill, without hurting wildlife and soil stability.”

Drought breeds weeds 

After a severe drought like in 2012 in the Midwest and 2011-13 in much of the Southwest, prudent herbicide management is even more important.

“Once rain finally returns, there can be big flushes of weeds,” Steffens says. “But they’re likely annual weeds and will often go away, especially if they’re native. Native grass will likely come in behind them without the expense of killing the weeds. If we manage to favor the grass, herbicide may not be needed.

“Look at managing what you want and worrying less about what you don’t want,” he says. “Think of the soil as the earth’s skin. Bare ground is a wound and the weeds are a scab. You need to worry about healing the wound, not removing the scab before the wound is healed.”

You can predict some problems, he adds. “Parts of the High Plains see annual broomweed. If it’s a dry summer, but a wet fall and winter, we may see annual broomweed in the spring. We can plan to control it early on. If our grazing during the drought increases the amount of bare ground, we can expect a bigger problem that is harder to control.

Draws on the JA Ranch usually are not burned or grubbed to benefit wildlife, help control erosion and capture more runoff.

“Many of these plants can be short-term, high-quality feed, and can be an asset if managed right. We’ve learned that if we have sunflower, 4-inch-tall plants are very palatable to cattle, but 12 inches tall are not. Even small Russian thistle plants can provide a free forage source in the early spring.”

What’s more, herbicide application may control weeds but may also increase palatability of poisonous plants that are then more likely to be consumed by livestock. Steffens says herbicide-treated areas with poisonous plants present should not be grazed until the toxic plants dry up and lose their palatability.

Bivins says weed and brush control can be just as important to a ranch’s bottom line as selecting the right feed supplement.

“You will always have brush management costs,” he says. “It’s a line item just like your feed bill. You know you’re going to have to have it, so you need to budget for it.”

Stalcup writes from Amarillo, Texas.

Is meat market saturated?

Buying meat in China

Prospects for increasing beef exports come at a fortuitous moment in U.S. beef history. Without them, odds favor further industry contraction over time.

Such an observation might seem bold, given the fact that all beef produced in the U.S. is always consumed at some price, and that the national cowherd is currently in the midst of the first cyclical expansion in about two decades.

Consider this, though; U.S. beef never recovered the 20% domestic demand lost from about 1977 to 1997. Total beef production last year was about 25.3 billion pounds, according to USDA’s Economic Research Service. That’s about what it was in 1995. During that timeframe, production was as high as 27.2 billion pounds in 2002, and as low as 23.7 billion pounds in 2015.

During the same period, total U.S. meat and poultry production grew most years; it was 97.3 billion pounds last year. Along the way, the U.S. population grew by about 21% to 323.4 million in 2016. 

Notwithstanding drought-forced liquidation in recent years, that’s one reason there were 31.2 million beef cows at the beginning of this year, as opposed to 36.1 million in 1995, let alone the peak number of 45.4 million in 1975.

In the last decade, as the nation’s cow herd contracted in the wake of prolonged drought, beef packing capacity and cattle feeding capacity left the business. It’s easy to imagine a quick restoration of the latter, but not the former.

In order to maintain the current industry infrastructure — packing and feeding capacity, allied service providers, etc. — the nation’s beef cow herd likely needs to be at or above 31 million cows or so over the long haul, according to Sterling Liddell, senior analyst of data analytics for RaboBank’s RaboResearch Food and Agribusiness.

Price disagreement

The vagaries of cyclical supply and demand, relative to domestic consumer beef demand, suggest the price that domestic consumers are willing to pay for the resulting level of production is below a point at which cow-calf producers are willing to maintain that many cows. To sustain prices at a level where cow-calf producers have incentive to maintain that size herd requires more demand.

“In the U.S., animal agriculture sectors are fully mature industries. Therefore, domestic consumption of animal proteins has reached, or is close to reaching, a saturation point. Total consumption of animal protein is not expected to grow much beyond the peak established in 2008,” say Liddell and Don Close, senior analyst for animal proteins at RaboResearch. They authored that organization’s recent U.S. long-term beef cattle outlook: Expanding Beef Production Increases the Need for Exports.

Added urgency comes in understanding that beef production will continue through the expansion phase of the cattle cycle and into the beginning of the liquidation phase.

According to the RaboBank long-term outlook (projections through 2025), the nation’s beef cow herd will grow by another 1.6% to 2.2% by 2018 or 2019. But, beef production will likely increase until 2021 or 2022 as cyclical liquidation takes hold, growing to the highest levels since 2003. The good news is that RaboBank projections estimate a 75% probability that the nation’s cow herd remains above 30 million head through the liquidation phase.

Plus, beef’s price disadvantage continues to grow relative to poultry — especially to chicken.

Though market saturation (total animal protein) has been an issue for years, Liddell explains, “Poultry producers are gaining so much yield per bird, relative to production cost, that the inflation-adjusted price of poultry to consumers continues to decline, while beef prices remain relatively flat.”

Make meat portion fit budget

Close uses the analogy of making the cost of a meal with meat fit a budget or menu price. If you can’t achieve the desired price with the desired meat, you first look to reduce meat portion size. If you still can’t hit the price target, then you choose an alternative meat.

Getty Images/Tim Boyle

Domestic demand for beef has increased, but over the long haul of the current cattle cycle, domestic beef demand may not be increasing as fast as the total beef supply. That means beef exports will need to increase for cattle prices in the U.S. to remain strong.

“With production of all species expanding and domestic consumption at, or very near a peak, the only way for the animal industries to advance is with growth in exports,” Close and Liddell say.

More specifically, Close explains, “The renewed growth in beef production is driving things to a breaking point. In order for the beef market to remain in equilibrium, the U.S. will have to increase exports to be consistently above 10% of annual production, more than 3.1 billion pounds each year.” And that accounts for domestic population growth.

By equilibrium, Liddell explains, “We’re looking at how the market will balance price, production and demand going forward without a market collapse.”

“We need to be able to increase export demand,” Close emphasizes. “On a carcass weight basis, the U.S. has never exceeded 10% of annualized beef production as exports [RaboBank calculation]. We see us breaking through that threshold and becoming a net exporter of beef.”

There are no guarantees that the U.S. can increase exports, of course.

For one thing, Liddell stresses that growing exports means that besides having a competitive product, the U.S. must also be competitive on the world stage when it comes to trade negotiation.

For another, Close notes becoming a net exporter increases vulnerability to related factors such as international trade policy and the dynamic animal health and management requirements of international buyers. Even if exports enable the domestic industry to maintain market equilibrium, they could also bring increased price volatility.

Global alignment for U.S. beef

But, Close believes global circumstances are aligning in favor of U.S. beef — North American beef, really.

First, U.S. beef exports already are gaining global market share, and contributing significantly to domestic beef and cattle prices. Year to date through August, the export value per head of U.S. fed slaughter was $275.81, according to the U.S. Meat Export Federation.

Overall beef quality, as measured by U.S. beef quality grades, continues to increase, too. More than 70% of U.S. beef continues to grade Choice or higher.

Incidentally, Close and Liddell believe beef quality will keep gaining value domestically and internationally relative to commodity product. Here and abroad, they say it means wider price gaps among commodity beef, high-quality beef (Choice) and ultra-high-quality beef (upper two-thirds of Choice and Prime).

Internationally, Close explains this quality segregation also applies to consumer willingness to pay increasingly more for U.S. beef quality vs. that of primary competitors like Australia, Brazil and New Zealand.

The growing economic wherewithal of international consumers is also in favor of increasing beef exports.

“Population growth, along with growing middle-class incomes, are the global drivers behind the opportunity to increase beef exports,” Close and Liddell say. “Conversely, beef imports to the U.S. face headwinds as an increased number of head available for slaughter combines with relatively persistent carcass weights to equal or exceed domestic demand levels.”

So far this year, Close says U.S. beef exports are 10.7% of production and on track to be 11.4% for the year.

“I believe we are at a very opportunistic time, where North America is the supplier of the high-quality and ultra-high-quality beef global consumers want,” Close says.

“Exports are where we have to look if we want to continue to grow and be profitable as an industry,” Liddell says. “If we don’t grow exports, it means less opportunity for fewer producers.”

Don't fall victim to nitrate poisoning. Check your forages.

Heather Smith Thomas Nitrate poisoning in hay
Nitrate poisoning isn’t just a concern when grazing improved grasses or cereal grains. Nitrates can accumulate in susceptible weeds and be a problem all winter in the hay.

Nitrogen is one of those good guy/bad guy deals. Nitrogen is a common and important element, and one of the building blocks of protein. Indeed, without it, your cattle would have a much harder time processing the rough forages they consume.

Plants take up nitrogen from soil in the form of nitrates — combinations of nitrogen and oxygen. On improved pastures, nitrogen fertilizer or manure can aid plant growth. And when everything is normal, very little nitrate accumulates in plants; stems and leaves rapidly convert the nitrate to plant amino acids and protein. 

But nitrogen can play the bad guy as well. Under certain conditions, this conversion can be disrupted; the roots take up nitrate faster than the plant can change it to protein, and nitrate accumulates in the plant. Some types of plants, especially annuals, can accumulate high levels. 

Drought stress is one situation that can cause plants to accumulate nitrates. Shannon Williams, Lemhi County Extension educator, Salmon, Idaho, says some types of crops — whether grazed or used as hay — should be checked for nitrate levels.

Nitrates and nitrites

Under normal conditions, nitrate ingested by ruminants is converted to nitrites by rumen bacteria, then changed into ammonia and then to bacterial protein, according to Ken Olson, Extension beef specialist, South Dakota State University. “The original form [nitrate] in the plant is not poisonous. It’s the nitrites that are toxic,” he says.

The problem is that in ruminant animals that consume forages high in nitrate, the nitrate is converted to nitrite faster than nitrite is converted to ammonia. If higher-than-normal amounts of nitrate are consumed, accumulation of nitrite may occur in the rumen and become toxic. This is why consuming plants with high nitrate levels is a bigger problem for ruminants than for horses, pigs or other animals with a simple stomach.

The amount on any one day may not be toxic, but it can eventually exceed the threshold for safety. “The first thing we notice in pregnant cattle or sheep is abortions,” Olson says. If the animals keep eating high-nitrate feed, continuing toxicity and accumulation leads to muscle tremors, weakness and death.

Excessive nitrite in the rumen is absorbed into the bloodstream, where it converts hemoglobin to methemoglobin — which is unable to transport oxygen. When an animal dies from nitrate poisoning, it is due to a lack of oxygen.

As long as the feed is below dangerous thresholds, nitrates are converted to nitrite in the rumen and the microbes continue the process of conversion, changing the nitrites to ammonia. “Rumen microbes can then use ammonia to form amino acids. This is how a ruminant synthesizes protein,” Olson explains.

The process in plant metabolism is similar to what occurs in the rumen. “The plant pulls nitrate from the soil to get nitrogen. In the plant, the nitrate is converted to nitrite, then to ammonia and then to amino acids and protein. The nitrate sometimes gets stuck there and never gets converted to ammonia — as when the plant is drought-stressed. It can’t finish the process,” he explains.

“Sometimes other things affect plant metabolism. During a cloudy, wet summer, there can also be nitrate problems in forage because photosynthesis slows down without adequate sunlight. There are many environmental stresses that can lead to high nitrates in plants — because they don’t get converted properly to plant protein,” Olson says.

“Even the time of day matters, regarding the best time to cut hay. It’s safest to wait until afternoon, because plants accumulate nitrates from the soil all night long, but there is no photosynthesis until daylight. Plants store nitrates until they can be processed, so levels are highest in the early morning and lower in the afternoon,” he says.

Herbicides can also increase nitrate levels, if the amount of herbicide is not enough to kill the plant but affects metabolism. Plant maturity makes a difference as well. Nitrate levels decline as plants mature.

Nitrates accumulated early in growth eventually get converted to protein. “If we delay cutting a small grain crop for hay until the plants are more mature and starting to form seed heads, levels will be lower,” Olson says.

Problem plants

Species that tend to accumulate higher nitrate levels include grains, sorghum, sudangrass, sorghum-sudan hybrids, corn, soybeans, fescue, pearl millet and bermudagrass. 

“Sorghum and sudangrass may also contain prussic acid. If you are exploring options with summer annuals or cocktail mixes, look farther than just their grazing tolerance, how fast they grow, nutritional content, etc.” says Williams.

Brassicas like turnips and radishes can also accumulate nitrogen in drought conditions. “A person has to learn how to feed or graze a new forage without risk of nitrate poisoning,” she says.

“Crops damaged by frost or hail also have reduced photosynthetic capacity. The roots are usually unaffected and continue to supply the same amount of nitrogen, but the upper part of the plant is unable to use it efficiently, so the nitrate accumulates,” Williams says. 

The nitrate-to-protein cycle in a plant is dependent on adequate water, sunlight and proper temperature for rapid chemical reactions. If any of these factors are inadequate (water, sunshine and warmth), the root continues to absorb nitrate, storing it unchanged in the stalk and leaves rather than converting it to protein.

Certain weeds can be nitrate accumulators. If they are grazed or baled in hay, they can cause problems. Wild oats, quackgrass, pigweed, lambsquarter, bull thistle, kochia, nightshade, Russian thistle, some of the mustards and many other weeds that we sometimes find in forage crops are nitrate accumulators.

“If they happen to contain a lot of nitrate, they can be deadly in hay. Barnyards and corrals may grow weeds, and if you put cattle in these areas — such as in the fall when working cattle — they may consume the weeds,” she says. 

“If you are planting grain, there may be some weed seeds mixed in, or if it’s a new seeding on ground you haven’t torn up before, sometimes weeds come in. The seeds are very hardy and can last for years, waiting for an opportunity,” says Williams. 

“Usually what causes excessive accumulation of nitrates is drought stress [lack of rain or shortage of irrigation water] or overfertilization with nitrogen.” Even a normal amount of fertilizer when plants don’t receive enough moisture to grow properly may result in too much nitrogen.

It’s important to test soils to see how much fertilizer you actually need. Accumulation of nitrate occurs when plant growth is less than half of normal, or when nitrogen application (fertilizer) is more than twice what is recommended.

Editor's Note: This was part one of a two-part series. In part two, we’ll look at forage testing and how to feed questionable hay.

Smith Thomas is a rancher who writes from Salmon, Idaho.