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Articles from 2003 In March

Standard deviations are not perverse

When given a choice, most folks generally choose not to add change to their life. Occasionally, however, tools come on the scene that convince us — regardless of the change they bring — that they're needed.

Commercial producers historically have been slower to adopt new tools and technologies; tools that have helped other segments grow their profit margins. For example:

  • Retailers use computer programs that calculate retail prices based on their wholesale costs and the profit margins desired.

  • Packers offer a myriad of grids. Yet, they know in advance, through mathematical analysis, what their average payouts will be.

  • And seedstock providers have relied on numbers for many years, starting with weaning weights, moving to expected progeny differences (EPDs), ultrasounds and linear measurements.

Cattlemen's Basic Tools

As commercial producers, we all work with numbers. After all, if we didn't know how many cows came up open or how many replacement heifers we need, we wouldn't be in business long. There are other numbers, however, that can greatly help us make operating decisions.

The usefulness of numbers grows with the more numbers we have. For example, knowing just three numbers — the weight of the truck empty, the weight of the truck full and the number of calves on board — allows us to figure the calves' average weight.

With three more numbers — individual cow and calf weights and a cow-calf identification number — we can determine many other facts with which to analyze our herds.

Such numbers are great for coffee break chatter. They're worthless, however, unless we use them to make culling and breeding decisions.

One of the familiar mathematical tools commercial producers use is averaging. In sorting our replacement heifers, we look for an “above-average” group. And auction barns, by sorting cattle before they enter the ring, use averaging for mutual benefit.

But there's an additional tool — similar to auction barn averaging — that impacts us every day. It's predictability.

When calves enter the auction ring, the larger the group of the same average size, the greater the opportunity for a good price. Buyers like predictability.

Average, however, doesn't necessarily mean predictable. If our calves average 500 lbs., it could mean half of them weigh 250 lbs., and the other half 750 lbs. This is where knowing the standard deviation — a tool used by other beef industry segments to increase their profit margins — can be very useful.

Standard deviation describes the predictability of a group of calves, cows or carcasses, and tells us how widespread the group is (how far and how many) from the average. This is the predictability or uniformity our buyers look for and want.

The most common use of standard deviation is to determine how close the individuals of that group are to the group average. It groups the closest 66% to the average, which leaves the other 33% of the total group as outliers.

Let's use our previous example of two groups of calves, each group with a 500-lb. average weight. The group with a weight range of 250 to 750 lbs. (red line in Graph 1) has a standard deviation of 150 lbs. That means 66% of the group resides within plus or minus 150 lbs. from the 500-lb. average.

Meanwhile, the group with a weight range of 450 to 550 lbs. (green line, Graph 1) has a much smaller standard deviation of 40 lbs. meaning that 66% of the calves fall within plus or minus 40 lbs. of the average. The other 33% are outliers.

If we seek predictability, we want a small standard deviation or a tight grouping like that of the second group (green line). An eye on such predictability can also help us identify groups of cows that consistently produce good calves or quality replacement heifers.

EPDs based on standard deviations would allow us to know which bulls can impact our cows more consistently as opposed to an average. (Think of it as a grouping from a rifle versus a pattern from No. 8 shot.)

One of the positive attributes of the current personal computer age is the basic spreadsheet capability that allows us to calculate and track standard deviations. By merely identifying the group (i.e., total calf weights) in the spreadsheet, the software can calculate the standard deviation.

Calculating the standard deviation enables us to compare our herd or products from year to year by whatever grouping we want to track. It allows us to track the group's predictability or repeatability.

Hopefully, this short, simplified view of standard deviation will encourage more of us to use what other segments of the industry are using to their advantage.

Art Brownlee is a commercial cow-calf producer who, along with wife Merry, owns and operates the Brownlee JHL Ranch in Ashby, NE. For more on their operation see “DNA Is Their Way,” (pg. 16, February BEEF) and visit

Swift Shapes Up

The Swift & Co. packing facility (formerly ConAgra) rocked last summer by a 19-million-lb. recall of ground beef has made $4 million in product safety improvements. The Denver Post reports that more than two dozen changes will be enacted at the Greeley, CO, plant, which processes 1.3 million head of cattle/year.

For one, the plant will be the first large meatpacker to not ship product until test results show they're free of pathogens. USDA rules allow shipping of meat before test results are known.

Other measures include:

  • Washing live cattle before they enter the plant.

  • Washing hides before they're stripped from the dead animal.

  • Additional lighting to allow workers to better detect contamination in the work area where carcasses are eviscerated.

  • More stop buttons on the line and encouragement of workers to use them.

  • Longer employee orientations, information and training on pathogens.

  • More focus on preventing cross-contamination of carcasses and surfaces.

  • Some product will be irradiated for safety assurance.

Getting Serious About BVD

When Lucy Rechel analyzed all the cattle doctoring she was doing each fall, she found bovine viral diarrhea (BVD) was the biggest culprit. So the owner of Snyder Livestock, a 4,000-head-capacity cattle development center in Yerington, NV, laid down the law this year — all cattle destined for her facility must be tested and prove negative for the BVD virus before she'll take delivery.

“My intent is to have everyone test, then remove, persistently infected animals 30 days before shipping,” she says. “Of course, persistent infection is the most difficult part to control, but hopefully, they'll understand the hazard of keeping the persistently infected animal and will want to get it out of the herd.”

Her decision became a little less painful after she'd heard of a relatively affordable and reliable test used to identify cattle persistently infected (PI) with the BVD virus. The “ear notch” test developed several years ago at the University of Nebraska is now a standard for BVD diagnosis.

The Real Culprit

For help with her BVD eradication plan, Rechel gathered all the information she could from Bill Kvasnicka (Kwas-niska), Extension veterinarian, University of Nevada, Reno.

“A person like Lucy has to resort to this kind of program because 70-90% of all BVD infections occur without the appearance of clinical signs,” Kvasnicka says. “The real culprits are PI animals that remain infected for life. They shed huge amounts of virus and are primarily responsible for keeping BVD in a herd — and introducing the disease into other herds.”

Around 1993, it was determined that BVD is actually two diseases — BVD Type 1 and BVD Type 2. Both are caused by related, but separate, species of pestivirus.

“BVD viruses undergo mutation or continuous change,” Kvasnicka adds. The result is the existence of several strains within each BVD type and new strains being created in nature at anytime.

Emerging data about BVD indicates infection with Type 2 virus species often causes a more severe disease outcome than infection with Type 1 virus species.

BVD also suppresses the immune system, lowering an animal's disease resistance. As a result, other organisms can more easily infect animals, resulting in greater than expected problems with things like scours and pneumonia, according to Kvasnicka.

With this information and more under her arm, Rechel proceeded.

Feedlot morbidity wasn't Rechel's only concern. She'd heard some of her customer's heifers were aborting, presumably due to the BVD virus.

“If we're going to be in the business of developing and breeding heifers, I need to be sure that if my customers don't already have BVD in their herds, they aren't going to get it by bringing cattle to my feedlot,” she adds.

This year, Rechel has about 140 bulls consigned for her formal performance evaluation, and another 1,500 bulls and 2,000-2,500 heifers being developed for ranchers around Nevada and California.

More Questions Than Resistance

While Rechel might be among those leading the way in BVD biosecurity, not all her customers agreed with her new policy.

“I'm getting some people who say that if they're required to test for BVD, they won't be bringing cattle to me,” she says. “I was expecting some of that. But, I'm getting a lot more questions and interest than resistance.”

Charlie Hone, Garnerville, NV, is one consigner who's doesn't mind the new policy. He's a seedstock and commercial producer who routinely sends both bulls and heifers to Snyder Livestock for performance test and development.

“In the end, it'll save us all money,” he says. “I vaccinate for BVD anyway — but this is added insurance that we're not going to bring anything home that we don't want.”

Plus, he says, he can see where the increased biosecurity might induce more buyers to come to Snyder's annual performance sale.

“I can't see where it's anything but a good idea, as long as everyone is treated the same,” he says.

Rechel says she expects to see a 30-40% reduction in sickness the first year by keeping BVD out of her facility. “I hope it's more of a reduction, but there's no question we'll be treating fewer calves for BVD and its complications.”

A System Of Management

Helping Kvasnicka draft Rechel's plan was Julia Ridpath, a PhD microbiologist at the USDA/Agricultural Research Service (ARS) National Animal Disease Center in Ames, IA. She's the lead ARS scientist in the detection and control of BVD.

Ridpath says while foot-and-mouth disease and bovine spongiform encephalopathy have been getting all the attention, the U.S. cattle industry needs to now address BVD from every angle.

“Producers who are serious about controlling BVD should be vaccinating, combined with a surveillance and testing program specified by their field vets,” she comments. “There's no vaccine alone that's going to get rid of it, and no diagnostic test that will make it go away. … To control BVD, every rancher will have to learn as much as they can about BVD and develop a system of management.”

While some in the veterinary research community have been critical of BVD vaccines, Ridpath says there's generally more confidence in BVD vaccines today than a few years ago.

“The old data indicated that Type 1 vaccines didn't offer full protection against Type 2 field viruses,” she says. “The jury isn't totally ‘in’ on that though, but we're hoping things will get better now that we have both Type 1 and Type 2 antigens available to producers.”

She emphasizes that some BVD vaccines have both Type 1 and Type 2 “protection” listed on the product label, but some don't contain both antigens within the product.

“What they've done is taken the old antigen, tested it against Type 2 strains of the virus and said there's cross-protection,” she explains. “We know they are cross-reactive — we just don't know if that cross-reaction offers the kind of cross-protection a producer expects.”

Preventing Fetal Infection

Another problem with some BVD vaccines is that they're tested and licensed based on the prevention of the acute form of the disease as opposed to prevention of PIs.

“Often, the producer isn't thinking about the acute form of the disease — he's thinking about fetal protection,” she says. “Just because a vaccine reduces the acute disease in an animal, it doesn't mean you have prevented fetal infection.”

In order to stop fetal infection you have to completely stop viral replication, Ridpath says.

“Right now, we have vaccines that will help. But we don't have vaccines that will stop fetal infection 100% because there's so much variation in those viruses,” she says. “A rancher who expects total protection will be upset with a vaccine that gives them any PIs at all.”

Reproductive status also plays a role in how well BVD vaccines work. For instance, the immune system doesn't work quite the same in a pregnant animal as a non-pregnant animal, Ridpath adds.

Because the BVD virus is so widespread, Kvasnicka says most cattle herds are at risk for infection. He and Ridpath both say that emphasizing surveillance and biosecurity are critical to total BVD management.

“Ideally, newly purchased cattle should be vaccinated before entering the herd and isolated on the ranch or farm for two to three weeks,” Kvasnicka says. “Sick animals should also be quarantined to prevent the spread of infection.”

They say producers also can get into trouble by doing things like using colostrum from outside sources, buying calves to graft onto cows, purchasing groups of bucket calves, sharing stock trailers, or taking unvaccinated animals to cattle shows or the local 4-H fair.

Okay, so a rancher tests for BVD and identifies some PIs, what do you do with them?

Ridpath suggests one of two things:

  1. Bite the bullet and eliminate them outright. “They certainly shouldn't be sold to someone else. Unfortunately, killing them might be the most cost-effective option in the long run.”

  2. Feed the animals to market weight at home and get them processed without allowing contact with other cattle. The problem is that the PI that does well in the feedlot is a rarity.

While none of these steps in finding and eliminating PIs in a herd are simple or inexpensive, the alternative is to continue battling BVD on ranches and in feedyards, Ridpath says. Consequently, she applauds Rechel's approach to eliminating BVD from her feedlot and hopes others will follow suit.

“It can't help but make a difference when you have someone of Lucy's stature make that kind of commitment,” she explains. “Word will get around fast that some people are taking this disease very seriously and are willing to do something about it.”

For more information on BVD, check out and click on Health and then Diseases.

“Dr. Bill's” Five-Step BVD Plan

Bill Kvasnicka, Extension veterinarian, University of Nevada, Reno, says bovine viral diarrhea (BVD) is a reproductive disease with immense economic consequence. It causes early embryonic losses, fetal abnormalities, abortions and the birth of persistently infected (PI) calves. He recommends the following procedures for ranchers to control BVD in their herds:

Step 1: Herd Diagnosis

  • Compile a complete and thorough herd history.

  • Identify five or more calves at branding and do not vaccinate them with a BVD vaccine. Collect blood samples of those calves at weaning to determine if BVD titers developed from branding to weaning.

  • Collect blood samples from five or more calves immediately after birth and before they nurse colostrum. Submit these samples for antibody titers. Detection of BVD titers indicates intrauterine infection, thus herd infection.

  • Submit aborted fetuses for virus isolation and collect acute and convalescing paired blood samples from aborting females to determine ascending BVD antibody levels.

  • Submit blood or necropsy tissues for virus isolation.

  • Have laboratory determine if infection is due to Type 1 or 2 BVD.

Step 2: Lower The Challenge

  • Ear notch all calves at branding to eliminate PI calves, plus ear notch the dam of any positive calves. Ear notch all open cows and the bull battery.

Step 3: Raise The Resistance

  • Have your veterinarian outline a vaccination program.

  • Utilize BVD vaccine as part of any pre-weaning or weaning vaccination program.

  • Include BVD vaccination as a component of a heifer development program.

  • Booster the cow herd yearly.

  • Time vaccination to ensure adequate resistance during the breeding season. Administer BVD and other reproductive disease vaccines 30-45 days before the breeding season.

  • It is important to realize that even if the cow is adequately vaccinated, the fetus may not be protected from infection

Step 4: Establish Biosecurity

  • Quarantine and test all herd replacements.

  • Don't buy calves to graft to a cow that has aborted.

  • Remember that testing pregnant replacement heifers requires testing their calves following calving.

  • Avoid grazing in common with herds of cattle that are not participating in a BVD eradication program.

Step 5: Herd Monitoring

  • Utilize 5-10 calves each calving season. Don't vaccinate these calves at branding, then collect blood for antibodies at weaning time, before pre-weaning or weaning vaccination.

  • Use these results as a sign of the unvaccinated calves' exposure during the time they're nursing. It indicates the dams were also exposed during breeding and gestation.

  • Blood samples also can be collected from newborn calves before they nurse to detect pre-colostral BVD virus antibodies indicating intrauterine infection during gestation.

For more information call Kvasnicka (Kwas-niska) at 775/784-1377 or e-mail [email protected]

E. coli Summit shortchanged public health

It was heartening to see that, in his February editorial (pg. 4, “E. coli Summit ignores irradiation”), Joe Roybal is still beating the drums for irradiation of ground beef. That's despite the fact that some recalcitrant, head-in-the-sand types at an “E. coli Summit” in San Antonio chose to ignore irradiation as a legitimate topic for discussion as they addressed their stated purpose, namely, to “ensure that safe, wholesome U.S. beef becomes even safer.”

In stark contrast, it was saddening to read that, according to an attendee, “… in at least two of the summit's discussion groups, irradiation was taken off the table.” It was even more saddening to read the tired platitudes for dealing with the issue of E. coli-contaminated ground beef in the “five-point consensus for industry action” trotted out by the summit major-domos.

It wasn't clear who sponsored this whitewash summit, but it is clear — to me, at least — that those who were the presumed stakeholders in organizing and leading the summit conference, i.e., those who presumably were purported to represent the best interests of the beef industry as well as public health, left their commitment behind them as they departed for San Antonio.

What other conclusion can a reasonable person draw? In a related news item in the same issue of BEEF (pg. 11, “Three More Chains Go Irradiated”), we read, “The Buffalo News reports the product [irradiated fresh ground beef] … is expected to cost 20¢ to 30¢ more per pound than regular ground beef.”

For goodness sake, is that modest extra outlay too much of a financial burden for the average consumer who is not at all interested in hiking to the emergency room in a hospital in the event he/she happens to ingest viable E. coli 0157:H7 along with cheaper ground beef?

Spare me the cost/effectiveness arguments that anyone might put forward on this issue! In the Seattle area, where I live, thousands of naive, gullible consumers pay a hefty premium for “organic” or “natural” meat cuts, and are quite happy to be able to do so. Yet, they haven't the slightest understanding that “non-organic” or “non-natural” meat cuts are just as wholesome and organoleptically pleasing.

I would like to know more about the San Antonio summit folks who ostensibly got together to advance frontiers of knowledge on wholesomeness of ground beef, yet managed to suppress credible information on the safety and efficacy of ground beef irradiation.
Albert Koltveit, DVM
Port Ludlow, WA

More On Grass-Fed Beef

Regarding the grass-fed beef discussion in BEEF magazine's “Reader's Viewpoint” sections in the January and February issues, I offer this: Everything in this world has a balance, which is optimal for proper functioning.

Man, whom evolved eating what was available as a hunter-gatherer for millions of years, has the best balance for performance of his genes by eating what he evolved eating. This primitive diet had a ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 of around 1:1 to 1:2.

In the letter by Steve Smith of Texas A&M University, published on page 8 of the January issue, he cites a Journal of Animal Science article that shows a ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 of 1:1.35 for grass-fed beef versus the grain-finished ratio of 1:8.84.

It's not just getting the scientific estimated minimal daily intake of Omega 3 that's important, but the ratio of the Omega 3 to Omega 6, which is even more important. These two fats are essential fats, which means we can't produce the shortest form of them ourselves but must ingest them.

In beef, the predominant Omega 3 fat is linolenic acid and the predominant Omega 6 fat is linoleic acid. These fats are precursors of other fats within their family of fat, which are elongations of these two essential fats.

The elongated Omega 3 family of fats is particularly common in fatty sea fish, which have been shown to reduce the incidence of myocardial infarcts and strokes. We have the enzymatic machinery in our bodies to make these favorable elongated fats in a proper proportion if we eat the proper ratio of the essential fatty acids.

The Omega 6 fats have many effects that are opposite to the Omega 3 fats. The high ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 appears to increase the risk for atherosclerotic disease, the leading cause of heart attacks and stroke. This high ratio is also thought to promote inflammatory diseases.

Another concern is the amount of total calories that Western countries, particularly the U.S. population, ingests. By decreasing the amount of fat ingested, we get fewer calories per unit of weight of food. This would help with our obesity problem and all its associated diseases.

Personally, I enjoy my grass-fed beef taste even though my beef grades low Select. Marbling is not the only predictor of the enjoyment of eating beef.

Both the USDA food guide pyramid and the new healthy eating pyramid allocate an amount of red meat per person that is less than what is currently consumed. We producers of beef need to try to produce and market beef that's the healthiest for our customers, something that certainly could be fulfilled by producing grass-finished beef.

Secondarily, we need to finish our beef on grass without the expensive inputs required of the grain industry. We're currently producing beef using grain to furnish a market for the government-subsidized (taxpayer) grain industry to the detriment of the beef industry.

Let's fight for ways to better produce grass-finished, consumer-friendly beef rather than the high-volume, less-healthy beef for which we have such low profit margins.
David Brown, MD
Springdale, AR

Send reader letters, complete with name and address, to BEEF magazine, 7900 International Dr., Suite 300, Minneapolis, MN 55425; or e-mail to [email protected]. We reserve the right to edit for length and clarity.

Cold weather's effect on birthweight

When winter temperatures are colder than normal, larger calf birth weights can be expected in the spring. This is especially true with more calving difficulty in two-year-old heifers.

A six-year study was conducted to investigate effects of winter temperatures on two-year-old cows and their subsequent calf birth weights and calving difficulty in the spring. The winter of 1992-1993 (coldest) was 11° F. colder than the winter of 1994-1995 (warmest).

The coldest winter was followed by calf birth weights that were 11 lbs. heavier with 29% greater calving difficulty compared to the warmest winter.

Study results reported in the “Ohio State University Veterinary Newsletter” (Vol. 26, No. 1, fall 1999) indicate that as average winter temperatures decreased 1° F, subsequent calf birth weights increased 1 lb. and calving difficulty increased 2.6%. Hide temperatures increased slightly, but calf birth weights were unchanged.

The first research on this topic was conducted at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center, Clay Center, NE, 25 years ago. Genetically similar heifers were bred in Nebraska to the same sires. Half were wintered in Louisiana with the remainder staying in Nebraska. The difference in birth weight was 20 lbs. Submitted by Bill Kvasnicka, Extension veterinarian, University of Nevada, Reno, [email protected].

An online video image analysis system more accurately predicted carcass cutout yields than online USDA graders, according to a Colorado State University (CSU) study. CSU researchers used 296 steer and heifer carcasses to evaluate the accuracy of four different methods of predicting fabricated yields of closely trimmed subprimals:

  1. Whole yield grade numbers assigned by USDA graders online at chain speed (10-12 seconds/carcass);

  2. Yield grades assigned off-line to the nearest 0.1 by expert USDA graders at a comfortable rate of speed;

  3. A video image analysis system, “Computer Vision System” (CVS), to estimate carcass yield at chain speed;

  4. CVS measured ribeye area in conjunction with expert grader estimates of the remaining yield grade factors (fat thickness, carcass weight, and percent of kidney, pelvic and heart fat).

Accuracies of the four systems were 39%, 67%, 64% and 65%, respectively. The authors concluded that prediction models using the CVS estimates — either alone or combined with some human grader estimates — more accurately predicted carcass cutout yields than did yield grades assigned by online graders (Cannell et al. 2002. J. Anim. Sci. 80: 1195).

Carving A Grass-Finished Niche

Yes, the Wall Street Journal is talking $25 burgers in New York. And, yes, with elevated levels of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and Omega 3 fatty acids reported to help in the fight against cancer, diabetes and heart disease, grass-finished beef is made-to-order for the health-conscious consumer. And, yes, again, grass is generally cheaper to produce than corn. But …

“It's been a real challenge to keep it [a grass-finished beef operation] floating,” says John Wood, who, with six other entrepreneurs, officially started Grassland Beef, LLC, in September 2000. “We're trying to carve out a whole new industry.”

Grassland Beef envisioned peddling its product within a 50-mile radius of its Monticello, MO, headquarters. But because freezer beef is a common commodity in Northeast Missouri, the firm started a Web site on Nov. 7, 2000, to reach consumers coast-to-coast.

“We thought the orders would come pouring in, but it was real quiet,” he recalls. “Until then, we'd put little energy into marketing.”

Now, Grassland Beef ships the equivalent of four to five animals a week from California to New York to Florida. But Wood says marketing the product has been challenging and expensive.

“You have to learn a whole lot about things you don't know anything about,” he states.

Take their Web site. “A Web site is a black hole,” Wood says. “We'll soon be on our fourth Web provider. Every time we make a move, it's a several-thousand-dollar experience.”

Then, there's cold storage. “That's a big deal — the rent is $12/pallet/month,” Wood says. Add to that, another $7/box to get it ready for overnight shipping.

“Freight is a real challenge,” he adds. “You have to ship the meat overnight or you'll deliver thawed meat.”

And tracking their beef is a chore. Harvested at PM Beef's Windom, MN, plant, the carcasses are cut into wholesale cuts at PM's Northwest Iowa facility, then fabricated into retail cuts and cryovac-packaged at their Richmond, VA, plant. Next, the beef is shipped to cold storage in Virginia, California and Illinois.

Little wonder then that Wood says the breakeven on Grassland Beef has pushed close to $7/lb. That includes the beef itself, processing, warehouse charges, shipping and marketing expenses.

On the return side, he ships a 60-lb. box of assorted cuts and hamburger patties to the doors of his customers for $6/lb. On the other end of the scale is the box of four fillets at $37.50/lb. “Half of that cost is packaging, shipping and handling,” Wood comments.

“It's 2½ years before you make the first dime.” he says, adding, “but once we get things cooking, it will be more profitable.”

James Fudge is on the other end of the spectrum. The Colquitt, GA, producer has a small, no-frills freezer locker trade as a sideline to his purebred and commercial Angus operation. Fudge sells his grass-finished Angus steers for a dime over the market, live weight. Still, the Southwest Georgia cattleman says it hasn't been easy, especially last year when four of the 10 customers he'd lined up backed out.

“I beat on doors to sell it; I literally asked everyone I knew,” he recalls.

With no USDA-inspected plant in his area, Fudge uses a state-inspected facility, whose regulations require him to sell live cattle to his customers which means the customer must buy either a half or a whole steer. The customers then pay the processing.

“A lot of people don't have freezers anymore,” he remarks. “They have to pay $600 for a half a beef and $400 for a freezer. We're selling in a rural market and not many people in this area can afford that.”

This year, he's dropping back to finishing and marketing five steers to his regular customers. That's due to the marketing challenges, as well as weather that hasn't been kind to his forages.

While marketing grass-fed beef can be a challenge, the market is there. Three years ago, University of Nebraska ag economist Dillon Feuz teamed up with meat scientists to conduct a blind taste test with 144 consumers in Chicago and San Francisco.

The beef, standardized for tenderness, was either USDA grain-fed beef or Argentine grass-finished beef. They also gave the participants money to bid on the products. Last year, they repeated the study in Chicago and Denver, but used Australian grass-fed beef rather than Argentine beef.

“In general, the majority preferred corn-fed beef,” Feuz says. “But there's a segment out there, 15 to 20%, who prefer grass-fed beef and are willing to pay for it.”

Auburn University meat scientist Chris Kerth did a preference test with 150 consumers in Auburn, AL. He gave participants a sample of both grain-fed and grass-finished beef and showed them pictures of a typical feedlot and pasture-finishing situation.

Overall, the consumers preferred the grain-fed beef, he says, but demographically 45% of those 30 years and younger preferred pasture-fed beef,” Kerth says. “With almost half of a group preferring pasture-fed beef, that says there is a market out there.”

The demographics part is tricky, though. In Kerth's study, the percentage that preferred grass-fed beef went down as the age group went up. He attributes this to perhaps more concern about animal welfare among the younger generation, while the older generation may equate grain-fed beef with higher quality.

In Feuz's study, however, the older group was more likely to prefer the grass-fed product, as did non-Caucasians.

“We need to recognize that it's a niche market,” Feuz says. “The challenge is to identify the niche.”

Wood has identified Grassland Beef's market. “We sell to highly educated people — more-informed consumers with disposable income. We sell to retired people interested in good nutrition. We also sell to athletes,” he says.

The good news, at least for traditional beef producers, is these consumers are more than likely not coming out of grain-fed beef's market share.

“We sell a lot of beef to people who weren't buying beef,” Wood stresses. “Occasionally, we'll sell meat to a bona fide vegetarian. It's a new market.”

To learn more about Grassland Beef, LLC, go to www.grassland

Becky Mills is a freelance writer from Cuthbert, GA.

Finishing The Job While Fighting The Fat

If your idea of grass-finished beef is a stringy, old steer that makes tough beef with yellow fat, think again. With the right genetics and forages, today's grass-finished animals finish firmly in the Select grade; and, in some cases, all the way to low Choice. Throw in post-harvest technology, and you've got a darn good product.

Colquitt, GA, producer James Fudge collected carcass data on his Angus herd for 10 years before he felt like he had the right candidates for grass finishing.

“Until I could get cattle to finish with a 700-lb. carcass and a 12-in. ribeye, there wasn't any need to try it on grass,” he states.

He succeeded. Last year, the 10 steers he finished on forages ranged in carcass weight from 625-725 lbs., graded Choice minus, and had .3 to .4 inches of back fat. “I knew they were as good a quality as grain-fed,” he states.

The steers also finished in the same length of time, 15-18 months, as his steers on feed in Iowa. He adds, “The cost of gain was no greater — 40¢/lb. — or less.”

Jim Gerrish, University of Missouri agronomist, finishes cattle on grass both at the Linneus Forage Systems Research Center and on his home operation. Like Fudge, he leans toward British and British-cross cattle for grass finishing.

“An animal of 50% or more English breeding, Angus, Hereford, Shorthorn, South Devon, will finish better on grass than an animal more than 50% continental. A little Jersey breeding doesn't hurt, either,” Gerrish says.

Next on the list is top-quality pasture. “A forage base that can support 2 lbs./day gain for at least 60 days is fairly important. That's where you get your quality,” he says.

Fudge grazes his weaned cattle on peanuts in the summer — a very unconventional practice but it puts 1½-2 lbs./day on them. In the cool season, they go to high-quality winter annuals.

He warns, though, “The production end depends on the weather. There are periods when you're going to have to feed them to keep them from going backwards.”

In Northeast Missouri, John Wood and his partners (see main story) use a mix of forages to keep quality pasture in front of their cattle. They want “dairy-quality pasture,” or pasture that generates 1½-2 lbs. of gain/head/day.

In the warm season, Eastern gamma grass and a legume mix of red and white clover and birds-foot trefoil do the work.

In the cool season, the list includes orchard grass, bromegrass and some endophyte-free fescue. They also use annual and perennial ryegrass, as well as some fall annuals like turnips and canola.

“In the winter, we also have a source of high-quality alfalfa silage,” he adds.

He stays away from endophyte-infected fescue. “It affects the meat quality and performance,” he says.

Third on the quality making list is post-harvest technology, according to Gerrish. About 80% of the cattle they finish will grade Select, he says, with the other 20% split evenly in Standard and Choice grades.

If the grade is around Select range, there generally isn't a tenderness problem. “With less-tender beef, 14-21 days of aging makes it comparable to USDA Choice,” he adds.

Aging is a key part of the protocol at Grassland Beef, even though Wood says 65% of their cattle are the equivalent of Select and 35% are the equivalent of Choice.

“Our beef is aged a minimum of 28 days,” Wood says. “It's dry aged a minimum of four days, then vacuum packaged and wet aged for three weeks or more. Wet aging retains moisture, which improves cooking since grass-finished beef cooks faster than its grain-fed counterpart.”

Auburn meat scientist Chris Kerth says electrical stimulation can also help on the tenderness side.

As for yellow fat, it doesn't seem to be a big deal. “We've never seen yellow fat,” Gerrish says. “We think it's due to the rate of gain prior to slaughter and the fact the animals are less than 20 months old at slaughter.”

“The fat color was a surprise,” Kerth says. “Side by side, we could tell the difference in the grain-fed versus pasture-finished beef. But the cattle that came off ryegrass didn't look like an old dairy cow that came off pasture.”

He also says it appears that closely trimming the beef helps minimize the color differences.

Whatever the formula, Fudge says his customers tell him his grass-finished beef is the best beef they've ever had. He adds, “the best thing about raising it is we get to eat it ourselves.”

Dollars And Cents

How much does it cost to grass-finish a steer or heifer in the South? That's what a group of investors asked economists, animal scientists and agronomists from Auburn, Mississippi State, Louisiana State and Arkansas State universities. The investors have more than a passing interest — they're considering putting in a cull-cow processing facility in Northwest Mississippi and hope to use grass-finished beef to fill in seasonal production gaps.

These costs include not only the pasture and supplement, when needed, but labor ($7/hour) and land costs. The researchers used typical southern annuals and perennials in their calculations.

For cattle finishing in the first quarter of the year (January-March), the cost is $80/cwt. For cattle finishing in the second quarter, when cattle can make the most use of high-quality winter annuals, the cost drops to $72. In the third quarter, it climbs back to $76, and tops out at $86 in the fourth, when more supplements are needed for a longer period of time.

“These costs allow producers to be paid for all factors of production,” says Auburn economist Walt Prevatt. “If they choose not to include some costs, such as the opportunity costs associated with the use of their land or labor, they can do it for less.”

He comments, “Many Southeast beef producers have the capability of producing grass-finished beef if they can get adequate market prices.”

2003 Fencing Guide

Bekaert Corp.
1395 S. Marietta Pkwy., Bldg. 500, Ste.100
Marietta, GA 30067
Phone: 800/241-4126
ext. 2240

BG Industries
113 N. 4th
Wakeeney, KS 67672
Phone: 800/446-9271

Burly Corp. of North America
754 N. Burleson Blvd.
Burleson, TX 76028
Phone: 817/295-1128

Cameo Fencing Inc.
P.O. Box 214
Hammond, NY 13646
Phone: 800/822-5426

Centaur HTP
2802 E. Avalon Avenue
Muscle Shoals, AL 35661-3748
Phone: 256/248-2403

D&D Technologies (USA) Inc.
7731 Woodwind Dr.
Huntington Beach, CA 92647
Phone: 800/716-0888
ext. 231

Danuser Machine Co., Inc.
500 E. 3rd St.
Fulton, MO 65251
Phone: 573/642-2246

Dutton-Lainson Co.
P.O. Box 729
Hastings, NE 68902-0729
Phone: 402/462-4141

Dwyer Manufacturing Inc.
HC-60, Box 63
Bartlett, NE 68622
Phone: 402/843-2479

E-Z Products
610 E. Kenneth Ave.
Spearman, TX 79081
Phone: 806/659-2467
Products include: E-Z Roll II
Wire Roller, Post Pull
T-Posts & Post Handle

Ecklund Drive-Thru Gates
Box 700
Broadview, SK, Canada
S0G 0K0
Phone: 306/696-3272

Fences Forever
RR 1, Box 126A
Petersburg, NE 68652
Phone: 888/766-2322

Geotek Inc.
1421 Second Ave. N.W.
Stewartville, MN 55976
Phone: 800/533-1680

Gogate Automatic Farm & Ranch Gates
Dennis Steel Inc.
1105 Leander Dr.
Leander, TX 78641
Phone: 512/259-4001

Hay Wrap Inc.
P.O. Box A
Bloomsdale, MO 63627
Phone: 800/248-9727

K Fence Systems
RR 1, Box 195
Hwy. 60 West
Zumbro Falls, MN 55991
Phone: 507/753-2943

Kahn Steel Co. Inc.
6750 W. 93rd St., Ste. 140
Overland Park, KS 66212
Phone 800/828-5246

Kencove Farm Fence
344 Kendall Rd.
Blairsville, PA 15717-8707
Phone: 800/536-2683

Keystone Steel And Wire
7000 S.W. Adams
Peoria, IL 61641
Products include: Red Brand barbed wire, Key Ranch fence & Sierra barbed wire

LD Distributing, L.L.C.
P.O. Box 359
Eagle Butte, SD 57625
Phone: 605/964-3911

Linn Enterprises
P.O. Box 38
Linn, KS 66953
Phone: 800/252-0847

Linn Post & Pipe
P.O. Box 276
Linn, KS 66953
Phone: 800/526-0993

Live Wire Products Inc.
1127 “E” Street
Marysville, CA 95901
Phone: 800/272-9045

MaxFlex Fence Systems
U.S. Highway 219
Lindside, WV 24951
Phone: 800/356-5458

Meter-Man Inc.
2 South Main Street
Winnebago, MN 56098
Phone: 800/338-5756

Modern Farm
1825 Big Horn Ave.
Cody, WY 82414
Phone: 307/587-0179

New Farm Products Inc.
233 Hwy. 151 South Minderal Point, WI 53565
Phone: 608/987-2822

Parker McCrory Mfg. Co.
2000 Forest Ave.
Kansas City, MO 64108
Products include: Parmak Solar, battery & electric fence chargers, Baygard wire, tape & electric rope, Baygard fence posts

Pivotal Fencing System
10092 CR 36
Yuma, CO 80759
Phone: 970/848-5500

Premier Supplies
2031 — 300th St. Washington, IA 52353
Phone: 319/653-7622
IntelliShock energizers, twines & step-in posts

Rohrer Manufacturing
P.O. Box 32
Powell Butte, OR 97753
Phone: 541/548-7536
Man Saver T-post driver, T-post puller & air compressors

Roose Manufacturing
P.O. Box 322
Pella, IA 50219
Phone: 800/552-3276

Shaver Manufacturing
P.O. Box 358
Graettinger, IA 51342
Phone: 515/266-7550 Hydraulic post drivers, hydraulic & PTO post hole diggers & stump cutters

Sinclair Taylor Inc.
12 Wintergreen Way
Bragg Creek, AB, Canada
T0L 0K0
Phone: 877/666-5656

Thomas Wire Rope
12900 S. Sunnylane Rd.
Moore, OK 73160
Phone: 877/794-9799

6921 Stacy Rd.
Charlestown, IN 47111
Phone: 877/854-5497

Triple C Inc.
902 K246 Hwy.
P.O. Box 248
Sabetha, KS 66534
Phone: 800/530-5624

Tru-Test Inc. (Speedrite)
528 Grant Rd.
Mineral Wells, TX 76067
Phone: 800/874-8494

Twin Mountain Fence
P.O. Box 2240
San Angelo, TX 76902
Phone: 915/944-8661

Worksaver Inc.
P.O. Box 100
Litchfield, IL 62056-0100
Phone: 217/324-5973

Zareba Systems
906 Fifth Avenue East Ellendale, MN 56026
Phone: 800/272-9877

New Fencing Products

Fixed-Knot Fence

The Fixed-Knot cattle fence from Bekaert offers Class III galvanization for double the life expectancy. The maximum-strength, high-tensile wire is touted as 2½ times stronger than competitors' products.
(Circle Reply Card No. 113)

Pivotal Post

The Pivotal Post from Pivotal Fencing Systems has been redesigned to accommodate pivot irrigation units by allowing the sprinkler to “walk” over the fence. The post uses a full ¼-mile of wire and eliminates H-braces, loose wires, steel gates and hours of labor. The aluminum and fiberglass construction will allow for years of operation.
(Circle Reply Card No. 114)

Adjustable Gate Wheel

Eliminate gate sag and drag with this adjustable, rubber gate wheel from Modern Farm. The unit adjusts up to 24 in. and locks into place when adjustments are made. It fits most steel or wood gates.
(Circle Reply Card No. 115)

T-Post Connector

Build strong, economical fence braces using steel T-posts anywhere you can carry and drive them with the Speed Brace from New Farm Products. No tools are required to install the Speed Brace connector and you can build a complete unit in less than 5 minutes for under $10. Works in remote and/or rocky areas.
(Circle Reply Card No. 116)

Lockable Drop Bolt

D&D Technologies introduces the Lokk-Bolt, heavy-duty drop bolt that can be locked with a key and is designed to fit double-drive gates. The unit installs on metal, wood or vinyl and the stainless steel rod is available in three lengths: 18, 24 or 36 in. Driveway base plate is optional.
(Circle Reply Card No. 112)

Delta Energizers

Speedrite Delta-range, true low-impedance energizers, from Tru-Test, deliver extremely high output per Joule to work in the toughest of environments. The new Delta range is so powerful that the company has replaced five units with three new ones. Three output indicator lights allow you to see at a glance what the output voltage is. Available in .5, 1 and 2.5 Joule outputs.
(Circle Reply Card No. 118)

Self-Contained Post Driver

This new, skid-steer loader-mounted OH-100 post driver from Shaver is so tough it even drives railroad ties. Powered by a minimum of 10 gpm, the OH-100 can drive a 4- to 5-in. post into the ground in less than 15 seconds.
(Circle Reply Card No. 119)

Fast Driver

A unique spring-loaded piston inside Modern Farms' Post Pounder gives you a double-hit with every down stroke. It weighs 25 lbs. and is 32-in. long for extra leverage. Comes with a lifetime warranty.
(Circle Reply Card No. 120)

IntelliTwine Polywire

Premier's IntelliTwine features contrasting black and white filaments that offer maximum visibility and 7,000% more conductivity than standard 6 stainless steel polywire, the company says. Constructed of three stainless steel and three tinned copper filaments, as well as 24 UV-stabilized plastic filaments, it offers excellent elasticity and easy winding and rewinding.
(Circle Reply Card No. 121)

Gate Latch

Burly Corporation's new heavy-duty Diamond Head gate latch, features two steel gravity pins that automatically lock the gate when it is slammed shut. It latches from either direction and a striker pin holds gate up off the ground.
(Circle Reply Card No. 122)

Ringlock Arrives

Sinclair Taylor brings Ringlock, a complete, high-tensile fence (both horizontal and vertical wires) to North America. With Ringlock, you can build high-tensile fences for less per-running foot than a low-carbon, or even traditional barbed-wire fence. Ringlock's one-piece vertical picket wires means posts can be spaced further apart, resulting in lower installation costs.
(Circle Reply Card No. 123)

Wire, Wrap And Tape

New products from Twin Mountain Fence Company include the new Wrapper Wire with six strands of stainless steel, the surface exposure gives a greater shock to keep animals at bay; Mega Wire is braided for strength and durability and doesn't loop or tangle; Mega and Power Tape come as 10 or six stainless steel strands, respectively, for excellent conductivity.
(Circle Reply Card No. 124)

Plastic Wire Strainer

With a single tool — the new Tensulator from System Gripple, Tru-Test — you can join, tension, anchor or insulate fence wire. Durable, glass-filled nylon with a monofilament cord gives this versatile tool the ability to insulate and tension high tensile wire.
(Circle Reply Card No. 125)

Going Yellow

It's yellow. It's alfalfa. And, it's been around for a while — but you've probably never heard about it.

Head to northwest South Dakota and Bud Smith's ranch near Lodgepole though, and you'll not only get an eyeful of yellow-flowering alfalfa, you'll get an earful about how great this unique alfalfa is as a pasture forage.

“Anybody who's tried to interseed other alfalfas into rangeland or pastures with no success needs to look at what we've done with this alfalfa,” Smith says.

Smith's family began “cultivating” a subspecies of alfalfa (Medicago sativa ssp. falcata) in 1915. The original plantings of “falcata” alfalfa done by Smith's great-uncle came from seed brought to the U.S. from Siberia in the early 1900s by a South Dakota State University agronomist.

That 1915 “Gehriki place” stand still exists. In fact, it's spread significantly in all directions.

In 1962, Bud Smith, now 83, harvested some falcata seed from the Gehriki place and planted it. Today, falcata alfalfa is sprouting all over the ranch.

“We're always looking for a better forage,” Smith says. “I'm sold on this plant — we've grazed it with yearlings, we've grazed it with cows, and just haven't come across anything that does any better on this ranch.” He notes that he's never seen a problem with cattle bloating while grazing this alfalfa.

While Smith was quietly propagating his yellow-flowering alfalfa, other ranchers around the Great Plains and the Intermountain region tried for decades to interseed alfalfa cultivars. Most came away disappointed.

“One reason falcata's been a success is it has a more fibrous root system than other alfalfas,” says agronomist Jerry Schuman, Cheyenne, WY. Therefore it's more competitive with other plants, especially low-producing annual grasses and forbs, he adds. Schuman is with USDA's Agricultural Research Service High Plains Grasslands Research Station.

Hearing about Smith's experience with falcata, Schuman's interest in the forage piqued. He initially wanted to look at its nitrogen fixation aspect related to soil carbon sequestration. However, the more he got to looking at falcata alfalfa, the more he recognized its potential for pasture interseeding and range renovation.

“What impresses me most is the increased forage production and increased forage quality when this alfalfa is interseeded into rangeland,” Schuman says. “Most ranchers are not going to be all that hyped-up about how much carbon it stores.”

Schuman's evaluations have shown that various interseedings on the Smith ranch have increased forage production from 42-143%, depending on the age and relative success of the interseeding. Average protein content of native cool-season grasses in the interseeded stands increased 10%. It was 26% in warm-season grasses.

“There's no question that this is a good plant for introduction into grasslands and improved grass pastures,” Schuman explains. “Obviously, livestock gains and carrying capacity have increased where it's been interseeded.”

Schuman says a large part of the country is well-suited to falcata alfalfa.

“If you look at the climate it comes from in Siberia, it ought to do well in areas of 10-16 inches of annual precipitation,” he says. “It's drought-tolerant and very winter-hardy. I wouldn't use it where there's more moisture though, because there are other choices.” Smith's ranch with sandy loam soils averages 14 inches of annual rainfall.

So where do you get some seed?

“The only place that I know where you can get the seed is from Bud Smith,” Smith says. Smith's last quote for falcata seed was $30/lb. But with his interseeding recommendations of ⅓ lb./acre, a little goes a long way. Plus, he says, it only needs to be seeded once.

“The first year, I'll usually get about 35% of it to grow,” Smith explains. “The next year, the ‘hard seed’ will sprout — hopefully — and more will come on.”

Smith says it sometimes takes 3-4 years for rows to fill in. The falcata will keep spreading and take over the grass, unless it's grazed properly. Smith recommends a rotational grazing program to keep the alfalfa under check.

That's a problem a lot of ranchers would like to have, eh?

For more information, contact Schuman at 307/772-2433 (ext. 107) or Smith at 605/564-2181.

In managing for drought, communication is essential

“It doesn't matter what you do, drought increases costs and decreases revenues, especially if you have to sell off part of the factory,” says Martin Beutler, ranch economist with South Dakota State University (SDSU). Stationed in the western part of the state, Beutler is slugging through the heart of the drought with producers already forced to make tough management decisions.

Like producers in the other 17 states currently embroiled in what the U.S. Drought Monitor terms severe drought or worse, some ranchers in this part of the world have already liquidated. Others have begun to partially liquidate, or have delayed it by either hauling purchased feed to the cows or hauling the cows hundreds of miles to where there is feed. They're rolling the dice that late winter snows and early spring rains will catch up to their hopes and grow some grass.

But if the drought holds, as many forecasters predict, the decision-making will get tougher with best-case strategies varying from ranch to ranch. In every case, the only sure thing will be the benefit of soul searching that begins with defining available resources and goals.

Taking Inventory of Resources

Beutler encourages producers to take stock of what they have and can have in terms of resources — feed, land, labor, capital and management — relative to the requirements of the cattle on hand and the costs of the resources.

“Determine what's the most feasible, increasing the supply of forage and water, or decreasing the demand of livestock on these resources,” Beutler says. “This decision will be based on the goals of the operator and the operation's available resources, including additional financing.”

As you ponder alternatives, Beutler has this advice: “If it's something you've never done before, it's important to understand whether or not you have the skills and expertise necessary to do it, or if you can get them,” he says.

Likewise, whether the alternative represents a brand-new approach or a favorite ace in the hole, Beutler emphasizes that all potential income and expense need to be accounted for. “Employ a decision criterion such as partial budgeting, net present value or internal rate of return,” he says.

That includes accounting for opportunity cost. For example, SDSU Extension recently calculated the carrying costs of cows in this part of the world using feed hauled in and hauling cattle to the feed. They calculated a cost of $511/cow to bring in feed; $435/cow to haul cattle to the feed.

That compared to an annual cow cost in the range of $360 during a normal year. So, the opportunity cost to retain each breeding female — $75-151 — has to be weighed against the value of bred replacement females (see “Market Advisor,” pg. 6, December 2002 BEEF).

Again, while answers will vary by operation, Beutler says that at least in his part of the world, “I'm afraid the most economical answer will be to cull harder.”

Salt in the wound comes with the fact that as painful as such a decision is, it's always more complex than the numbers. As an example:

  • What is the value of the genetics in question; can they be easily replaced?

  • Even if the numbers say you can afford to keep cattle by hauling them to feed three states away, are the conditions and forage so different that the cattle won't perform?

  • What are the profit goals of the enterprise and what are the goals of the family overall?

The list goes on (see sidebar below).

Teamwork Pays

In every case, Beutler points out that producers can increase their options by taking stock of the support team they've assembled over the years. This includes bankers, Extension personnel and consultants. Visiting with them about the possibilities, he says.

“Keep your bankers in the loop, let them know what you're doing or wanting to do and why,” Beutler says. “They'll usually offer you the latitude to do it. Keep people like that informed and don't hit them cold with a problem.”

He notes some banks in his area have already foregone principal payments to help producers find their way through the drought.

“Keep in mind that in a drought situation, the management goal usually is to minimize losses rather than maximize income,” he adds.

For more on drought management, visit

Drought Management Checklist

  • Define your goals for the enterprise, your total operation and the family.

  • Inventory your current resources, including land, labor, capital and management.

  • Look for ways to economize in the short-run, including delayed or deferred capital improvements and expenditures.

  • Decide whether increasing water and forage availability or decreasing the demand of livestock on those resources is the most feasible.

  • Explore options you believe offer the most potential by estimating the total cost and return based upon how long you believe the option will need to be employed. Costs should include both direct and indirect outlays, be it acquisition and transportation costs, interest on additional financing or lost future income.

  • Use a financial decision-making tool such as partial budgeting, net present value or internal rate of return.

Source: Martin Beutler, South Dakota State University