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Articles from 1999 In February

A Hazy Crystal Ball

Louis Perino, DVM Professor, West Texas A&M University

Describe the top factors that made cattle feeding what it is today.

Everything we've done related to cattle feeding has been predicated on developing confinement feeding operations. None of this could have happened without disease control strategies to prevent catastrophic disease outbreaks.

But, frankly, I don't think we're anywhere near controlling feedlot diseases to the point of which we're capable. We will continue to move toward complete disease prevention.

Five things separate feeding from the rest of the beef industry.

1) We implement technology at a higher rate.

2) We have the largest percentage of full-time businesspeople totally dependent on the economic success of the enterprise.

3) We make the greatest use of outside expertise to enhance efficiencies.

4) We make the greatest use of risk management tools.

5) We operate on small margins, tolerating small amounts of profit opportunity but doing it multiple times.

What are the primary trends driving the feeding industry to change?

Consolidation - what's unique about the cattle industry is that it's happening through alliances or other means of coordination. Cost competitiveness with other protein sources is a driving force, too. And, there's an ongoing concern with food safety and environmental issues. Export markets offer much growth potential but we have to address cost and cultural concerns in each market.

Will there be changes in feedyard customers and those who buy cattle from the feedyard?

I see three possible directions for beef buyers to go.

* Feeders (sellers) may reach forward and build relationships with its customers to foster distribution of specific products.

* Retailers may reach back and build relationships with suppliers.

* The packers may reach out to sellers and buyers to develop business relationships both ways.

Or, a food company may build a bridge through a packer directly to the feedyard for specific criteria. Conversely, a feedyard may build relationships in the opposite direction.

What technologies will most affect feeding?

Technology that impacts production areas such as disease control, improved vaccines and better understanding of feedlot diseases will have the greatest impact.

Biotechnology will impact genetics and provide greater understanding of the genetic basis of things such as growth and the quality of meat.

Informatics - computer hardware and software capability - will increase. We'll be able to manage feedlot diseases better since they're caused by bugs in combination with the way we manage cattle. Informatics can help us figure the management side of the equation.

Will cattle flow and processing change?

Yes, dramatically. New processing barns are being built with more thought toward animal behavior, cattle flow and processing. We may change the timing of certain processing operations, too. We now do it when it makes sense and it's convenient. Using real-time informatics and the databases involved, we'll learn more about timing it right for the cattle.

Ivan Rush, beef specialist University of Nebraska

Describe the top factors that brought cattle feeding to the point it is today.

We've been able to handle a lot of cattle with very few people. The feeding industry is almost like manufacturing. We've adapted technology rapidly compared to other segments.

Feeders in general take large financial risks, and economies of scale have helped. Larger feeding operations can be satisfied with smaller per head profit margins.

What are the primary trends driving the feeding industry to change? Industry consolidation. However, there are still opportunities for smaller feedyards, especially if we move toward specialized production or branded products.

What food industry and consumer trends are creating changes in cattle feeding?

We're getting mixed signals from consumers. They want a lean, tender, high-quality product and a quality eating experience. It's difficult to do it all. They want a safe product, too.

We're seeing more sorting to meet demand for a lean, quality product and we're responding to overfat carcasses. But, we don't have a good reward system for feedlots. When we have such a system, we'll respond to consumer desires more quickly.

Will there be changes in feedyard customers and those who buy cattle from the feedyard?

There will be three tiers of feedyard customers.

* Producers growing cattle for specific markets. Genetics will be set and they'll have feeding agreements that specify how to feed to meet a certain endpoint.

* Producers who feed commodity cattle.

* Larger cow/calf producers with a market in mind before they turn out the bull.

What technologies will most affect feeding?

If we go back to the cow herd, it could be sexed semen or cloning. There will be continuing effort to feed individual animals to specific endpoints. We may see partitioning of nutrients and be able to feed for marbling and tenderness without affecting backfat. We'll get individual identification perfected.

Don Gill, Extension beef cattle specialist Oklahoma State University

Describe the top factors that brought cattle feeding to the point it is today.

The industry has become efficient at adopting technology. Feedlot efficiency has increased greatly since the mid-60s. In general, we now only need 5 lbs. of dry matter to get 1 lb. of gain.

Genetics have changed, too. Most cattle today are big enough that we can get them to market weight without ceasing gain.

What are the primary trends driving the feeding industry to change?

Feedlots have gotten larger and with that comes economies of scale and the ability to afford and utilize more technology.

The amount we take per head has decreased over the years because of competition among feedlots. It's benefited the consumer and the cow/calf producer - if feedlots had to extract from cattle today the percentage they did in the 1950s or '60s, there wouldn't be much left.

Feedlots will get bigger. It's difficult to operate with less than 100,000 head, one-time capacity if a feeder is going to help with risk management and marketing. I suspect smaller feeders will fall into a specialty niche where they might produce branded products.

What food industry and consumer trends are creating changes in cattle feeding?

We now know consumers want convenience and quality eating from our product. We're way behind on developing new products. We don't know who's supposed to do it - packers, producers, retailers? If someone outside the industry does it, it's unlikely cattle producers will reap the benefit.

Will there be changes in feedyard customers and those who buy cattle from the feedyard?

The retained ownership player is dominant in feeding mixed with stocker operators. This trend is growing and that's good because feedback gets to the cow/calf producers. And, we must become better at marketing cattle and at risk management.

Will cattle flow and processing change?

Products today have made the hospital pen almost obsolete because of long-term therapies available. Plus, we're probably going to make as much economic progress in understanding animal psychology as with feed efficiency or anything else. As we get a handle on the psychology, we may use smaller pens, different alleyway setups or a number of other variances.

Gerry Kuhl, Extension feedlot specialist Kansas State University

What are the primary trends driving the feeding industry to change?

Business management or economics will be the primary driving force of change. Social influences could impact this, however. Consumers want to know where there food comes from and that animals are treated well. We need to be sensitive to the perception consumers have of our industry.

What food industry and consumer trends are creating changes in cattle feeding?

We're getting two messages from the industry. Marketers say retailers and purveyors are as ignorant of our product as are packers. The other message is that more folks in the retailer/purveyor group recognize that to sustain a high volume of meat, we have to develop relationships.

Because these people are in constant contact with consumers, they must give a consistent message to packers and producers. They need information about consumer concerns so they can ensure consumer satisfaction. We can't continue to tolerate a 20 percent eating experience failure rate in this industry.

Will there be changes in feedyard customers and those who buy cattle from the feedyard?

There will be more retained ownership from the cow/calf and stocker sectors. Plus, the coordination between stockers and feeders is growing. This will result in year-round grazing programs.

A lot of cow/calf producers will align themselves with a partnership arrangement with the feedyard or in an alliance so they get premiums for their breeding.

What technologies will most affect feeding?

We'll see fewer new pharmaceutical products coming down the line. It's too expensive to get products researched, tested and approved. We may see somatotropin products similar to the ones in the dairy industry. We'll also see activity within betaagonists and new antibiotics.

On the equipment side, electronic ID will become acceptable.

What about feedyard personnel?

Labor will be an increasing problem. We're having a short-term effect now because the swine industry requires so many workers. Feedyard managers will continue making strong efforts to minimize the amount of labor needed. We needed one employee per 1,000 head of cattle 20 years ago. Today, one employee handles 2,000 head or more.

Todd Milton, feedlot specialist University of Nebraska

Describe the top factors that brought cattle feeding to the point it is today.

One of the most important components has been the use of consultants and other professionals to provide feeders with technical information.

In general, feeding operations have more complete assessment of costs associated with production because of the more controlled environment than the cow-calf segment.

Other general factors include: the price of grain relative to forage on an energy basis, consumers' desire for grain-fed beef, larger feeding operations can take advantage of the economics of scale and increased use of futures and options to protect prices.

What are the primary trends driving the feeding industry to change?

The first issue is labor. Not only general labor, but finding and retaining dependable, well-trained personnel. Many jobs in the feeding industry are becoming more technical and specific.

Second are environmental issues.

Third is that the industry has made great strides in reducing carcass defects. Next, we have to demonstrate to the public that we take measures to prevent food-borne pathogens.

What food industry and consumer trends are creating changes in cattle feeding?

The increasing awareness of food safety as well as the price consumers pay for food. Beef should be priced competitively to retain consumer interest. We should also consider product convenience.

Will there be changes in feedyard customers and those who buy cattle from the feedyard?

Partnerships among producers, processors, purveyors and retailers are taking shape. As producers develop relationships with others in the chain, cattle must be harvested and processed for these customers. These relationships must include the packers, and I believe the packer will remain the dominant fed cattle buyer.

We'll see feedyards integrated into food companies through alliances or other relationships. Also, there will likely be some other integration of the feeding industry into the food business.

What regulations will most affect feeding?

Environmental regulations. Feedyards will continue moving to remote areas due to public perceptions, zoning and regulation. These areas will likely be in the more arid climates. Regulations may also result in fewer and larger feeding operations.

Bucking Tradition

Less work. Less machinery. Less expense. Sound like life from a simpler time? For many producers it's a reality today.

By stockpiling forages - either left standing or in windrows - producers are letting their beef cows harvest their own feed through the winter months.

Similar to the transition grain farmers experience with no-till farming practices, winter grazing and swath grazing are designed to be less labor intensive, reduce machinery use and create less expense.

Neither strategy is new, but they haven't been common, says Joe Brummer, Colorado State University forage specialist. The reason is primarily machinery. Many producers have the equipment, so each year they cut, bale, store and then feed hay. It's an expense that can account for 50-70% of an operation's costs, Brummer says.

With another year of continued low beef prices, producers should be looking for ways to reduce their costs. Montana State University range scientist Bret Olson says, "Producers are always talking about weather and prices, two things they can't control. Feed cost is one thing they can control."

Olson says if producers carefully examine the potential of their terrain, forage availability, forage quality and weather patterns for winter grazing, they may be able to graze their livestock through the winter to cut costs.

Working With The Environment On the Sitz Angus Ranch near Harrison, MT, and bordering the Rocky Mountains, Bob and Jim Sitz have devised a grazing plan to work with their windy, cold environment each winter.

Nearly 5,000 acres of rangeland and regrowth from stubble and hay fields are left ungrazed until early November, when the Sitz's winter grazing program begins. Eight hundred cows are wintered on the open range until late January, just prior to calving mid-February.

"What makes this system work is that we do get the wind to blow the snow off and expose the grass," says Bob Sitz.

Older cows graze the rougher foothill country, while heifers and second calvers are wintered on the higher quality stubble and hay fields at lower elevations. Sorting the cattle to be better suited to the environment is an important part of the program, Sitz says.

"The heifers and second calvers need higher quality forage."

The goal of their grazing program is to get the cows to graze as much as possible. Sitz believes that is accomplished by keeping the cattle dispersed.

Prior to implementing their winter grazing program in 1992, several springs, tanks and pipelines were developed to help keep the cattle distributed.

They've also changed their supplement. "We've learned if you bunch the cows up and gather them, they won't graze as much," says Sitz. So instead of feeding cake, a liquid supplement is offered free choice. "We wanted to change the mentality of the cow and keep them grazing as much as possible."

Supplements are fed according to the weather. Typically only dry mineral is offered early on. Then, when the weather turns colder, 1 1/2 to 2 lbs. of liquid supplement is offered free choice per cow. (At a cost of 26cents/per cow/per day). Hay - about six bales for 300 cows - is fed every third day as calving approaches.

Hay and the liquid supplement tanks are also moved to different parts of the pasture to help distribute grazing pressure. Using this method, Sitz estimates the cows remove 70-80% of the forage growth across the pasture.

Further south along the Rockies, Gunnison, CO, producer Bill Trampe is utilizing his environment by swath grazing. Trampe first heard of swath grazing over 15 years ago but thought the practice wouldn't work in his country because there was too much snow.

He began to change his mind when he learned about producers in Canada swath grazing annual forages with 1-2 ft. of snow cover. Then, a couple years ago, a rainy summer - poor for making hay - presented him with an opportunity to try swath grazing. "We weren't able to make hay, so in mid-September we swathed the grass-legume mix and left it in windrows."

That winter, his 1,000 commercial cows grazed windrows for the first time and Trampe was pleased with the results. Now, Trampe includes swath grazing in his forage plan every year. "Our goal is to get through December without having to feed hay."

Trampe says he hasn't quantified his savings, but figures if he has to feed hay for four months instead of five, he's cut costs by one-fifth. Stockpile Vs. Swath

While both winter grazing and swath grazing can cut feed costs, they do have some differences to consider. Winter grazing is often suited to native range that typically wouldn't be hayed. Swath grazing may be better suited to areas with more snow, Brummer says.

"Cattle won't paw through a lot of snow to find standing forage, but that changes when forage is condensed into windrows."

Cutting the forage also maintains the forage quality, says Brummer. Crude protein content of windrows is typically 8.5 to 11% which is comparable to baled hay. "Some producers ask 'Why not just let it stand?' But, if it was left standing it would keep maturing and not maintain its quality," he says.

Regrowth underneath the windrows also provides excellent forage quality. A Nebraska study found that newly weaned calves grazing windrows gained 1.17 lbs./day compared to calves fed baled hay that gained 0.85 lbs./day. The extra pounds were attributed to a forage boost from stubble regrowth that stays green under the windrow, says Brummer.

Trampe uses the two methods in a complementary system. He winter grazes native range until excess snow arrives, and then moves his cows closer to home to graze windrows.

Another advantage of winter grazing can be on riparian areas. Since soils are frozen, streambank damage isn't an issue, says Olson. Because of the minimal impact, Olson says some Bureau of Land Management lands are now grazed in the winter instead of the summer.

And, both systems can help rejuvenate pastures. Sitz says since his pastures aren't grazed until Nov. 1 they are allowed to reseed themselves, and the cattle trampling the soil also improves range condition.

A Purebred breeder, Sitz says their winter grazing strategy also gives good indications of genetics. "Being wintered this way, you can see trends of bulls that sire cattle that are less efficient."

Don't Sell The Baler Swath grazing and winter grazing can work in many situations, but it's still a good idea to have a reserve of hay on hand.

More than 2 ft. of snow can make winter grazing or windrow grazing difficult. "Cattle usually find the windrows themselves. Unless the snow crusts, then it may need to be uncovered, " says Brummer.

Therefore, both grazing systems may require some supplements depending on the scenario. "Producers really need to look at their environments," says Montana State's Olson. "Look closely at the forage base and adjust protein to it."

He recommends that cows winter grazing on native range be fed protein cake or supplement three days a week, mainly to enable the rumen to breakdown low quality range grass. One month before calving animals should be fed hay to ensure they are in adequate body condition for calving.

Elk and other wildlife eating the forage can be another concern. Therefore, having hay supplies on hand can help prevent a shortage, suggests Brummer.

"This isn't a whole ranch system. It's a piece of the puzzle," he says.

"Producers' main concern is they think swath grazing is wasteful and it takes away the option of selling bales or holding over hay supplies."

Developing a forage system that includes some baled forages and utilizes windrows or winter grazing can still keep feed costs down without too much risk, adds Brummer.

Both winter grazing and swath grazing take some planning that starts well before the first snow flies.

U "Producers need to plan in the spring if they're going to winter graze, so those pastures can be set aside and not grazed until winter," says Montana State University range scientist Bret Olson.

An alternative for someone already using all of their land may be to lease ungrazed land from a neighbor for winter grazing, he adds.

U Spring is also the time to be making decisions for swath grazing, says Brummer. Windrows should be cut mid-September or later, when the nights become cool enough to prevent mold growth.

That means producers may need to graze in the spring to set forage maturity back for September. Or, if annual forages are being used, they should be planted so the crop is mature mid-September.

U Once the windrows are cut, they should be immediately raked into larger windrows while wet. This prevents wind from scattering the hay. Brummer says side-delivery type rakes work well because they "rope" the wet hay together. If hay yield is light (1 to 1 1/2 tons/acre), it may be necessary to rake more than two windrows together.

A bigger pile also protrudes through the snow better and is easier for cows to find, says Brummer. But if windrows get too big, cattle are more likely to bed on them, he adds.

The objective is to form a narrow (less than 4-ft. wide) windrow that has the density to keep the majority of the hay off the ground. Hay that comes into direct contact with the ground will decay more quickly and is also harder for animals to completely consume. Cutting at a higher level will leave stubble that can support the windrow and help keep hay off the ground.

U Portable electric fencing can be useful to control the amount of forage cows have access to each day, and prevents them from bedding on the windrows.

"For highest efficiency, I suggest moving the fence daily," says Brummer. "If you can live with a little loss, do it every other day."

Another tip: If the windrows are in an area that has snow cover through the winter, Brummer suggests orientation of the fence should be perpendicular to the windrow. This way, the end of each windrow will be exposed and accessible to grazing each time the fence is moved. As long as some hay is exposed, animals have no trouble rooting through snow to uncover more, says Brummer.

While grazing native range can help lower costs of wintering livestock, it can also expose animals to extreme cold and wind.

Naturally, you may want to provide windbreaks for shelter. But Montana State University range scientist Bret Olson says you may want to reconsider.

"In the Dakotas, windbreaks and shelter are needed," says Olson, "because the continental winds can be cold and windy at the same time." However, on foothill winter range, such as that in Montana, Olson has found that windbreaks have been only marginally helpful at reducing stress.

That is because of a difference in the weather. On cold days in the foothills there isn't much wind, but on warm days it's very windy, says Olson.

Knowing that, Olson launched a research project to determine if windbreaks minimize stress on cattle grazing foothill winter range. Using eight pastures (four with windbreaks and four without) and four animals in each pasture, Olson and other Montana researchers have been observing animals' use of windbreaks.

During the first two winters, mature cows were used in the study. Surprisingly, the cows didn't use the windbreaks on the warm, windy days. Instead, the way a cow positions her body toward the wind and sunlight was more of a factor in tolerating winter conditions than windbreaks, says Olson.

"The cows are minimizing heat loss by orienting themselves with the wind or maximizing heat gain by orienting themselves perpendicular to the sun," says Olson.

Overall, researchers found the lack of windbreaks had little negative effect on animal performance. In summary:

* Animals provided with no windbreak had more backfat, according to ultrasound scans. (A Nebraska feedlot study had similar findings, according to Olson.) "Without a windbreak, animals were more efficient by putting on more fat to insulate themselves," says Olson.

* Among both groups there were no significant differences in weight. "Animals in moderate body condition entering winter can lose 10 percent of body weight and still have a healthy calf, if they have adequate nutrition the month prior to calving," says Olson.

* Immune response was stronger for cows that had windbreaks, but it was not statistically significant. Blood metabolites were also tracked and no major stress indicators were noted.

Overall, Olson says, "We're seeing that cows are pretty hardy animals. We often project our human needs on to animals, but they are animals nonetheless, and have various ways of mitigating stress."

In this, the third year of the study, young cows with less foraging experience are being observed to see if there are any differences in their use of windbreaks compared to experienced, mature cows. Results from those observations will be analyzed this spring.

Building By Bits And Bytes

The computer is a feedlot fixture. It simplifies bookkeeping, spits out payrolls, routes e-mail and runs the Internet. But in the not-too-distant future, the computer will reshape the feeding industry, driving a revolution in beef genetics, feeding practices, the shift to value pricing and the formation of alliances.

Feeders are harnessing the computer's ability to collect, sort and analyze massive amounts of information, allowing them to unravel the complex interaction of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of factors that impact performance.

As this happens, the feeding industry will undergo radical change. Sick cattle will be found and treated faster. Feeders will be able to identify which cattle in a pen perform best, then change buying patterns to get cattle from ranches that produce the best performers. Packers may use computers to determine beef quality with far more accuracy than the current government grading system.

Ranchers, in turn, will use the feedback to identify superior bulls and cows, speeding genetic improvements. Better genetics and grading will speed the move to value-based pricing and the formation of alliances that reward quality.

Data, Data, Data "With the computer, we'll analyze huge amounts of data and modify the way we feed cattle," says Paul Marvin, president of Global Knowledge Group, an Internet development company for the beef industry, in College Station, TX.

Without the computer, such analysis would be impossible. Take, for instance, efforts to analyze cattle performance. It's easy to compile aggregate performance for a pen of cattle but not so easy to analyze individual performance and track genetic backgrounds of 200 or more individual cattle in that pen.

"In the feedlot business, we know very accurately what the pen has done in terms of performance," says Tim Stanton, professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University. "But there's tremendous variability in feed conversion in a pen of cattle on an individual basis. Without knowing what each animal costs us, it's difficult to make huge leaps forward in genetics and cost of gain."

Computers may also help feeders make faster, more accurate decisions. For example, if feed consumption suddenly drops, managers currently might make changes in feeding regimes. In the future, feedyards may be interconnected within a geographical area so managers can quickly determine if some weather phenomenon caused a drop in consumption.

"If you know that the drop in consumption is weather related and it happened in 25 other yards, you're not going to be tweaking your feeding system," says Lee Borck, president of Ward Feedyard, Inc., Larned, KS. "You don't want to tweak the system if there's nothing wrong with it."

A Computerized Feedbunk One major project to analyze feeding behavior is taking place at Cactus Feeders under the direction of Roche Animal Health. The system uses electronic antennae from Growsafe, Inc., of Alberta, Canada, embedded in feed bunks. The antenna picks up the presence of an animal at the feed bunk through an eartag sensor. The antenna checks for the animal's presence every 5.2 seconds and makes an electronic record which shows how often the animal is at the bunk, how long it stays and total time spent at the bunk.

One obvious use is to identify animals off feed, an early indicator of sickness. The system can potentially spot sick animals more quickly than pen riders looking for droopy heads. But the system can do more sophisticated tasks; e.g., matching feeding behavior with weather data to determine if changing weather curtails bunk time.

Another system from Caere Corp., Los Gatos, CA, will allow feeders to track genetic and performance data. It uses a standard numbered cattle eartag, computer database and hand-held optical character reader to scan information and enter it in the database.

With this system, genetic data is recorded on a database by eartag number. Relevant information can be added under the eartag number all the way through finishing. "The tag on the animal is a license plate," says Andrew Allansmith, Caere's marketing manager.

For example, if an animal is treated with an antibiotic, pen workers can scan the eartag to identify the animal, then scan a printed menu to enter the antibiotic dose in the animal's permanent record. This is far easier than carrying a computer keyboard around a feedyard to enter data. Using just one ID number, feedlots create a complete performance, health and genetic record for each animal.

The goal is simple: find what works and duplicate it, or find what doesn't work and avoid it. "There are so many areas that we could be working on," says Ward Feedyard's Lee Borck. "I think the cattle industry is ripe for finding new uses for the computer."

But, as feeders increasingly harness the computer to analyze performance data, they will find themselves buried in data and added expense.

Cactus Feeders has experienced both. It cost roughly $20,000 each to wire just four pens to monitor cattle feeding behavior. And the flow of information has become a deluge.

Cactus Feeders' experience highlights two practical problems that must be solved to make computer analysis a fixture for day-to-day operations. * First, the cost of equipment must come down so feedyards can afford to put it in every pen.

* Second, the systems must be modified so they produce a small amount of immediately useful information rather than a blizzard of research data.

If these hurdles are cleared, feeders can expect to see two types of data analysis projects. One would consist of major ventures in which a small number of pens at selected feedyards would be wired for massive research projects.

At the same time, most feedyards would use less elaborate versions of the same technology to produce a small amount of very useful data. One example would be periodic printouts with the eartag numbers of feeder cattle that aren't eating. Pen riders could pull the animals and check for sickness long before outward signs of illness.

Spencer Swingle, Cactus Feeders' director of nutrition and research, has received a taste of the mountain of information computers can produce. "It becomes a question of how do you filter the data so you get what you need?" he says. "How do you get the data to where you can make management decisions?"

For a while, feeders may have to tolerate high costs and more information than they want. But down the road, they may get the best of both worlds - high-quality research and low-cost systems that can be tailored for widespread use to give them exactly what they need for day-to-day decisions.

The Answers Are In The Questions As feeders, ranchers and meat packers compile more data, they will be able to analyze it in hundreds, thousands, millions of ways. It becomes a matter of choosing which questions to ask the computer.

For example, if you collect data that shows how often a feeder steer goes to the feed bunk, how long he stays, when he feeds and total time he spends at the bunk, you might cross check the data with slaughter weight. It may be that feeder cattle that eat for short periods but eat often gain the most weight.

Or it might turn out that feeder cattle eating for longer periods do best. Nobody knows, but now the feeders can harness the computer to find out.

For example, feeding monitor technology was first used in the ostrich business. At the outset, ostrich chicks had a 10% survival rate. When ostrich farmers turned to the computer to monitor feeding behavior, they could spot an ailing ostrich chick three days earlier. Early detection and treatment boosted survival rate to 90%.

Nobody knows how the flood of data will reshape the cattle business. But the odds are it will help to cut costs, improve genetics and provide quicker, better treatment of sick cattle. And with the chicken and pork industries nipping at its heels, the cattle business can't afford to turn down any help.

Today's feedyards won't survive unless they harness computer technology, but computers won't save bad management.

"Feeders who don't use computers won't make it," says Paul Marvin, president of Global Knowledge Group.

"They'll be able to do it for a little longer, but in four or five years no one will able to do it without a computer."

Marvin says computers are only as good as their operators. If you don't ask the right questions or track the right variables, you can make a wrong decision. Harry Knobbe has a similar view. "We're involved with computers," said Knobbe, owner of a 5,000-head yard in West Point, NE. "But that isn't what makes you money. It's your debt to equity ratio.

"Some people do as well without a computer as those who have one," Knobbe says. "If a computer helps and you can afford it, use it. But don't think it's the difference between success or failure."

Almost Free--Brucellosis eradication inches closer.

Brucellosis-Free in 1998 didn't quite materialize, but the number of brucellosis-affected herds in the U.S. dropped to 46 last October. In 1957, it was 125,000.

Forty-two states, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are now Class-Free. Mississippi is the most recent. Eight herds in seven states are Class A. Four of them have quarantined herds - Texas, Missouri, Florida, and South Dakota with a captive bison herd. Kansas, Louisiana and Oklahoma have no affected herds and are working toward Class-Free.

While the results are encouraging, U.S. Animal Health Association (USAHA) and Livestock Conservation Institute (LCI) officials warn of two challenges:

* Intensified surveillance to keep newly-infected herds at zero;

* Solving bison and free-ranging elk problems in the Greater Yellowstone Area (GYA) and the Southeast as well as feral swine in other states.

"After Jan. 1, 1999, we need to treat the discovery of any new infected herd as a true emergency disease situation," says Brian Espe of USAHA.

USAHA and LCI officials have urged a three-way course of action:

* Get more factual information concerning the GYA problem;

* Have LCI prepare informative materials on the importance of continual quality surveillance;

* Search for additional funding for education efforts.

Two recent changes should relieve some of the pressure.

A new ruling will increase APHIS-financed indemnity payments, providing two reimbursement options to owners of cattle (including unweaned steers and captive bison) who agree to depopulate, says Valerie Ragan, USDA-APHIS senior staff veterinarian.

The first is by appraisal. The other is a fixed rate not to exceed $250 per animal for domestic bison and non-registered cattle other than dairy cattle, and $750 for registered cattle and non-registered dairy cattle.

USDA has also proposed an amendment to the brucellosis regulations allowing a state to retain Class-Free status following detection of a single affected herd. This is designed to ensure prompt resolution of isolated cases.

1999 Feed Composition Guide---Typical Composition of Feeds for Cattle and Sheep

Nutrition research spanning more than a hundred years has defined the nutrients required by animals. Using this information, diets can be formulated from feedstuffs and ingredients to meet these requirements with the expectation that animals will not only remain healthy but will also be productive and efficient. The ultimate goal of feedstuff analysis is to predict the productive response of animals when they are fed diets of a given composition. This is the real reason for information on feedstuff composition.

Table values for feedstuff composition Feedstuffs are not of constant composition. Unlike chemicals that are "chemically pure" and therefore have a constant composition, feeds vary in their composition for many reasons. Often, it is either impossible to determine actual composition or there is insufficient time to obtain such analysis and therefore tabulated data are the next best source of information after actual analysis.

When tabulated data are used, it should be understood that feeds vary in their composition. Using the data shown in the accompanying table, one can expect the organic constituents (e.g., crude protein, ether extract, crude fiber, acid detergent fiber and neutral detergent fiber) to vary as much as 15%, the mineral constituents to vary as much as 30% and the energy values to vary up to 10%. Therefore, values shown can only be guides. For this reason they are called "typical values." They are not averages of published information since judgment was used in arriving at some of the values in the hope that these values will be realistic for use in formulating cattle and sheep diets.

Chemical constituents vs. biological attributes Feeds can be chemically analyzed for many things that may or may not be related to the response of an animal when fed the feed. Thus, in the accompanying table certain chemical constituents are shown. The response of cattle and sheep when fed a feed, however, can be termed the biological response to the feed which is a function of its chemical composition and the ability of the animal to derive useful nutrient value from the feed. The latter relates to the digestibility or availability of a nutrient in the feed for absorption into the body and its ultimate efficiency of use depending upon the nutrient status of the animal and the productive or physiological function being performed by the animal. Thus, ground fence posts and shelled corn may have the same gross energy value in a bomb calorimeter but have markedly different useful energy value (total digestible nutrients [TDN] or net energy) when consumed by the animal.

Therefore, biological attributes of a feed have much greater meaning in predicting the productive response of animals but are more difficult to accurately determine because there is an interaction between the chemical composition of a feed with the digestive and metabolic capabilities of the animal being fed. Biological attributes of feeds are more laborious to determine and are more variable than chemical constituents. They are generally more predictive, however, since they relate to the response of an animal being fed the feed or diet.

Source of information shown in the table Several sources of information were used in arriving at the typical values shown in the table. Where information was not available but a reasonable estimate could be made from similar feeds or stage of maturity, this has been done. Where zeros appear, the amount is so small it can be considered insignificant in practical diet formulation. Blanks indicate the value is unknown.

Using information contained in the table Feed names: The most obvious or commonly used feed names are used. Feeds designated as "fresh" are feeds that are grazed or fed as fresh-cut materials.

Dry matter: Typical dry matter (DM) values are shown; however, the moisture content of feeds can vary greatly. Therefore, DM content can be the biggest reason for variation in feedstuff composition on an "as-fed basis." For this reason, chemical constituents and biological attributes of feeds shown in the table are on a DM basis. Since DM can vary greatly and since one of the factors regulating total feed intake is the DM content of feeds, diet formulation on a DM basis is more sound than using "as-fed basis." If one wants to convert a value shown to an "as-fed basis," multiply the decimal equivalent of the DM content times the compositional value shown in the table.

Energy: Four measures of the energy value are shown. TDN is shown because there are more determined TDN values for feeds and has been the standard system for expressing energy value. There are several technical problems with TDN, however. The digestibility of crude fiber (CF) may be higher than for nitrogen-free extract (NFE)in certain feeds. TDN also overestimates the value of roughages compared to concentrates in producing animals.

Digestible energy (DE) values are not included in the table. There is a constant relationship between TDN and DE in cattle and sheep; DE (Mcal/cwt.) can be calculated by multiplying the %TDN content by 2. It should be apparent, however, that the ability of TDN and DE to predict animal performance is equal.

Interest in the use of net energy (NE) in evaluating feeds was renewed with the development of the California net energy system. The main reason for this is the improved predictability of results depending on whether feed energy is being used for maintenance (NEm), growth (NEg) or lactation (NEl). The major problem in using these NE values for growing cattle and sheep is predicting feed intake and, therefore, the proportion of feed that will be used for maintenance and growth.

Some only use the NEg values but it should be obvious that this suffers the equal but opposite criticism mentioned for TDN; NEg will overestimate the feeding value of concentrates relative to roughages. The average of the two NE values can be used, but this would be true only for cattle and sheep eating twice their maintenance requirement. The most accurate way to use these NE values to formulate diets would be to use the NEm value plus a multiplier times the NEg value all divided by 1 plus the multiplier; the multiplier is the level of feed intake above maintenance relative to maintenance. For example, if 700-lb. cattle are expected to eat 18 lbs. of DM, 8 lbs. of which will be required for maintenance, then the NE value of the diet would be:

NE = [NEm + (10/8) (NEg)]/[1 + (10/8)] Such a calculation can be easily introduced into computer programs designed to formulate diets and predict performance.

In deciding on the energy system to use, there is no question on the theoretical superiority of NE over TDN in predicting animal performance. This superiority is lost, however, if only NEg is used in formulating diets. If NE is used, some combination of NEm and NEg is required. Net energy for lactation (NEl) values are also shown. Few NEl values have actually been determined. NEl values are similar to NEm values except for very high and low energy feeds.

Protein: Crude protein (CP) values are shown for each feed, which are Kjeldahl nitrogen times 100/16 or 6.25, since proteins contain 16% nitrogen on the average. Digestible protein (DP) has been included in many tables of feed composition but because of the contribution of microbial and body protein to the apparent protein in feces, DP is more misleading than CP. One can calculate DP from the CP content of the diet fed to cattle or sheep by the equation: %DP = 0.9 (%CP) -3 where %DP and %CP are the diet values on a DM basis.

Rumen "bypass" (escape or undegraded) protein values are shown. The value represents the percent of CP that passes through the rumen without being degraded by the rumen microorganisms. Like other biological attributes, these values are not constant.

How should these values be used to improve the predictability of animal response when fed various feeds? If the CP required in the diet exceeds 7% of the DM, all CP above this amount should be by-pass protein. In other words, if the final diet is to contain 13% CP, 6 of the 13 percentage units, or 46% of the CP should be in the form of bypass protein. Once these relationships have been better quantified, CP requirements may be lowered.

Crude, acid detergent and neutral detergent fiber: Crude fiber (CF) is declining in popularity as a measure of poorly digestible carbohydrates in feeds. The major problem with CF is that variable amounts of lignin, which is not digestible, are removed in the CF procedure.

Improved fiber analytical procedures have been developed, namely acid detergent fiber (ADF) and neutral detergent fiber (NDF). ADF is related to digestibility and NDF is also somewhat related to voluntary intake and the availability of net energy. Both of these measures relate more directly to predicted animal performance and, therefore, are more valuable than CF. Lignification of NDF, however, alters availability of surface area to fiber digesting rumen microorganisms; therefore, lignin may be added to future tables.

Recently, effective NDF (eNDF) has been proposed to better describe the dietary fiber function in high concentrate, feedlot-type diets. While eNDF is defined as the percent of NDF that is retained on a screen similar in size to particles that will pass from in the rumen, this value is further modified based on feed density and degree of hydration. Rumen pH was found to be correlated with dietary eNDF when diets contained less than 26% eNDF. Thus when formulating high concentrate diets, including eNDF will help to prevent acidosis in the rumen. The 1996 NRC Nutrient Requirements of Beef Cattle recommends eNDF levels for feedlot diets from 5 to 20% depending on bunk management, inclusion of ionophores and digestion of NDF and/or microbial protein synthesis in the rumen. Therefore, estimated eNDF values are shown for many feeds. These values must be modified, however, depending on degree of feed processing (e.g., chopping, grinding, pelleting) and hydration (fresh forage, silages, high moisture grains) if thes e feed forms are not specified in the table.

Ether extract: Ether extract (EE) shows the crude fat content of the feed.

Minerals: Values are shown for only certain minerals. Calcium (Ca) and phosphorus (P) are important minerals. Potassium (K) becomes more important as the level of concentrate increases and when non-protein nitrogen (N) is substituted for intact protein in the diet. Sulfur (S) also becomes more important as the level of non-protein nitrogen increases in the diet. Zinc (Zn) is shown because it is less variable and is more generally near a deficient level in cattle and sheep diets. Chlorine (Cl) is of increasing interest for its role in dietary acid-base relationships.

Several other minerals could logically be included in the table. The level of many trace minerals in feeds is largely determined by the level in the soil on which the feeds are grown or other environmental factors. Iodine and selenium are required nutrients that may be deficient in many diets, yet their level in feed is more related to the conditions under which the feed is grown. Trace mineralized salt and trace mineral premixes are generally used to supplement trace minerals; the use of these supplements is encouraged where there are known deficiencies.

Vitamins: The only vitamin of general practical importance in cattle and sheep feeding is the vitamin A value (vitamin A and carotene) in feeds which depends largely on maturity and conditions at harvest, and the length and conditions of storage. Where roughages are being fed that contain good green color or are being fed as immature fresh forages (e.g., pasture), there will probably be sufficient vitamin A value to meet the animal's requirement. Other vitamins, if required, should be supplied as supplements.

Future revisions to the table I welcome suggestions and compositional data to keep this table useful to the cattle and sheep feeding industry. When sending compositional data, please describe the feed, indicate the dry matter or moisture content and whether analytical values are given on an as-fed or dry matter basis. If more than one sample of a feedstuff was analyzed, the number of samples should also be indicated.

Future Stock

In the late 1860s, Texas drovers had few concerns about their primary market when they herded loose-hided, long-horned cattle to Kansas railheads. They knew the cattle eventually would feed a population made up primarily of white Americans of European heritage.

America's population was less than 40 million. The average American was 20 years old. And most immigrants were coming from Europe and adding to a largely white population.

How things change. When American beef producers raise genetically superior cattle in 2020, they will be providing beef for a population of 323 million, and just 64% will be white. The two most heavily populated states - California and Texas - will have a majority of minorities.

About 67% of the population will be older than 24, and more than 20% will be older than 65. The family unit will be dispersed among traditional and single mother or single father households. Immigrants will come primarily from Latin America and Asia.

New Demographics This diversity, and lack of a cohesive culture, in the next century will change the way Americans approach food, say two forward-looking experts in the area of foodservice and retail.

Tom Perini of Buffalo Gap, TX, is a rancher, restaurateur and caterer, and president of the 5,500-member Texas Restaurant Association. International supermarket consultant Chuck Hendryx has worked with meat departments for supermarkets in the U.S., Mexico and Canada.

As they watch the profile of that consumer change, many of beef's production practices and marketing approaches will have to change in response, they say. But they agree that tenderness and flavor will continue to rule tomorrow's beef industry.

"In foodservice of the future, we have to have steaks that taste good and eat good," Perini says. "Do all you want about fat and genetics, but if those two characteristics aren't there, you've got a problem."

"Tomorrow's profitable cattle will be those that produce a premium steak - either Prime or Choice - if beef is going to retain its position as a premier meat," Hendryx adds. "Tomorrow's consumer will want tender, flavorful beef."

But beyond those common denominators, variables abound. As the population ages, as minorities become majorities, as single-parent households become more prevalent, socioeconomic groups will create market niches. And these demographics will place new demands upon tomorrow's beef industry.

Older Americans Will Have Impact An aging population particularly concerns Perini. He's watched the growth of chains like Outback Steakhouse build demand for middle meats. Yet he knows this growth has coincided with a maturing of the Baby Boom generation (Americans born between 1946 and 1964). Call it reaching for the good life or discarding unfounded health concerns, but this population group has consumed delicious steaks with gusto.

Will it last? Perini, a steakhouse owner, thinks not. "Americans are going to cut back," he says. "We are going to get an older group that's not going to eat as much beef on a regular basis. They won't give up their steaks, but they will eat them as a treat. The rest of the time, they'll seek smaller portions - 2 or 3 ounces of beef instead of a 12-ounce ribeye."

Income will be a factor. Retired boomers in 2020 will have less expendable income than in the 1990s. Middle cuts like ribeyes and T-bones will be less affordable than end meats. To keep boomers eating beef, Perini says the industry will have to provide affordable end meats from cattle that have consistent quality.

An aging population has similar ramifications for retail, Hendryx says. Boomers will reach 2020 after eating out and honing few kitchen skills for an entire career. From pork and poultry, they will have acquired an appreciation for convenient products lower in fat and cholesterol. They'll ask for nothing less from the beef industry.

Hendryx acknowledges the industry's strides to produce more products that combine convenience and nutrition. He applauds the new checkoff advertising campaign to promote entrees ready to eat in less than 10 minutes. He urges producers to re-dedicate themselves to these programs every year because these qualities will be just as important to consumers two decades from now.

"Beef must become more aggressive and make its products more presentable with pre-cooked, marinated, entree-type meals," Hendryx says. "Learn from the pork and poultry industries, then decide where you want to be in 25 years."

It will take time. Hendryx points out that beef still is making the transition from boxed beef to case-ready beef. And he predicts additional changes must take place within the raw products for case-ready beef to become as common as case-ready poultry. That includes less variation, more consistency and higher quality.

"In the next 20 years, beef producers will have to reduce inconsistency," Hendryx says. "They'll have to adopt technology that predicts and influences how cattle are fed to produce for a specific quality grade and weight. And they'll have to adopt genetic technology like DNA testing that will identify bulls to produce cattle with more reliability, tenderness and marbling, and limited fat. Feedlots that control the genetics of the animals they feed to eliminate the undesirable characteristics will see a breakthrough."

As genetically improved cattle are identified, Hendryx sees the industry changing its marketing approach. Cattle that physically can't reach a Choice grade without putting on excessive fat may be short fed grain. Their middle meats after tenderization could go into some markets, but the bulk of their muscle meats would go into grinding. This will keep less desirable cuts from compromising steaks and roasts from Choice cattle.

"I think demand for ground beef will continue to grow," Hendryx said. "We already have lean and extra lean ground beef, ground round and ground sirloin. In foodservice, we have Wendys and Burger Kings adding units every day. So a producer who has to raise certain cattle for environmental reasons may someday realize more profit by producing them for grinding than shooting for Choice."

Ethnic Influence The growing influence of ethnic groups - Hispanics, blacks and Asians - will exert a different pressure on the beef industry. Feeders will have to produce beef for each ethnic niche. But, if the industry pays attention, it could be a mutually beneficial relationship, Perini says.

"We wouldn't be where we are today with some of our undervalued cuts if it weren't for the influence of different ethnic groups," Perini says.

For example, Perini says 30 years ago brisket was an unknown commodity. "It was a tough, cheap piece of meat that was known for having so many different grains running through it."

Yet in black neighborhoods, restaurant operators learned how to cook the brisket slowly in pits. The result was a tender, flavorful piece of meat that has become synonymous with Texas barbecue.

Skirt steak, once given away as dog food by neighborhood butchers, has a similar story. In the late 1970s, Texas A&M meat science professors received inquiries about a dish called fajitas made from skirt steak. They traced fajitas' roots to Hispanic families in South Texas, who marinated and sliced the cut to be served in tortillas. The dish became a national hit.

"Today, you find the brisket and skirt steak in even the finest restaurants," Perini sys. "That's something that's come about because people paid attention to what different cultures were doing with unfamiliar beef cuts."

Though the beef industry will be forced to change cattle to meet future demand, Perini and Hendryx say there's a vital structural need to be addressed. That's to restore profitability to the beef industry - up and down the chain - to ensure that there's a beef industry to worry about changes in 2020.

"I'm concerned about the rancher," Perini says. "They have problems. For the rancher willing to watch his cattle's genetics and produce a desirable animal, there will have to be a reward system. Otherwise, we could lose this whole industry."

Hendryx says the adversarial relationship that pervades the industry has to be improved for consumers to buy beef in 2020.

"I grew up in an era where beef was important, and all my peers in the supermarket industry felt the same," Hendryx says. "Today, we have a new era of meat market managers who don't have that loyalty to beef because they grew up in an age when beef was no longer king.

"To overcome that, this industry has to have more cooperation up and down its segments. We have to have more communication so the retailer tells the producer what he or she needs to change. We need producers and feeders willing to change. We need a system that shares premiums with all participants."

The beef industry has faced many challenges, and it won't be much different in 2020. As Hendryx says, despite all its problems, beef is standing in the last year of the 20th century deciding what to do 20 years hence with a beef-eating public.

"At least, we're not wondering what to do with a non-beef-eating public," he says.

Feed Efficiency

The cattle industry's greatest profit potential isn't necessarily in carcass quality or in any so-called "premiums." It's in reproductive efficiency and post-weaning feed efficiency.

To date, the industry has no Economic Efficiency EPDs, the most important of which for the cow-calf operation is actually an EPD for reproductive efficiency. For the stocker or feeder, selection for feed efficiency can translate into big dollars.

Average daily gain has a correlation of about 70% to feed efficiency.

* Therefore, if we select for weight per day of age (WDA), we run a 70% chance of the cattle also being more efficient.

* If we sell off the bottom 50% for WDA, we raise the bar of the average by 25%. If we're 70% accurate, then theoretically we improve cost of gain by 17.5% (25% x 70%).

* Therefore, if the national average cost of gain is $42.50/cwt. and we improve it by 17.5%, our selected cattle will have a cost of gain of $35.06 or $7.44/cwt. less than average.

* If the cattle gain 500 lbs. in the feedlot and we've improved the efficiency by $7.44/cwt., we save $37.20/head.

Three Case Studies * Cowan Brothers LLC, Highmore, SD, will custom graze 7,500 stocker cattle this year. Cattle are received into the backgrounding lot 45-60 days prior to grass. During their stay they'll undergo a processing and efficiency measuring regime that includes selection pressure following the backgrounding period (prior to grass), a second opportunity 75-90 days into grass, then again coming off grass prior to going to the feedlot.

This selection system is designed to eliminate inefficient cattle while augmenting the efficiency attributes of the more profitable cattle. Other aims are to select for eventual carcass quality, days to finish and type.

For less than $20/head in additional service fees, Cowan Brothers' customers receive an average of $55/head in efficiency and performance premiums.

* A similar efficiency information selection system is used in a heifer improvement program at Y6 Feeders, a division of Petsch Ranches LLC, Albin, WY. Heifers delivered in the fall or early spring are developed, tracked for performance, evaluated for future efficiency, bred and delivered back to the owner with a breakeven on average of less than $675/bred heifer.

Petsch's selection criteria are designed to provide for early elimination of heifers destined to be poor producers, inefficient converters or eventual non-breeders. Early elimination saves Y6 customers over $35/bred heifer.

* Another example is HPH Co., Atkinson, NE. Genetic selection coupled with percent of dam selection as well as a post-weaning selection system has led to a drop in feed conversions from over 8 lbs./head/day to less than 5.8 lbs. the last two years. This is on a set of black Angus cattle with no cross-breeding.

Last spring, HPH calves were slaughtered in three ultrasound-selected groups at 12, 13 and 14 months of age. The cattle converted 5.76 lbs. of feed/pound of gain for a total cost of gain of $36.71/cwt. When the feed efficiency is compared to where the cattle started just a few years ago, $71.40/steer in feed efficiency savings were produced.

The same 783 head of young Angus steers also produced carcasses that were 89% Choice or better, 6.3% Prime and 35.7% Certified Angus Beef (CAB) with no outliers. The cattle made over $80 profit/head at a time most were losing $100-150/head out of the feedlot. Though the cattle were excellent carcass cattle, the bulk of profit came from feed efficiency savings, not to mention a lower opportunity cost due to the younger slaughter age.

A post-weaning efficiency selection system can return over double the investment to perform the process. As much as $50-100 per head can be picked up just by applying a system of information collection, organization, analysis and application. Compared to the potential return, the extra work required is minimal.

Give 'Em The Gas

Today's genetics allow cattle to perform dramatically better than their 1960 counterparts, both on grass and in the feedlot. To realize that potential, however, cattle must have the correct nutritional "fuel," says Dennis Herd, Texas A&M beef cattle nutritionist.

Luckily, much more is known today about nutritional requirements and dietary interactions. This is particularly true in the case of trace minerals, required nutrients that can lead to major efficiency breakdowns, he says.

"Balance" is the first place to start in designing a mineral/nutrition program, Herd says. "It won't make you money to furnish cattle 150% of their mineral needs if they're only receiving 85% of their protein and energy needs or vice versa," he says.

There are at least 17 minerals (in two classes - macrominerals and microminerals) that the National Research Council says are required by beef cattle. Macrominerals include calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, chlorine and sulfur. These are nutrients required in large amounts (grams) per day, hence the name "macro" nutrients.

The microminerals are also called "trace" minerals because just milligrams are required per day. They include chromium, cobalt, copper, iodine, iron, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, selenium and zinc.

Trace mineral requirements c an be met through feedstuffs, but often they're not - particularly in a grazing situation, says Wayne Greene, Texas A&M beef cattle nutritionist in Amarillo. A low mineral content in the forage, heightened by the presence of antagonists, is often the problem, he adds.

"Cattle may appear to be doing fine while sub-clinical deficiencies of vital trace minerals can be robbing them of feed intake and efficiency, growth, reproductive efficiency and the ability to fight sickness," Greene says.

Herd adds that trace mineral supplementation needs are greater today than ever before for a number of reasons. For one, the increased productivity or genetic potential of cattle may have increased requirements.

Genetics may also affect cattle's susceptibility to deficiency and toxicity. Research shows that Simmental and Charolais cattle need more copper in their diet than Angus. Within breed genetic effects or differences likely exist as well.

"Field experience suggests Simmental, Maine Anjou, Limousin and Charolais benefit from 1.5 times the copper intake of traditional breeds," Herd says.

Modern farming methods are another factor. Feedstuffs derived from crops fertilized with nitrogen, phosphorus and potash tend to decline in trace mineral content over time - particularly shallow-rooted crops.

"Many health problems and failures of commonly accepted disease treatments have had trace mineral deficiencies as the root or contributing factor," Herd says. That's not surprising, since research on copper, zinc and selenium shows them to be essential to a good immune system.

A Balanced Diet Confinement operations function at a big advantage over grazing operations, Herd says. The diet of a range cow can't be balanced as easily or as accurately as a confined animal. "But it's the only way to address some mineral problems where excesses of certain minerals are present along with low or deficient levels of another," he adds.

A balanced diet means balanced rations. To do that, the following information is needed:

* Nutrient requirements of the particular class of cattle.

* Nutrient content of the feeds. Since book values often overestimate the level of trace minerals in many common feedstuffs, forage testing for minerals in grazing and hay crops is often needed.

* Mineral content of the water, particularly if high in iron or sulfur.

* Estimate of feed intake. A rough guide would be 1.5% of body weight for very coarse poor forage, 2% for average and 2.5% for good forage.

Next, identify the mineral requirements of the animal (Table 1). Requirements can vary by health situation, performance expectations, even by breed, Herd says. As a result, many nutritionists "formulate" to levels above those considered minimal. The amount of additional "insurance" will vary with the mineral, its cost and the potential detrimental effects an excess may cause.

Many minerals interfere with the utilization of other minerals at levels well below the maximum tolerable level, Herd says. For example, it's usually beneficial to increase the copper level above the listed requirement any time molybdenum exceeds 2 ppm, sulfur exceeds 0.3%, iron exceeds 250-300 ppm or some combination exists. All minerals can be involved in interactions, but the effect other minerals have on the need for copper appears more specific and unique than with many of the other minerals.

In determining the level of total dietary mineral desired and thus supplement intake and formulation, keep in mind the following points, Herd points out:

* Higher levels of mineral intake may be needed and safe to play catch-up in a problem herd than to sustain it once the problem situation is corrected.

* The requirement variations that occur with the cow's stage of production isn't defined for trace minerals as it is with major minerals, protein and energy. Contrary to the general higher requirements for protein, energy, calcium, etc., during lactation, the requirement for copper and selenium may be equally high or evenhigher in late pregnancy than during lactation.

Forage Testing Forage testing is the foundation for establishing the need for and the amount of supplemental minerals. Soil testing helps explain the composition of the forage, but it isn't reliable in directly evaluating the mineral status of the animal. Blood testing and liver analyses on any dead cattle, however, can add additional information concerning a herd's mineral status.

But, it's the knowledge of estimated dietary mineral intake from both feed and water that provides the basis for correcting deficiencies or adjusting for mineral excesses. Even crude estimates are helpful as opposed to total guesses.

Once a good feel for the mineral content of the diet is reached, compare the levels to those desired and develop a supplement to make up any deficiencies, Herd says. Where the mineral content of the diet is unknown, he formulates the trace mineral supplement to provide 100% of the NRC requirement.

"Once you're comfortable that you know dietary mineral intake, adjust individual mineral levels to meet your goals," Herd says. "The bioavailability of trace minerals in forage is often not very high. Use only mineral forms and sources known to be reasonably high in digestibility, absorbability and bioavailability."

Here are some points Herd suggests to keep in mind while supplementing:

* Manage the mineral nutrition of cattle just as you'd manage protein and energy. Don't trust cattle to regulate how much mineral they'll consume.

* If supplementing protein and/or energy, include a minimal level of minerals in the protein and energy supplement to help ensure intake.

Copper All trace minerals are important, but copper, selenium and zinc are of the most serious and widespread concern.

Copper deficiency is usually found in grazing animals because the copper in grass has less bioavailability to cattle than copper in hay and grain, says Texas A&M veterinarian Steve Wikse. Animals most affected are herd individuals with the highest requirements - calves and yearlings.

The symptoms of copper deficiency are varied. Not all are seen in a herd, he says. Clinical disease generally involves young grazing animals, the classic picture being a calf with a rough hair coat diluted in color.

Other clinical signs may be diarrhea, anemia, lameness, even osteoporosis. Studies have shown differences in weaning weight between treatment and control groups usually ranging from 20-50 lbs., Wikse says.

Copper deficiency is a problem throughout the U.S., Wikse says. A 1992 NAHMS (National Animal Health Monitoring System) reported on a survey of trace mineral concentrations in forage on 327 ranches in the 18 largest beef producing states. NAHMS found that 64% of the forage samples were marginal or deficient in copper.

Actually, says Wikse, the overall availability of copper to the cattle grazing these forages was probably lower yet due to the marginal to high antagonistic levels of molybdenum and iron present in the samples.

Copper deficiency occurs as a primary deficiency when the concentrations of copper in the diet are low. A conditioned deficiency occurs when absorption and utilization of copper is hindered by other minerals in the diet -usually, molybdenum, sulfur and iron; less commonly, zinc and cadmium.

For grazing cattle, prevention methods include copper glycinate injection (no longer commercially available), incorporating copper in a free-choice salt/mineral mix, or copper boluses (copper oxide needles).

"Our recommendation is to try to remedy a copper deficiency with a trace mineral supplement that contains relatively high concentrations of copper," Wikse says. "After 6 to 8 weeks, bleed some individuals and measure copper concentrations in their serum."

If at-risk cattle aren't consuming enough copper through the free-choice supplement, Wikse and Herd suggest going the copper bolus route.

Copper oxide boluses are filled with short segments (4 mm) of processed copper oxide wire that lodge in the rumen and reticulum. Small copper oxide particles slowly wash to the abomasumwhere acidity dissolves them and releases the copper for absorption in the intestines. Bolused properly in the spring, a single dose provides sufficient dietary copper for a 6- to 8-month period, Wikse says.

"Bolusing is a more labor-intensive alternative," Wikse says, "but the copper boluses have been shown to be effective when consumption of free-choice mineral is a problem."

Zinc Zinc is the trace element most commonly deficient in grazing animals. The 1992 NAHMS study found that of 352 forage samples from 327 cow/calf operations in 18 states, only 2.5% tested in the adequate range for zinc.

Zinc is essential to an effective animal immune system, Wikse says. Zinc deficiency can result in reduced growth, feed intake and feed efficiency; listlessness; reduced testicular growth, swollen feet; failure of wounds to heal and hair loss.

Besides the degree of deficiency, the life stage at which the deficiency happens largely determines the degree of the negative effect.

The only delivery method for zinc is in a mineral mix. Feed-grade sources of bioavailable zinc include zinc oxide, zinc sulfate, zinc methionine and zinc proteinate. A controversy has long raged over the use of organic forms of zinc versus chelated. Wikse says, as a rule, organics are less expensive but chelates tend to be more efficient because they are better absorbed.

Selenium Selenium is critical to the immune system. In young animals a deficiency can produce weak calves that can die early in life, or unthriftiness with weight loss and diarrhea in older calves and adults. It can also contribute to such calving problems as lowered fertility, retained placentae and abortions.

The function of selenium and vitamin E are interrelated. A diet low in vitamin E may increase the amount of selenium needed to prevent certain abnormalities such as white muscle disease.

The traditional selenium-deficient areas are the Northwest, Northeast and Southeast. Selenium can be administered to cattle by supplementation in the diet or injection every three to four months during critical production stages.

"Absolutely, the most critical time to make sure you have a trace mineral supplement before cattle is the six-month period that includes the last two months of pregnancy and the four months after," Wikse says. "Your supplement should have high levels of the minerals deficient in your area. The payoff will be increased calf health and better pregnancy rates."

Is Concentration To Blame?

When Theodore Roosevelt became U.S. President in September 1901 upon the assassination of William McKinley, he stunned his fellow Republicans by launching a sustained attack on the corporate monopolies that dominated American business at that time. One target was meat packing, where four firms held more than 55% of the market.

A century later, the issue is still unsettled. Although government pressure in the early decades of the century led to a breakup of packer concentration, the reforms didn't last. While the Big Four held just 28% of the beef market in 1975, they now control more than 80%.

This dominance has spurred federal investigations over the last decade and prompted renewed charges by feeders and cattlemen that packer concentration is lowering the price for fed cattle.

"The price today has nothing to do with supply and demand," says Mike Callicrate, Callicrate Feedyard, St. Francis, KS. "It's simply a price that packers can mentally induce us to accept ... Our problem is greedy corporate packers."

"You can make a six-foot stack of investigations," counters Jens Knutson, chief economist for the American Meat Institute, a packer trade association. "Nobody has ever come up with anything."

The truth, however, may lie somewhere between those polar positions. Government investigations and the work of leading ag economists suggest packer concentration does, at times, impact prices paid for fed cattle. But some studies, which contradict standard economic theory about the market power of monopolies, suggest that packer concentration may actually push prices upward.

Examining The Issue Overall, the issue of packer concentration is immensely complex. Perhaps the best way to see what has happened is to examine some major factors impacting the meat packing business.

First, there's the resurgence of big packers. Under government pressure, big packers had divested their holdings in stockyards, railroads, cold storage warehouses and the retail meat business. They had also given up substantial market share. By 1975, the Big Four held just 28% of the beef market, or about half of what they held in the early 1900s.

In the last 25 years, however, the Big Four have tripled their share of the slaughter market, control three-fourths of the boxed beef business and gained new leverage through the use of captive supplies of fed cattle. Captive supplies include feeder cattle owned outright, and cattle purchased under certain special marketing arrangements.

In the early 1980s, virtually the only form of captive supplies were packer-fed cattle in packer-owned feedlots. These made up about 4% of the steer and heifer slaughter market. Captive supplies now account for more than 20% of the market in some states.

Captive supplies have been controversial in part because they may be pushing cash prices downward. A 1998 report by the National Commission on Small Farms found captive supplies "can infringe on the competitiveness of the open cash market, particularly in regional and local markets where contract usage is high."

The report quotes an official of the Nebraska Cattlemen's Feedlot Council as saying captive supplies "allow some packers to become no more than hit or miss players in the cash market ... They do not have to aggressively compete for their remaining slaughter needs and therefore end up paying less for cash market purchases."

The other major factor is how cattle markets work. Economic theory holds that market concentration could allow packers to pay less for fed cattle. But the actual workings of the market are much more complex. For example, one controversial new theory concludes packer concentration actually raises the prices packers pay for fed cattle.

One proponent is Azzeddine Azzam, a University of Nebraska economist. He doesn't dispute that concentration results in lowered competition, which can mean fed cattle prices are lower than packers would pay in a more competitive market.

But he argues that big packers with large, efficient plants can slaughter and process beef for less than if they operated smaller, less efficient plants. The cost savings, Azzam says, allows them to pay more for fed cattle. It more than offsets the impact of a less competitive market.

Big Packers Are More Efficient There is no doubt big packers are more efficient. A 1990 Congressional inquiry found major packers had substantially lower costs than their smaller rivals. For instance, the largest plant held an $18/head edge in slaughter costs over the smallest plants and a $10/head edge in boxed beef fabrication costs.

The same Congressional inquiry showed that cattle markets - and the level of packer competition - are tied to the complex interaction of consumer demand, plant capacity and available beef supplies.

For instance, the inquiry found some evidence that packer concentration resulted in lower fed cattle prices in the 1970s, but not in the 1980s. The investigation found that packer investments in big new plants in the 1980s led to excess packing capacity. As a result, the packers "had to compete more vigorously with one another in purchasing cattle, and this competition led to upward pressure on prices."

Still, the report offered an ominous outlook. "If cattle supplies expand by several million head, as they have in the past, without a corresponding increase in consumer demand and processing capacity, the few controlling beef packers will have less of an incentive to compete aggressively for available cattle. Prices may then decrease more than if a greater number of firms had purchased the cattle."

The combination of high concentration and poor prices has ignited new pressures to investigate the industry. But government reports show these investigations have been hamstrung at every turn. Investigations have suffered from a lack of trained personnel and data, and repeated instances in which investigators followed the wrong trail.

P&S Bears The Brunt Some of the harshest criticism has been aimed at the Packers and Stockyards Administration (P&S) which is charged with ongoing enforcement of the packing industry. For instance, the National Commission on Small Farms said P&S failed to develop economic and legal expertise to keep pace with emerging issues in the industry.

"P&S has been traditionally and competently geared toward the regulation of day-to-day livestock transactions ... Market concentration occurred more rapidly than P&S's ability to adjust." (P&S is now beefing up its staff to correct this shortfall.)

And a Congressional inquiry found that P&S consistently analyzed data on a national basis, even though meat packing markets are by nature regional due to the high cost of transporting cattle from feedyards to packinghouses. In other words, P&S looked in the wrong place. As a result, the inquiry found that P&S "may be understating the potential risk for anti-competitive practices associated with concentration."

The current accusations by cattlemen come as the market is flooded with beef, pork and chicken. The oversupply has forced prices down and caused economic havoc among feeders and ranchers. To these operators every penny per pound is vital, and any perceived anti-competitive actions by packers seems all the more important.

These operators want action now. But if history is a guide, the issue won't be settled soon. Instead, the federal government likely will continue to study the issue. And no one will be happy.

"The packers have become too big," says Kansas feeder Mike Callicrate. "They simply exert too much power in the marketplace."

The American Meat Institute's Jens Knutson counters that investigators have turned over "every rock and come up with nothing ... I don't know how you put some of these questions to bed."

"It's not an easy issue to resolve," says Oklahoma State economist Clem Ward. Ward has spent years studying the packing industry.

"The packers get tired of us looking at it because we haven't found the smoking gun," Ward adds. "And cattlemen think we're biased for the same reason - that we haven't found the smoking gun. Maybe we haven't found it because it isn't there. Or maybe we haven't found it because we're not looking in the right place."

It hardly matters which industry you look at, the trend is towards bigger and bigger companies and fewer and fewer players. As a result, the corporate landscape is filling up with industrial giants, reversing years of government-led efforts to break up monopolies and create more competition in industries ranging from meat packing to oil.

"Concentration exists in every aspect of the U.S. economy," says feedlot consultant Bill Helming. "Beef packing and processing, and the cattle feeding industry are very concentrated. The poultry industry is very concentrated. The auto industry is concentrated. The banks are becoming more concentrated every day. It's all driven by economics.

"The notion that four or five beef packers control in excess of 80 percent of beef slaughter and fabrication - I don't see any negatives. I probably see more positives. Those who are left are, relatively speaking, better capitalized. They're relatively efficient and they do a relatively superior job of keeping their costs down and getting the job done in a cost effective manner.

"If there were 10 beef packer-processors as opposed to four and the capacity was the same, the net result on the price of fed cattle and the price of beef to the consumer might be unchanged. It might even be higher to the consumer because they would probably be less efficient with 10 operators than with four or five," says Helming. The net result, he adds, is that large efficient packers help keep costs down and thus help beef compete with pork or chicken.

Still, meat packers may someday find themselves the target of another government effort to break them up again. But if that does happen, the breakup may not last. "The Justice Department could break up the meat packers," says Clem Ward, professor of agricultural economics at Oklahoma State University. "But after a period of time, we'd see a move toward consolidation, maybe not to the same level, but in that direction."

Some feeders regard meat packers as a money-grubbing lot. But Wall Street takes a different view - meat packers aren't making enough. Here's what David C. Nelson, a securities analyst with Credit Suisse First Boston, said in testimony before the Senate Committee on Agriculture:

"I am not recommending IBP, ConAgra or Hormel at this time. Looking retrospectively, investments in this segment have generally underperformed the market. One primary role of the stock market is to allocate capital, and the capital markets are not attracted to this industry. In fact, IBP shares are down more than 40 percent from their peak in November 1995, while the overall market (Standard & Poor's 500) is up over 80 percent during this time period."

Nelson said IBP's operating margins in 1990-97 averaged 2%, while margins for the packaged food companies he follows averaged 12.5%.

"This committee and others have pondered whether there is excessive concentration in the meat packing industry and whether that has affected livestock prices. Such issues are beyond the direct purview of my analysis. However, I will note that the poor profitability generated by packers is not generally symptomatic of (monopolistic) pricing power," he said.

Is It Packers Or Demand? Is packer concentration to blame for the cattle industry's hard times? Or is it low demand for beef in a country that is awash in beef, pork and chicken the problem?

"I don't think concentration is the problem," says Lee Borck, president of Ward Feedyard Inc., Larned, KS. "We've been through this debate over concentration year after year instead of finding a new way to market cattle. We have a group of people who don't want to change and move forward, nor do they want anybody else to move forward either."

"For 18 years, the industry has lost demand, year after year after year," says Bill Helming, head of Bill Helming Associates, Olathe, KS. "You're selling less of something at a reduced price. That's the worst of all possible worlds.

"The fundamental problem is the drop in consumer demand. To fix it, you must address the predictability of the eating quality. And you must stress to consumers that a balanced diet of protein and carbohydrates is better for you than eating less red meat."