Beef Magazine is part of the Informa Markets Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Carcass Ultrasound 101: Measures of Muscle

Undoubtedly, one of the more enjoyable eating experiences from the beef carcass is the ribeye steak. Often referred to as the longissimus dorsi in research journals, this muscle gets the vast majority of the attention in genetic selection as well as at the restaurant.

Ribeye Area (REA) is the sole measure of muscle in a purebred animal’s Expected Progeny Difference (EPD) profile, unless you include collaborative measures like % Retail Product, Yield Grade, or some Indexes (which use REA in the formula). The absence of other muscle selectors is not for lack of trying. Researchers have simply been unsuccessful in finding an indicator of muscle that is either more accurate or more practical than REA.

This creates a challenge for beef cattle breeders to use somewhat limited resources to make progress in red meat yield, not just REA.

Put simply, there are two main methods to measure muscle in beef cattle, dead or alive. Measuring REA in harvested cattle is certainly not new technology, but the introduction of online grading systems in packing plants offers a possible new tool to retrieve carcass information.

The “old school” method of measuring REA is often referred to as the “actual” value simply because it was the first method utilized. Estimates of REA from live animal judging, ultrasound, and camera grading are often gauged against carcass REA measured in the cooler. However, a deeper explanation of how REA is collected in real-world harvest facilities makes the term “actual” quite broad and also helps one appreciate new technology for selecting genetics for muscle.

In the current USDA Grading System, each carcass is “ribbed” with a knife at the 12th-13th rib. Given the variation in cattle and the speed at which plants operate, some carcasses are mistakenly ribbed at the wrong location, causing potential error in REA estimation. The most popular tool used in measuring REA in the cooler is the “plastic grid.” The clear plastic grid is placed over the ribeye face and squares equal to 0.1in2 are counted. Unless you are 6’5” tall, measuring REA with a plastic grid in a packing plant can be quite difficult. The ribeye facing of an average carcass is often above eye level, causing one to walk on their tip-toes as they follow the carcass moving on the rail, counting squares along the way. If you can picture this being done, you can also understand the possible errors with this method.

In some cases, cattle can be “railed off” so that measurements can be taken on a still carcass using a step ladder. Most harvest facilities will not slow or stop production just to increase the accuracy of REA. Fortunately, USDA Graders and online grading camera operators are elevated from the cooler floor to give a better view of the ribeye.

Numerous research trials have also used acetate paper to obtain REA. The paper is rubbed over the face of the ribeye and then peeled off. The muscle tissue leaves a discolored or wet residue on the paper, which can be traced around with a pen. The plastic grid can then be used to interpret REA. This method is more time consuming and has its pitfalls, but it does allow for collection of REA in a warm office rather than amongst swinging sides of beef.

More recently, on-line grading systems have found their way into commercial packing plants. This new technology offers a potential opportunity for cattle producers to receive accurate carcass data on an individual basis. This system basically uses a flash bulb camera to take a picture of the ribeye face and a complex software program to identify REA, as well as additional USDA quality and yield grade information.

Extensive research has proven this method relatively accurate, but numerous challenges exist in collecting REA from this system, including animal identification, traceability, cost, and computer error. Though the buzz around on-line grading is exciting and new, collecting carcass data via computer in a harvest facility can best be described as a “work in progress.”

Obviously, the advantage of live animal evaluation for carcass traits is the preservation of life for the animal being evaluated. The most popular tool for live animal estimation of REA in the last decade has been ultrasound. This technology can evaluate sires and dams, as well as their progeny, without sacrificing the animals themselves. As a result, genetic progress in REA can be accelerated at a lower cost.

The downfalls of ultrasound measurement of REA are similar to that of carcass estimation. To eliminate some of the error, a structured certification process was adopted by the Ultrasound Guidelines Council (under direction from the US Beef Breeds Council) for both technicians who collect the images at the ranch and those who interpret them. Ultrasound REA estimation attempts to mirror carcass data by collecting an image in the same location the carcass is ribbed. The interpreter then uses landmarks in the image to draw the outline of the ribeye muscle with a mouse. The computer then calculates the area within the outline.

The accuracy of carcass vs. ultrasound REA has been debated. Both are viable tools for selection regardless of which measure you prefer. Structured sire evaluations via carcass testing can improve a bull’s carcass EPD accuracy, but the study takes time and money to perform. Ultrasound technology allows cattle breeders to collect REA on the individual as well as relatives, but requires that contemporary groups be held intact for the information to have power. Each measure of muscle has its pros and cons in terms of accuracy, but the tools are available to make progress for those who utilize them.

However, intensive selection pressure for REA is not advised. One complaint from restaurant chefs is inconsistent plate portion size of the ribeye steak. This is not a problem for pork chop or chicken breast entrées. While happy bull buyers are important, breeders must make sure meat-eating consumers are repeat customers as well.

Assisting With Calving

About 80% of all calves lost at birth are anatomically normal. Most deaths are due to injuries or suffocation resulting from calving or delayed calving. Knowing when and how to assist can make a big difference in the calf crop from year to year.

The first step is recognizing a normal calving. As long as the calf is normally presented, the vast majority of animals will give birth without assistance.

The most likely candidates for problems are first-calf heifers. Less than 2% of calving difficulties occur in mature cows. Special attention should be given to young heifers, which are also more apt to tire quickly, especially if they are in sub-optimal body condition.

When and how to assist the cow:

  • Rule of thumb: Assist after 30 minutes of no progress.
  • Cleanliness is a must. Introduction of bacteria by equipment or arms of the person assisting can reduce fertility by delaying return to estrus and lowering conception.
  • Wash and disinfect equipment, arms and perineal area (anus and vulva).
  • Do NOT use liquid soap as a lubricant. It breaks down the natural lubricant of the cow. Methylcellulose-based lube is best. You can also use cooking oil, mineral oil or vaseline.
  • Calving area should be 120 sq. ft. (10' × 12') minimum, covered, well lit and well bedded.
  • Assess the situation by asking these four questions — in order — each time during an assist: Has the cervix dilated? Is the water sac broken? Is the calf in the proper position? Can the calf pass through the pelvis?
  • You can tell if the cervix is dilated by sliding your palm along the vaginal wall toward the uterus. You should not feel the cervix or any cervical ridges (they should be continuous and smooth). Assisting prior to full dilation can damage the cow and injure the calf.
  • Once the water sac is broken, it's important to make good progress — first, because there is a loss of lubrication. Second, the calf's impetus to take the first breath is the pressure differential between an all-water environment and an all-air environment. If the calf has tried to begin breathing, you will see a frothy mouth and nostrils. NEVER try to rupture the sac (unlike in horses and humans where rupturing the sac can increase strength of contractions and speed delivery).
  • If the position of the fetus is abnormal, use your best judgment to determine if you can correct the situation or should call the veterinarian. About 5% of calving difficulties result from abnormal presentation, and most need the expertise of a vet to assist.
  • Assess the size of the calf relative to the birth canal. Forcing a large calf through a small pelvic opening can result in injury and/or death of the cow and calf. If the head and front feet are still in the birth canal, a vet can still deliver via caesarian.
  • Chains 60-in. long are suggested over 30-in. chains. Attach the chains below the dewclaw and above the hooves. Placement is important to avoid injuring the calf.
  • Pull alternately on each leg to “walk” the shoulders out. At this point, traction should be applied straight back toward the tail head. All traction should be applied gradually to prevent damage that will result in later infertility of the cow.
  • Once the head and shoulders are free, rotate the calf 90° to aid in passage of the hips. Apply traction downward.
  • If the calf becomes “hip locked,” the umbilical can be pinched. If delivery is delayed, make sure the calf begins breathing normally and call for professional help.
  • All posterior (rear feet first) presentations are an emergency. Delivery must be made quickly and professional assistance is preferred.

Other tips: It's best for a cow to lie on her left side so the rumen lies under and not on top of the calf. Always set the cow back up after birth to avoid bloat.

Breach births and/or uterine fatigue are often characterized by a cow that acts like she wants to calve, then stops and grazes for a while, repeating this behavior several times. Call for assistance!
University of Missouri-Columbia

Table 1. Stages of normal delivery

Stage and time event
Preparatory (2-6 hours)
1. Calf rotates to upright position
2. Uterine contractions begin
3. Water sac expelled
Delivery (1 hour or less)
1. Cow usually lying down
2. Fetus enters birth canal
3. Front feet and head protrude first
4. Calf delivery complete
Cleaning (2-8 hours)
1. Button attachments on placenta relax
2. Uterine contractions expel membranes
  • Buy/sell margins - part III

    Buy/sell margins - part III

    The feeder-cattle futures market is being whipsawed by corn futures prices. Corn futures prices were in the mid-to-high $3 range early in 2007, decreased to the low $3 in mid-year, and surpassed $4 later in the year.

    Current indications are that futures corn prices could easily remain in the high $4 range throughout 2008. In general terms, corn went up $1 in 2007 and is expected to gain another $1 in 2008.

    When corn prices backed off in mid-summer 2007, feeder-cattle futures prices strengthened. But as corn prices rose last fall and winter, feeder-cattle futures trended down significantly (Figure 1).

    Most market analysts predict beef exports will drive slaughter cattle to a new record in 2008. At the same time, the mid-January futures market suggests feeder-cattle prices will trend upward again by mid-summer 2008, peaking at $7-$8 lower than mid-summer 2007.

    The net result is that as slaughter-cattle prices are driven to record-highs in 2008, corn prices will drive feeder-cattle prices to less than record prices. That is, the buy/sell margins for backgrounding and finishing calves will decrease. I think ranchers now fully understand that increasing costs of feedlot gains are driving buy/sell margins downward.

    Table 1 presents my January suggested planning prices for Western Nebraska. This is the third consecutive month I’ve published my recalculated set of suggested planning prices. This illustrates the general trend in cattle prices as we move through this emerging biofuels era and experience increasingly higher corn prices.

    Using Figure 1, readers can calculate buy/sell margins for many different marketing situations. For example, the fall 2007 weaning price for 550-lb. steer calves is $124 (Table 1). The price for 800-lb. backgrounded steer calves in January 2008 is $96 (Table 1). These two prices give a buy/sell margin of a -$28 ($96-$124). Readers should be able to use Figure 1 to calculate various buy/sell margins appropriate to their own marketing programs.

    A downward adjustment

    Even with the downward adjustment in feeder-cattle futures discussed around Figure 1, I’m still greatly concerned by my projections for continued backgrounding and feedlot losses due to overbidding for calves and feeder cattle. Basically, the feeder-calf and feeder-cattle markets aren’t adjusting in pace with the corn market.

    My January 2008 projected buy/sell margin for 2007 calf-feds is -$30 (Table 2), down $2 from my December projection of -$28. Large, negative buy/sell margins favor selling at weaning in what I call pre-weaning profit centers. Meanwhile, smaller buy/sell margins favor selling after weaning in post-weaning profit centers.

    All my analyses suggest that a typical rancher who backgrounded his 2007 calves ended up taking a big hit through large negative buy/sell margins. My projections suggest a huge buy/sell margin of -$28 with backgrounded calves (Table 2).

    It’s interesting to note, however, that the buy/sell margin for finishing back grounded steers is projected to decrease to only -$3. That’s low enough for me to project a $11 profit to finishing 2007 backgrounded calves!

    This suggests that the feeder-cattle market is doing a better job of adjusting to the corn market than the feeder-calf market. In general, the cattle market is slowly getting closer to returning a profit to the cattle-feeding sector.

    Comparing the buy/sell margins for 2007 calves (Table 2) and for 2008 calves (Table 3) suggests the buy/sell margins are indeed adjusting downward, but not enough to return a projected profit to backgrounding 2008 feeder calves, nor to 2008 calf-feds. The small projected buy/sell margin for finishing backgrounded calves is projected to start returning a profit for finishing backgrounded steers – albeit a small positive number.

    Where are margins headed?

    Some of my earlier work suggested that high feedlot gain costs during the emerging biofuels era may well require the cattle industry to live with -$6 to -$8 buy/sell margins for both feeder and slaughter cattle. This suggests that, by the end of the decade, $100 slaugh- ter-cattle prices will imply $106-$108 feeder-cattle and $112-$116 feeder-calf prices. Even with 2008’s projected $95 annual average slaughter-cattle price, this would suggest $101-$103 feeder- cattle and $107-$109 calf prices.

    It’s very important that ranchers un- derstand buy/sell margins can be adjusted in three ways.

    • Feeder-cattle prices can be reduced.
    • Slaughter-cattle prices can increase.
    • Or a combination of feeder prices adjusting downward and slaughter cattle adjusting upward.

    It’s extremely important that ranch- ers recognize that the increasing export market is what generated 2007’s record slaughter-cattle prices. That same in- creasing export market is again project- ed to set another record in 2008.

    Couple the growing export market with a decreasing domestic beef cow herd for the rest of this decade, and my $100 slaughter-cattle, $106-$108 feeder- cattle, and $112-$116 feeder-calf prices are real possibilities by the end of this decade. If ranchers put a strong manage- ment focus on their unit cost of produc- tion (UCOP), the ranch industry could live profitability with my suggested end- of-this-decade, biofuels era prices.

    Planning for successful breeding

    What tasks need to be done to help assure a successful breeding season this year? Let’s start with the bulls.

    Nationally, about 10% of all bulls fail a Breeding Soundness Examination (BSE) each year, and a similar or greater percentage are what I would call marginal. I’ve always been an advocate of a yearly BSE on all bulls, and veterinarian Tom Kasari recently confirmed for me the financial return to the owner.

    Kasari developed a spreadsheet to gauge the cost-effectiveness of performing a BSE on a bull. You simply plug in your figures and see the financial implications.

    I started off by surveying a number of beef vets to find the average price for a BSE, plus hospital/chute or trip charge. As I plugged in the numbers, I started with a 95% weaning rate and 550-lb. calves at weaning at $119/cwt. (as per Harlan Hughes’ January 2008 article in BEEF, page 10). If the BSE exam was at my average price and the improvement in fertility was only 3%, the benefit:cost ratio was just over 13:1. Thus, the value of the service was 13 times greater than the cost.

    Visit your local banker today, give him $1 and tell him you’d like to get $13 in return next fall. I think you’ll get an odd look. There’s no doubt that a BSE is the most cost-effective procedure you can do to ensure bull fertility.

    Let’s talk heifers

    On the heifer side, we see more and more herds doing reproductive tract scoring (RTS) on yearling heifers. At about 60 days prebreeding, these heifers are walked through the chute and palpated to see if the reproductive tract is mature enough for breeding, and to see if she is cycling. (You should also ask your herd-health vet about vaccinating these heifers with a modified-live IBR-BVD vaccine at this time.)

    Heifers that score 4 or 5 on the five-point scale have a mature reproductive tract and should be excellent candidates as long-term investments for the herd. Heifers that score 1 are asking to leave the herd. Implant and ease them onto feed so these infertile heifers can change careers to a feedlot animal.

    Heifers that score 2 and 3 are marginal. If you have mostly 4s and 5s, ask yourself, “Why did 75% of the heifers mature to become 4s and 5s, while the other 25% only score 1-3?” After all, they all had the same nutrition and opportunity to become that long-term investment.

    Should you feed the entire group more to get that 25% cycling, or sort out the 2s and 3s and feed them more? I’d do neither in my herd, as I want to set the bar quite high for inherent fertility. A marginally fertile heifer that’s asking for “a little special treatment” is likely to become a late-calving or open cow. Neither option is good for your herd.

    If you have a large number of 2s and 3s and almost no 4s and 5s, I’d question the nutrition or genetics. Weigh and frame-score the heifers at the same time as the RTS is performed. If they average 650 lbs. and frame score 5.2, you likely underfed the entire group from weaning until now. If they’re 800 lbs. and a frame 7, look hard at genetics (and put them in the feedlot where they belong).

    What if they’re all 4s and 5s? This sounds good on paper, but it may indicate they were all pampered and fed too much since weaning. We really need a few that score 3 and under to be sure we’re selecting for inherent fertility and not just overfeeding them.

    RTS cost-effectiveness

    As I examine the cost-effectiveness of doing an RTS on heifers and the average price from my survey, it seems an easy argument if historically fewer than 80% of your heifers are bred in a 42-day breeding season. On the other end of the spectrum, if you’re always at 95% or greater, you’re likely feeding the entire group too much.

    If you’re breeding your heifers for more than 42 days, consider moving it to only 42 days. If you’re at less than 42 days and 85-90% of your heifers are getting bred, congratulations. You need to share your wisdom with other producers.

    I’ve spoken with many owners who have reduced heifer-breeding time to 42 days; every one of them is pleased with the long-term results. Remember, a late-calving heifer becomes either a late-calving cow or an open cow, neither of which is good for your business. It’s better for your herd’s financial success to have an open heifer that can go to the feedlot and be sold as Choice beef than to have her calve late the first year.

    With a BSE on all bulls and an RTS on all heifers, you’re heading in the right direction toward excellent herd fertility.

    Up & Running

    Blame Mother Nature. Within the first few hours of a calf's life, it gets up, looks for the udder, and sucks on everything from the cow's brisket to the tail. In the process of responding to this most basic of instincts, the calf picks up every pathogen (bacteria, virus or organism that can cause disease) that's clinging to the cow. As a result, the calf gets diarrhea — otherwise known as scours.

    Bethany Lovaas, beef cow-calf management veterinarian at the University of Minnesota North Central Research and Outreach Center (NCROC) in Grand Rapids, estimates that 90% of pathogens are transmitted in this manner.

    Which is why cleanliness, to prevent scours, is a major critical control point of a calf's life.

    “Since we know exactly the time when the calf picks up the bug, we can then determine which bug it is by taking note of the calf's age at the time the scours finally shows up,” Lovaas explains.

    Field diagnosis is very easy, she says, and is based upon calf age. It begins by understanding the three major types of infectious scours:

    • Bacterial — E. coli (most prevalent), Clostridia and salmonella (rare in beef cattle herds). Bacterial-caused scours infections are evident within 0-5 days of a calf's life.

    • Viral — rotavirus and coronavirus. Rarely causing serious scours, these viruses impact a calf's immune system, allowing other organisms to cause bigger problems. Rotavirus is present from 4-14 days of age; coronavirus, 7-30 days.

    • Protozoal — coccidia (Eimeria spp.) and cryptosporidium. Cryptosporidium is very consistent (8-16 days of age), and all calves typically get sick on the same day (i.e., 11 days of age). Coccidiosis takes longer (21 or more days) to develop. The delay is due to the coccidians completing an entire life cycle before clinical signs affect the calf.

    These pathogens cause damage to the lining of the gut, making it difficult to absorb fluids. Dave Smith, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension veterinarian explains the gut is damaged in two ways: bacteria-produced toxin forces cells to secrete fluids rather than absorb fluid (secretory diarrhea); or viruses and bacteria destroy cells causing fluids to pass straight through the calf (malabsorption diarrhea).

    Stop it before it starts

    “Prevention of calf scours starts with the cow,” Lovaas says. The cow is the source of the pathogen, and as a result of not getting over its own infection, becomes an asymptomatic carrier. Lovaas says vaccination for increased colostral immunity against pathogens is helpful, but not enough.

    “All the best vaccine/colostrum in the world isn't going to be able to combat a monumental exposure,” Lovaas says. She recommends cleanliness.

    In her experience at NCROC, scours was a huge problem. It was typical to lose 6-8 calves/year due to scours, with every calf in the herd receiving some form of treatment. Under her guidance, in 2007 the NCROC herd didn't lose a calf to scours and only treated five calves.

    “The secret is clean calving pastures, clean cows and a clean barn,” Lovaas says, noting the Sandhills Calving System is an ideal method (see “Victory Is In The Planning,” page 22) to calve cows. Unfortunately, it's not always conducive to all soil types and operation sizes. If challenges present themselves, Lovaas tells producers to be forward thinking, consult others, and be ingenious to keep cows from making a mess of themselves and their environment.

    Vets have a difficult time quantifying how many pathogens are too much. “We know we're at a dangerous pathogen load when calves are starting to get sick,” Smith says, noting that all calves on a ranch are exposed to some level of pathogens.

    Weather plays a role, too, either increasing the transmission of pathogens, or a weakening a calf's immune system (hyperthermia/hypothermia).

    When temperatures are extreme, cattlemen compensate by providing artificial shelter for cows (windbreaks, barns, leantos, shade), all of which promotes congregation of cattle. As cattle lie down, manure clings to hair on legs and udders — readily available pathogen sources for when the calf nurses. Wet, muddy conditions provide ample opportunities for calves to drink out of puddles, which also favors pathogens getting into a calf's mouth.

    “I can't stress enough how important it is to keep your cows and calving areas clean,” Lovaas says.

    Feces identification

    There are times when it's necessary to evaluate the fecal material to gain insight on confusing cases of calf scours. For example, if the calf is too old for cryptosporidium, but too young for coccidiosis, the feces can help identify the cause. Once the source of the pathogen is identified, it makes for more accurate diagnosis and treatment. Here's the scoop on identifying poop:

    • Cryptosporidium will have the color of butterscotch pudding, and a very distinctive, foul odor.

    • Coccidiosis will have undigested blood in the feces.

    • E.coli and salmonella will sometimes produce blood in the feces, but calf age differentiates it from coccidiosis.

    • Acidotic feces is grey, a result of scours where bicarbonate is lost along with fecal material. The calf has limited means of replacing its bicarbonate, otherwise known as the body's buffer.

    “Scours that are very grey or white in color are not necessarily distinctive for any one cause of scours, but are more a result of an ongoing problem,” Lovaas says. If there's grey spattering from calves, she recommends including bicarbonate (baking soda) in the fluid therapy plan.

    Supportive therapy

    If producers have done everything they can to keep things clean but still have scours, Lovaas says treatment needs to be centered around fluid therapy. Hydration is key, as dehydration often causes the death of calves, not the bug.

    “The big challenge is to keep those calves hydrated with enough fluids for the dehydration and ongoing loss of fluids,” Smith says. A 100-lb. calf that is 10% dehydrated will require 10 lbs. of fluid to correct dehydration, and another 10-15 lbs. of fluids/day for ongoing needs.

    Calves going through scours are not only losing fluid, but also bicarbonate and electrolytes such as potassium, Smith says. Which is why he cautions that any supplementation for calves have those elements in it.

    “That's the most critical thing; taking care of the fluid and electrolyte losses, keeping that calf hydrated and balanced for electrolytes and bicarbonate while it gets over the infection,” Smith says.

    A typical calf will scour 2-3 days before looking better. In the worst case, calves that are treated extensively with antibiotics end up with fungal infections in the gut. That's because antibiotics have eliminated bacteria in the gut, Smith says, which causes the fungi to overgrow and calves end up scouring for weeks, if they don't die.

    Lovaas cautions producers that antibiotics have very limited utility in treating calf scours because they're only effective on bacteria. Scours caused by bacterial infections are usually manifested in very young calves (0-5 days). Lovaas says sulfa drugs (antibiotics) have activity against cryptosporidium and coccidian, and amprolium is an effective coccidoistat, which are the anti-infectives she keeps on hand for dealing with calf scours.

    Foster calves

    Some of the biggest scours wrecks that Glenn Selk, Oklahoma State University Extension animal reproduction specialist, has seen originated with the purchase of a foster calf. “The calf is carrying some scours organisms that we didn't see,” Selk says of calves that are purchased to graft onto a cow that's lost its calf. “We just bought ourselves a whole bunch of trouble because of it.”

    If producers are bent on purchasing foster calves, he recommends isolating the newly formed pair for 30 days. Remember, newborn calves (and their mamas) exposed to outside pathogens have no immune defenses.

    Does anyone smell smoke?

    It's wrong to yell “FIRE” in a crowded theatre when there is none. Conversely, it's irresponsible to say nothing when you perceive a threat.

    Fortunately, the beef industry isn't facing a life-or-death issue as literal as a fire. But there is something smoldering in our basement. It's a “pounds first” heap of indifference to quality.

    Within this heap there are leftovers from 30 years ago when we took consumer demand for granted and pushed whatever we could best produce. There are leftovers from when we broadened the grading standards for Choice and fought a “War on Fat,” with marbling as an unintended casualty. We were cost-cutters at all costs, in hopes beef could win market share back from pork and poultry, as if it were all simply generic protein.

    Did it work? One economist said it put the beef industry into a “death spiral,” but some of the embers are still glowing down in the basement.

    Turning the corner

    Fifteen years ago, we began to get it right. The industry's long-range plan called for a consumer-focused and producer-driven industry. The idea lit a fire under consumer demand. The good kind, that comes with the aroma and sizzle of a high-quality steak.

    We got it right when the beef checkoff promoted this image and the good news about “Beef. It's what's for dinner!” Never meant as “take it or leave it,” checkoff-funded research correlated quality to consumer satisfaction.

    We corrected course when the National Beef Quality Audit (NBQA) showed how far we still had to go. The Brand-Like Initiative called us to realize beef must be more than a commodity. It had to aspire to greatness. Continuing research showed the importance of taste, not just tenderness, but flavor and juiciness as well.

    Admittedly, my ties to the Certified Angus Beef® (CAB) brand suggest bias, but it looks like today's economics stoke the embers under that heap of indifference. Every segment must evaluate short-term profitability against the long-term sustainability of beef demand.

    I'm not so bold to suggest that pounds don't matter — we even track our program's growth by pounds — but a pound of gold is worth more than a pound of lead. The producers I talk to most have developed an economic bias in favor of producing high quality. A 2007 Cattle-Fax study says production of premium Choice and Prime beef adds $500 million/year to our pool of money. A steer accepted for the CAB brand often brings $160 more than its Select grade pen mate.

    Can we saturate that market? Not likely — the Cattle-Fax model shows dollar returns increasing as we increase the supply of premium beef. Where do these added dollars come from? From consumers. And we succeed by pleasing them.

    If you still think this is a protein-cost contest, check out the retail trends. Beef increased in cost relative to pork and poultry during the recent decade of recovering beef demand. Relatively higher retail beef prices are here to stay, which applies greater pressure on perceived value. If we fail to provide a higher quality product than competing meats, it's a no-brainer for disappointed consumers to switch to a much cheaper protein.

    Research and technology have done much in the service of our Long Range Plan, but not all discoveries feed the fire of consumer demand. Some of them encourage that smoldering heap. Some of them can only say, “Least-cost pounds of technically acceptable beef: It's what's for dinner!”

    Beta-2 agonists are the latest example. Some commodity cattle feeders say they're a hot technology for producing beef more economically. Others have warned what these wonders can do over time, however. The initial rush (“We can use this to cheapen our cost of gain!”) can become resignation (“We have to use this to cheapen our cost of gain.”)

    And when you step back and take a broader look, the impact they could have on a 15-year effort to build demand is alarming.

    Is this progress?

    Is this progress or a shortsighted solution with a long-term price? I know that no one sets out on the road with the intention of getting lost. We all want to sustain long-term beef demand, but short-term profitability is a powerful motivator in a segmented industry. How far down this road will we go before we feel the demand ramifications from such technologies? When we do, will it be too far or too late to turn back?

    Americans trust technology more than most societies, but we have limits. How many pounds of “Premium Cloned Beef” could we sell? It's a crazy idea, of course, but it follows the same logic as other “push-through” strategies that apply the wrong meaning to our promotional slogan of “It's what's for dinner.”

    If more producers adopt a brand-like attitude and aim for the premium beef targets, we'll generate more “pull-through” demand. We'll always have commodity beef that falls short, but we should never accept it as a target.

    Market signals can be confusing, because psychology can turn green lights as yellow as $5 corn. But higher corn prices only make premium beef worth more, especially in comparison to the lower-value cattle unable to cross the Choice/Select line, or build U.S. beef exports.

    The world demand for U.S. beef is specific: Choice and higher. That's what importers say they want from us. Conversely, domestic buyers say if they want Select-grade beef, they can import it for less than our price.

    Feeding the wrong fire?

    Are we headed down the wrong road, feeding the wrong fires? We can't afford to give people another reason not to buy beef. That's what happens if we produce more, lower-quality product. Even if the technology is new, the ideas come from that smoldering heap of indifference.

    While the pork and poultry industries work to put marbling and taste back into their products, we seem all too open to options that could simply make beef taste like the breading you put on it.

    No army gives up the high ground. Nor should the beef industry concede its No. 1 advantage — taste — to competing proteins and imported beef products. I've spoken with enough of you that I know I am not the only one who smells the smoke.

    Will we as an industry fan the embers in the basement or douse them? Let's aspire to greatness. Let's profitably produce more pounds of the beef consumers want. That will feed the right fire and bury that other heap.

    John Stika is president of Certified Angus Beef® LLC.

    Is More Really Better?

    The person who first uttered those famous words, “if a little bit is good, a lot is better,” probably didn't have a pistol-grip syringe in his hand. But, within reason, applying that thought to your branding and weaning calf-health program may not be such a bad idea.

    It all depends, says Larry Hollis, Extension veterinarian at Kansas State University, on how you market your cattle. If the calves are weaned in the trailer on the way to a sale barn, you're not going to get paid for doing anything special. “So at that point, you do what you need to do so those calves will stay healthy until you wean them and ship them.”

    While that type of system produces what feedyard managers politely call “high-risk” cattle, you still need to vaccinate your calves so they stay healthy at least long enough to get to the sale barn. The minimum, Hollis says, is a Blackleg vaccination at branding. “Then if they have experienced summer pneumonia problems, I want to get a respiratory vaccine in them as calves.”

    Value-added health

    However, if you're using your calf-health program as one leg of a value-added marketing effort, you'll want to take the “good thing” that a vaccination program offers and make it better.

    That's the approach that Jim Lerwick and his daughter-in-law, Diane, take. They're part of Lerwick Bros., a cattle and grain operation at Pine Bluffs, WY, that works hard at marketing their calves for all the dollars the market has to offer.

    And a part of that effort is their herd-health program. “There are two areas we're covering” with their health program, Jim says. “One is just insurance. That's the fear factor. What if we had an outbreak within our herd or in a neighbor's herd that somehow impacted us?”

    Beyond that, however, their health program figures in the bottom line. “Our relationship with the market and our experience indicate that the health program has been worth somewhere between $2.50 and $6/cwt. over time,” Jim says.

    It starts, says Bill Shain with Bluff Veterinary Clinic, with a modified-live vaccination program with the cows to get maximum protection against bovine viral diarrhea (BVD) and prevent persistent infection (PIs). “But it would be our impression that using modified-live annual vaccines in the cows seems to help the overall herd health,” says Shain, who is also Lerwick's veterinarian.

    From that baseline, Lerwick's calf health program is designed to give every calf every opportunity to succeed. Calving season begins the end of January and calves get a seven-way clostridial shot at birth, Diane says. The Lerwicks use the Sandhills Calving System, segregating calves by age in 10-day increments for 30 days. This prevents direct and indirect transmission of pathogens.

    Then at branding, which usually happens the end of March to the first of April, the calves get another round of shots, including a five-way, modified-live viral; a pasteurella; and another seven-way, according to Shain. The five-way modified-live viral contains IBR, two strains of BVD, PI3 and BRSV. In addition, calves are castrated and de-horned, he says, and the cows are vaccinated with a modified-live, five-way plus vibrio and lepto before they're turned out with the bulls.

    “Years ago, we thought it didn't do any good to use a modified-live respiratory viral at branding,” Hollis says. The thought was that the passive immunity from the colostrum interfered with the ability of the vaccine to produce an immune response. But new research has shown that a modified-live shot at branding or turnout stimulates immunological memory, Hollis says, and provides additional protection for the calf.

    When the Lerwicks' calves hit summer grass after branding, they're ready to grow and gain. “We really don't have any health problems,” Diane says, who handles the operation's recordkeeping and health program. “We will treat less than 1% of our calves between branding and weaning time.”

    They wean mid-September and precondition the calves prior to weaning. Three weeks before weaning, they gather the pastures and work the cattle. The cows are wormed with a pour-on and the calves are given their last round of shots, a modified-live, five-way and a Pasteurella vaccine, Shain says, plus access to free-choice mineral. “For the calves they retain (as replacement heifers), I recommend they boost the five-way viral at weaning,” Shain says, as well as de-worming.

    Both Shain and Hollis prefer modified-live vaccines. But Hollis says timing is important if the cows haven't been vaccinated with a modified-live product because of the potential for the calves to shed enough of the vaccine in their nasal secretions to cause the cow to abort. So, with unvaccinated cows, it's best to work the calves before you turn in the bulls.

    Why modified-live vaccines? “Modified-lives work faster, stronger and longer, give more complete protection and they're a lot cheaper,” Hollis says. But they do require proper handling so they don't get inactivated by disinfectants or heat and lose their efficacy.

    The problem with killed vaccines is they only stimulate half of the immune system. And the half they tend to miss is what's called cell-mediated immunity. “For many of our viral diseases, we need cell-mediated immunity to get full protection,” Hollis says. “Killed viral products don't produce cell-mediated protection most of the time. And modified live does every time,” assuming you've done your chute-side job right and are administering a fully viable dose.

    And, Hollis says, make sure the Mannheimia (Pasteurella) vaccine you give at weaning contains a leukotoxoid. “That's a critical element. It stimulates protection against leukotoxin, which is what rips the lungs up” during a respiratory outbreak.

    Does it work?

    Jim says their health program has worked well for them for a number of years. They have retained ownership through the feedyard on at least a portion of their calf crop for the past 20 years, giving them lots of feedyard performance and carcass data.

    They retain ownership because that gives potential buyers confidence when they bid on the rest. “If they (buyers) realize that I have retained ownership, for reasons I believe I can quantify, they know that I have confidence in what I've done and am willing to risk the feeding cycle to recapture that value,” Jim asserts.

    Jim says they're not trying to compete in the “buy ‘em cheap” marketplace. “If I'm buying cattle to upgrade because somebody else has made a bunch of mistakes and I can buy them cheap enough and upgrade them at a reasonable cost, that's one thing,” he says.

    “But if I'm buying cattle that I know every effort has been made to preserve and invest potential growth and profitability in, that's a totally different deal. And we fit in that category. We want to make that calf, that package underneath that hide, as potentially profitable (as we can), whether we continue to own it or someone else does.”

    Low-stress weaning

    Weaning calves the traditional way can be stressful — on the calves, on the cows and on you. In recent years, several weaning options have come to the forefront to help reduce stress on the calves. And that, proponents say, has measurable health effects.

    Traditional weaning. It's likely that most calves are still weaned the traditional way, where they're separated from their dams, processed (vaccinated, dehorned, castrated) and held in a dry lot or pasture until the bawling subsides. Or they're cut from the cows, loaded on a trailer and weaned while the wheels roll to the sale barn. As researchers have observed in the “weaning by blacktop” method, the question isn't why some of them get sick; the question is why they don't all get sick.

    Fenceline weaning. To help reduce stress, some producers have adopted fenceline weaning. That's where the calves are cut from their dams but the cows and calves are pastured next to each other. Research suggests that reducing stress on the calf can help improve immune function and reduce morbidity. According to South Dakota State University, fenceline weaning has been shown to reduce the signs of behavioral stress.

    Nose tags. Another alternative is to use a weaning device, such as a nose flap, that prevents the calf from nursing but allows it to drink and eat from a trough and graze. It's based on the concept that the stress of weaning comes from breaking the social interaction between cow-calf pairs, not from preventing the calf from nursing. After a week or so, the pairs are separated. Both research and practical experience finds very little bawling or other outward signs of behavioral stress in the calves and cows.
    — Burt Rutherford

    Products: March 2008

    Online Feed-Ration Calculator

    RCMR Inc., manufacturers of the EZ Ration Hay Processor, has launched a new online feed-ration calculator as a free service to cow-calf producers. The software and database allow ranchers to select figures matching their cow's weight and state of pregnancy.

    The user also enters variables for their feed/hay sources (e.g., protein, % TDN/energy, moisture percentage and cost per ton). The program will list the cow's nutritional requirements and calculate a least-cost feed ration utilizing the rancher's own feed/hay to best meet those requirements. Find it online at
    (Circle Reply Card No. 125)

    Tarp and fabric fastener

    Grabbit Tool Company has developed a family of products that allow tarp users to manage tarps. Available in three sizes (20-in. Long Grabbit , 6-in. EZ Grabbit, and 1.5-in. Mini Grabbit), Grabbits allow users to mount tarps to structures, seam multiple tarps together and replace torn grommets.

    Grabbits work well with poly and canvas tarps, plastic sheeting, linens, vinyl signs/banners, mosquito netting, burlap and landscape fabric. It can handle up to eight layers of poly tarp, or four layers of canvas tarp, at a time.
    (Circle Reply Card No. 126)

    Natural feed ration

    Land O' Lakes Purina Feed introduces Accuration® NB (Natural Beef) Feed. Featuring exclusive Intake Modifying Technology®, it's an approved feeding plan in many popular natural beef programs. Designed for cattle on pasture, it acts as a supplement cattle snack, helping prevent dramatic depression in forage digestion, which improves overall utilization of the diet and subsequent performance.
    (Circle Reply Card No. 127)

    Indoor cleaning

    Karcher introduces two new all-electric, hot-water pressure washers capable of generating instant hot water spray. Operating on 460-volt, 3-phase electrical power, the two models range from 3.5 to 4.2 gals./minute, and 2,000-3,000 PSI.
    (Circle Reply Card No. 128)

    Expanded Surehealth program

    Merial Surehealth® calf preconditioning program now allows producers to use any vaccine brand for certain protocols within the program.

    Protocols opened to all brands include: vaccination against respiratory viral infections, including infectious bovine rhinotracheitis (IBR), parainfluenza-3 (PI3), bovine viral diarrhea (BVD) and bovine respiratory syncytial virus (BRSV); vaccination against clostridial infections; and optional vaccinations against Haemophilus somnus and mycoplasma.

    The Surehealth program consists of comprehensive health protocols, including parasite control with an Ivomec® brand product; two rounds of vaccinations; a Pasteurella vaccination with Respishield® HM; a 45-day weaning period; and other best-management practices such as castration and dehorning.
    (Circle Reply Card No. 129)

    Belt conveyor

    The Drive Over-Pit belt conveyor from CrustBuster is known for its portability, high volume and durability in grain handling. It features 4-ft.-wide ramps for easy access, 8-ft.-long spring-loaded sidewalls for easy line up every time, 15-in. automotive style hubs and wheels for safe towing, and optional electric or hydraulic drive. The 16-in.-wide PVC crescent top belting will deliver over 9,000 bu./hour. Clearance height is 6.5 ft.
    (Circle Reply Card No. 130)

    Portable corral

    The Express portable corral from WW Livestock allows catch capabilities for 150-250 head and is available in standard or large units. Featuring 6-ft.-tall panels fabricated from 2-in., 14-ga. high-tensile steel tubing, this unit rides on high-speed highway hubs. All gates are spring-loaded or come equipped with spring-loaded plungers and strike plates. Each panel section has one-man setup wheels to roll easily over uneven terrain. The unit contains a heavy-duty select valve and sealed switch system and is equipped with a solar charging system.
    (Circle Reply Card No. 131)


    Omni 1 is the newest member of the OmniFount product family from Ritchie Industries. A blend of stainless steel and polyethylene construction, the Omni 1 can water up to 20 horses or cattle using only 125 watts of energy. It features a large access panel and offers overall heat coverage with heat elements located under the trough and around the water line. The trough carries a 10-year, 100% warranty against manufacturing defects or corrosion.

    All OmniFounts' drop-in valve covers allow for efficient water run-off over the water seal, which means less dirt and grime accumulates in the water seal groove.
    (Circle Reply Card No. 132)

    Horn fly control

    Ultra Saber is Schering-Plough Animal Health's newest pour-on insecticide for horn fly protection. The active ingredient, Lambdacyhalothrin and synergist piperonyl butoxide (PBO), has resulted in a 99% and 87% reduction in fly pressure over eight weeks.

    Doses are 10 mL (⅓ oz.) for cattle weighing less than 600 lbs., and 15 mL (½ oz.) for cattle weighing over 600 lbs. Ultra Saber is available in 900-mL bottles (treats 90, 550-lb. animals; or 60, 1,100-lb. animals) or gallon jug (treats 378, 550-lb. animals; or 252, 1,100-lb. animals).
    (Circle Reply Card No. 133)

    Best Guesses In The New Age

    Ask a dozen folks how to plan for the next 12 months and you'll get plenty of discussion based on myriad qualifications and assumptions, but few confident predictions. There are too many significant and dynamic variables up in the air for it to be otherwise. For instance:

    How many acres will be planted to corn, and what will be the ultimate yield of those acres?

    At last month's Cattle-Fax Outlook Seminar, analyst Mike Murphy explained the lower input cost of wheat and soybeans and their healthy prices mean that fewer acres of corn will be planted this year - the predicted decline is around 4 million acres. In turn, he says that places more pressure on corn yields per acre.

    Murphy points out the currently weak value of the dollar when compared to other primary global currencies is helping make U.S. grain exports more popular. But global demand has been growing quickly for the past several years, based on increased buying power.

    He explains global grain consumption exceeded global grain production four of the last five years; U.S. wheat stocks are at historic lows. U.S. corn stocks that normally run 20-30% are now in the teens.

    “We've seen more demand in the past five years than at any time in the previous 40 years,” Murphy says.

    Cattle-Fax expects corn to run $3-$5 this year, barring a hiccup in production, and with plenty of volatility.

    Will the government attempt to mediate rising feed and food costs by opening up Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres without penalty? Will it remove or lessen tariffs on ethanol produced outside the U.S., or adjust the blender's ethanol tax credit in this country, which continues to prop up an artificial price floor?

    According to USDA Secretary Ed Schafer last month, USDA has no plans currently to release CRP acres. In fact, at the annual meeting of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA), Schafer said, “For today and tomorrow, the growing demand for ethanol is likely going to mean corn prices will stay higher than what you want them to be. As we move to non-feed sources to generate our energy, it will stop distorting the prices of your feed.”

    He failed to mention how the dollar's weak value, burgeoning global grain demand - the growing inelasticity in the grain markets - and the price controls being imposed on selected grains by some countries will remove distortion from the markets any time soon.

    As for tariffs and tax credits, the love affair between Capitol Hill and green energy seems to have no bounds, at least during this election year.

    How severe and long-lasting will the nation's economic downturn be, and how will it ultimately impact consumer beef demand in this country and around the world?

    In terms of the economic downturn - fueled by the mortgage mess and credit crisis - the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) has reduced the target rate for federal funds (what interest rates are based upon) by 1.75% since the last half of September. Last month, Ben Bernanke, Federal Reserve Chairman, told members of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, “…The outlook for the economy has worsened in recent months, and the downside risks to growth have increased… The softer labor market, together with factors including higher energy prices, lower equity prices, and declining home values, seem likely to weigh on consumer spending in the near term… over the four quarters of 2007, the price index for personal consumption expenditures (PCE) increased 3.4%, up from 1.9% during 2006.”

    Of those expenditures, the all-food Consumer Price Index (CPI) increased 4% between 2006 and 2007, the highest annual increase since 1990. The Economic Research Service predicts the CPI for all food will increase 3-4%, as retailers continue to pass on higher commodity and energy costs to consumers in the form of higher retail prices.

    Though beef demand remained surprisingly strong last year in light of the negative national economy, it's lost ground since 2003, according to the annual Choice Retail Beef Demand Index.

    Continue Reading on Next Page...

    How quickly will full beef-export trade be restored to Japan and South Korea?

    Though it sounds like a broken record, optimism is growing that U.S. beef-export demand will be restored with Japan and South Korea sooner than later; Cattle-Fax is predicting some resolution in the first half of this year. With U.S. beef exports last year at about 70% of the 2003 level - before BSE closed markets - Cattle-Fax says a fully restored Japanese market would add an additional $65/head of fed cattle; fully restored trade with South Korea would add another $25-$30.

    In fact, depending on how you rationalize the future, the global buying power and demand for grain that's turned those markets inside out, represents the U.S. beef industry's most significant growth opportunity going forward.

    What will be the degree and speed of increased feedlot and packing consolidation?

    Last month, Tyson Foods shuttered its harvest facility at Emporia, KS.

    “At a time in the cattle cycle when cattle numbers should be at or near their highest, the level of production isn't approaching its historic peaks and we don't see any increases in fed-cattle production in the foreseeable future,” said Jim Lochner, Tyson Fresh Meats senior group vice president, last month when the company announced it would cease cattle harvest at its Emporia facility.

    At the time, Dick Bond, Tyson Foods CEO, explained, “There continues to be far more beef-slaughter capacity than available cattle, and we believe this problem will continue to afflict the industry for the foreseeable future. We estimate the current slaughter overcapacity in the industry to be between 10,000 and 14,000 head of cattle/day.”

    It's no surprise that packing and feedlot sectors - already with at least 20% excess capacity, according to most industry estimates - are looking to pare capacity to a point more in line with shrinking cattle numbers.

    As of Jan. 1, the inventory of all cattle and calves stood at 96.7 million - down slightly from last year's 97 million. All cows and calves are down 1% from 42 million to 41.8 million. Beef-cow numbers declined 1% at 32.6 million, while the dairy-cow herd increased 1% to 9.22 million head.

    The safe money sees further liquidation this year. Beef-replacement heifers were down 4% last year (5.67 million head). That doesn't mean beef production will decline significantly.

    According to Kevin Good, Cattle-Fax analyst, the U.S. will import about 2.5 million head this year. Even so, U.S. per-capita consumption will decline slightly because of supply, not demand.

    Speaking of which, Good says, from an inventory standpoint, the traditional cattle cycle is on life support, evolving into one based on beef production and technology, rather than cattle inventory - producing as much or more beef in relative terms with the same number or fewer cattle.

    How will the farm bill play out?

    By mid-February, a Senate-House Conference Committee was still in the throes of hashing out a farm bill that President Bush said he'd veto without significant revisions.

    Though the House presented a new version more to USDA's liking, Schafer explained, “The Senate's most recent farm-bill proposal recommends increases in taxes and significantly grows the size and scope of government while failing to implement much needed reform in our current farm bill programs… The President has said time and time again that he won't support a bill that raises taxes and uses taxpayer dollars to increase the size of government, and that is exactly what this proposal does.”

    Keep in mind, besides cost and reform, this farm bill continues to include language that would ban packer ownership of cattle more than 14 days ahead of harvest, as well as revisions to compliance mandates for country-of-origin labeling scheduled to begin in September.

    Which opportunities will individual operations embrace?

    It's not like anyone expects the bottom to drop out of the cattle market this year - supplies are too snug relative to demand, thanks to over-capacity in the feeding and packing sectors. Popular consensus among market analysts is that prices for calves and feeder cattle will be slightly lower next year, but that input costs will continue to rise.

    However, there's also more opportunity to differentiate products and add value than ever before.

    Whether its natural and organic, preconditioning, age-verification or brand-specific attributes - even grid and formula pricing for that matter - there are opportunities to receive prices higher than market averages. That's why the price spread for same-weight, same-sex, same-class cattle are historically wide and expected to grow.

    “You'll have to embrace more risk management in your operations,” says Randy Blach, Cattle-Fax CEO. “This is a different business today, and it's going to continue to change.”

    They Are What Mama Eats

    Everyone knows that dam nutrition influences how a calf comes into this world and survives early on.

    At least three decades ago, research showed that underfeeding pregnant cows — relative to their energy requirements — during the last trimester of gestation resulted in calves with higher morbidity and mortality rates.

    Colostrum quality and quantity is part of it. Adequate Body Condition Score (BCS, e.g. 5 at calving) is tied to immunoglobulin levels. The more immunoglobulin, the more disease protection in calves.

    “Since most fetal growth occurs in the latter part of pregnancy, the traditional hypothesis has been that the effect of variation in nutrient intake by the dam would have more effect during early pregnancy,” says Kim Vonnahme, a beef cattle reproductive physiologist at North Dakota State University. She points out 75% of the growth of the ruminant fetus occurs during the last two months of gestation.

    The bigger picture

    Though it is logical to focus on the last trimester, Vonnahme says recent studies indicate dam nutrition does more than affect growth and development of the fetus throughout gestation.

    “While maternal nutrient delivery during pregnancy has been shown to program the growth and development of the fetus, both during pregnancy and later into adult life, it appears that maternal nutrition also programs the development of the placenta,” Vonnahme says. “Not only is neonatal health compromised, but subsequent health may be programmed, as offspring from undernourished dams have been shown to exhibit poor growth and productivity, and also to develop significant diseases later in life.”

    Vonnahme explains fetal programming is the concept that a maternal stimulus or insult at a critical period of fetal development has a long-term impact on the offspring.

    Learning curve

    Knowledge surrounding this concept is still in its infancy, but Rick Funston, a beef cattle reproductive physiologist at the University of Nebraska, is already proving the impact.

    Funston and his colleagues conducted a three-year study evaluating the effect of dam nutrition on the growth and reproduction of those dams' heifer calves. Briefly, 93% of the heifer calves from cows supplemented with protein during the last trimester became pregnant overall, compared with 80% of the heifers out of dams receiving no supplementation.

    All told, 77% of heifers from supplemented cows calved in the first 21 days of the season, compared to 49% of those from un-supplemented dams. Those from supplemented dams also calved four days earlier on average. Heifers from dams receiving supplement also had fewer calving problems (78% unassisted vs. 64%), though the average birth weight was identical for both groups. Actual and adjusted weaning weights and weights at pregnancy were higher for the calves out of supplemented cows.

    “Our work was the first to demonstrate that late gestation nutrition can impact the calf for its life,” Funston says. “And all our data indicates this is independent of health.”

    In an associated three-year study — examining the effect of prepartum and postpartum nutrition on reproduction in spring-calving cows and calf feedlot performance — cows receiving protein supplementation weaned 5-9% more calves than cows not receiving supplementation.

    “It doesn't appear to be a passive immunity challenge,” Funston emphasizes. “Though we don't know all the metabolic signals involved, it seems to be more an effect of neonatal programming.”

    Long-term nutritional effects

    So, dam nutrition affects calf health, but also the fetal programming for performance independent of calf health.

    “It is during this early phase of fetal development that maximal placental growth, differentiation and vascularization occurs, as well as fetal organogenesis (development of internal organs), all of which are critical events for normal conceptus development (any point between conception and birth),” Vonnahme says.

    Consequently, dam nutrition exists as a critical control point for calf health across the entire gestation period because of its impact on fetal and placental growth and development.

    As this new knowledge emerges, though, if you had to pick the most critical period of dam nutrition, it would still be during the last trimester, says Funston. Not only is that when the greatest fetal growth occurs, but that's also when dam nutrition helps determine the ability of the dam to breed back in timely fashion.

    Although Funston believes having cows at BCS 5 by calving is a solid benchmark, he's convinced breed-back performance has more to do with the transition to an increasing plane of nutrition at early lactation than it does with cows being a particular BCS at calving.

    Likewise, recent research conducted by Vonnahme underscores the fact that over-feeding can be as detrimental to fetal growth as under-feeding.

    “We always talk about how the environment affects genetic expression and phenotypic performance,” Vonnahme says. “Now, we must also include the uterine environment in that discussion.”