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Vote On Horse-Slaughter Ban Could Happen Sept. 7

Despite having veterinarians and nearly every major horse, cattle, swine and ag organization in the U.S. opposed to it, H.R. 503, "The American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act," has a very good chance of passing. It's an issue with serious, long-term consequences for the horse industry and all livestock production. It's vital producers let their elected officials know their position, regardless of how they side on the issue.

As Steve Dittmer of the Agribusiness Freedom Foundation writes this week: "This issue highlights something the livestock industries must come to grips with. The public increasingly views production animal agriculture with the same attitude it views the critter sitting next to them on the couch - a dog or cat they consider 'family.' This blurring of the line between humans and animals - silly and incomprehensible to cattlemen who handle production livestock every day - poses a potentially fatal threat to livestock production."

These folks chip away. The veal, hog and poultry industries have been on the front lines, but our turn will come. The goal is to gradually change and alter people's perception of livestock production for food.

My kids watch basically one channel on TV, and that's Disney. Recently I sat down with them and spent an hour watching two programs. In both, the anti-meat message was a central theme.

Much like the war on terrorism, people are debating if there really is a war, or if it's a battle we should fight. Meanwhile, the opposition long ago decided it is a war, and they have one goal in mind - the end of western civilization and the end of livestock production.

This battle is something we must, as an industry, come to grips with. In both cases, the other sides' success is dependent on the fact it constitutes a holy crusade for them while we dismiss them as a lunatic fringe that can't possibly have the agenda they claim to espouse. Despite the hundreds of e-mails to the contrary, I love my horses, too.

Lifetime Managers

Grazing management involves more than moving cattle out of a pasture once the forage has been consumed. A good manager needs to know about the plants the pasture contains, its soil quality, water resources, and optimal resting period.

Grassland managers are planners — ready for catastrophes like drought, floods and fire — with written plans and management practices in place before disasters strike.

“We've switched our management routine,” says Jim Faulstich, owner and manager of Daybreak Ranch near Highmore, SD, “Rather than basing our emphasis on cow numbers and pounds of calf in the fall, we've switched to grass management and preserving the vigor of our grass and taking care of the resource.”

While much of the Midwest — into the western U.S. — Faulstich's place included, was hit with another year of drought, he emphasizes a good drought-management plan is necessary for survival and regrowth of pastures.

“It used to really hurt me to sell cows,” Faulstich adds. “But at their current price, I know if I cut numbers down under current circumstances my resource is going to be in that much better shape for recovery.”

Because of his belief in taking care of the land first, Faulstich became the first volunteer demonstration site for a program aimed at teaching all South Dakota graziers how to become better grass managers (more later).

The South Dakota Grazing Management and Planning Project (GMPP) was initiated in July 2001. Its brought together local, state and federal agencies, grassland and livestock organizations, university researchers and graziers interested in improving South Dakota's grasslands for grazing, wildlife, water quality and research purposes.

GMPP was set up in part by the South Dakota Grassland Coalition (SDGC), a non-profit group of livestock producers, private organizations, and local, state and federal agencies working together to promote grassland management.

“The coalition's objective is to help and educate people on how to operate and manage to make your grass survive and thrive, and how you can make a living doing it,” says LaVern Koch, SDGC chairman and a rancher from New Underwood, SD. “My feelings on grassland management is the closer you follow Mother Nature, the better it works.”

Getting started

SDGC received funds from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks (GFP). They also applied for and received an Environmental Protection Agency Section 319 Grant Clean Water Act grant through the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). The DENR grant provides funding to curb non-point source pollution and allowed the hiring of a project coordinator for the GMPP. In October 2001 Justin “Judge” Jessop began promoting the project and worked with a team to draw grazing plans.

Jessop, a Presho producer, says he visits producers interested in setting up grazing plans, and begins by finding out the producer's goals for his operation.

“What changes are you willing to tolerate? What are you willing to do?” Jessop asks each producer he visits. “What do you want to change, what do you want it to look like and what can we do to help you get there?”

After viewing the pasture, the water sources and fences, Jessop and his partner, Leroy Ness of Kimball, draw up a grazing plan and suggest improvements.

“Sometimes there is cost-share money available, and sometimes there's not a need for cost share,” Jessop adds.

He says the project has helped formulate grazing-management plans for producers with as few as 30 acres to one with more than 50,000 acres.

“This isn't a one-size-fits-all system,” Jessop says. “We talk about fencing, we talk about water — sometimes we use above-ground pipes that don't require a heavy investment, diesel fuel or a lot of time; and sometimes we have to bury the waterlines.”

The goal was to plan grazing systems on 150,000 acres during the five-year period of the 319 grant. Jessop reports the project has surpassed that goal, and looking to apply for a three-year grant extension. The goal for the next three years is a minimum of 60,000 acres.

“We're just scratching the surface with those numbers,” says Dave Steffen, a retired Natural Resource Conservation Service range specialist from Burke, and a GMPP founder. “In some locations we're very welcome and get several referrals from the local conservation districts. In others, we rarely get any referrals and word doesn't get out as fast.”

Demonstration sites

The project not only assists with grazing-plan management but provides examples of grazing plans that work. Two demonstration sites are available on working ranches. Faulstich set up the first-ever demo site — an intensive rotational grazing system. The second site is located on the Mark Sip Ranch near Geddes.

“Steffen was one of the instrumental people to see a need for a demonstration site to establish and document the value of management-intensive grazing, especially on native ranges,” Faulstich says. “I'm located at the center of the state and was already involved in grazing management. He felt our area would represent the average of South Dakota.”

Faulstich uses approximately 320 acres of pasture for the demo site GFP and FWS provided the initial funds for fencing materials and water supplies.

The site was divided into 21 paddocks, each averaging more than 15 acres. Faulstich uses the paddocks to graze his replacement heifers away from the main herd.

“The fact it's a demonstration site, we do run it more intensely than the rest of the ranch,” he adds.

Faulstich moves the cattle as the grass dictates they need to be moved.

“We started by using a 30% utilization rate,” Steffen says, explaining how the grazing plan was set up. “When 30% of the cover was removed, we moved to the next paddock.

“Temporary electric fence is very versatile as far as moving it around. It's economical and it demonstrates how easily you can cross fence on existing pasture and get set up into a system without a lot of labor and expense to establish a permanent system,” he adds.

Faulstich says the paddocks are normally grazed twice during the grazing season for an average of three days. This year's drought, however, has reduced grazing to a single occasion.

Manage the land

Faulstich emphasizes how important he believes land management is, especially in an area where drought and fire can be yearly threats.

“I'm a firm believer in having a drought plan,” he says. “We have certain critical dates we evaluate our moisture — Nov. 1 of the previous year, April 1 and May 1. The further into those three dates we go, the more involved we are in determining how to reduce grazing pressure on the entire operation.

“We establish priorities for individual cows we're willing to put first on the sell list, and then we early wean their calves and put them on creep feed. By getting rid of those cows, we reduce the demand for forage,” he adds.

He's more than willing to share his knowledge with others, hosting several tours each year and making his ranch available to GMPP participants. South Dakota State University researchers also make use of the demo site, analyzing forage quality and moisture management to use as teaching tools.

And while Faulstich advocates the importance of management-intensive grazing systems, he cautions, “Don't just go out and start building fences and put in water. It's not a band-aid for poor management. It probably increases management, but I think the rewards are well worth it, if done properly.”

For more information on GMPP or SDGC, visit www.sdgrass.org, or call Jessop at 605/280-0127.

Montana Brand

When Molly Descheemaeker and six other ranch women from central Montana started their branded beef business in 1978, little did they know the course they were charting. Now, after a 20-year hiatus, their label — Montana Ranch — has morphed into a multi-million-dollar, branded fresh-beef enterprise.

Descheemaeker, Grass Range, MT, was secretary-treasurer and chairman of the board of the small company that produced the premium “pure” canned beef the women sold literally out of the trunks of their cars — and via mail order. After finding markets in all 50 states and overseas, the demands of family ranch life prevailed over economics and they put the business on ice. The group kept the brand name registered, however, and never lost their appreciation for what it means to put your name on a label.

“It was a branded-beef program before there were branded-beef programs — except it was in a can,” Descheemaeker jokes. “Seriously, cull-cow prices were so low in those days, we couldn't see any reason why we couldn't do better by selling our own beef directly to consumers.”

While the early version of Montana Ranch Brand was run on a shoestring, it did hold back a little money in the coffers, money eventually plowed into what's now known as Montana Ranch Brand Natural Meats.

Today, Descheemaeker's husband Larry, and sons Pat and Greg, are partners in the company that's entered the fresh “natural” branded-beef business with the same energy and vision that brought the original concept to market.

“These guys are asked to produce and promote an entirely different product, but the same challenges and opportunities exist,” she says. “They took over our brand name and gave it the professional look we never had the capital to develop.”

Descheemaeker's optimism lies partly in the nationwide movement away from “commodity” beef and to “program” beef — something she believes Montana Ranch Brand can capitalize on very soon.

“We're in an entirely new era in the beef business. I think they will be a whole lot more successful this time around,” she says. “The time is right.”

Program beef production

Montana Ranch Brand's Authentically Natural Ranch Beef is raised without added growth hormones or antibiotics, and falls under the USDA classification of “minimally processed, no artificial ingredients.” The company's featured product lines are split about 50/50 between “natural” ranch beef and Certified Piedmontese Beef.

A double-muscled breed, Piedmontese exhibits superior muscularity and leanness because of mutations of the myostatin gene. The gene is involved in control of the number of muscle cells that result in generally more tender beef with less marbling.

Of course, the owner/investors in Montana Ranch Brand want to cash in on the appeal of Montana's image. It's an image that helped draw Ron McAdams, Big Timber, MT, into the business aspect of Montana Ranch Brand.

“I've felt that as a resident of Montana — although for only 15 years — this is the type of business I should be investing in,” he says. “I don't own cows, but I own a ranch I lease out — so I have a connection to the state and an interest in seeing a sustainable and profitable beef industry as a whole.”

His second motivation is his firm belief in allowing consumers a choice beyond commodity beef — especially guaranteed “natural” beef as a segment within program beef production.

“‘Natural’ is something I want to be involved in,” he explains. “I'm not saying growth hormones shouldn't be used, I simply want to participate in one of the most dynamic growth areas in this business.”

McAdams has deduced that by working to provide a differentiated natural-beef product as an alternative to conventional beef, outfits like Montana Ranch Brand can reach a consumer base that might not otherwise consume beef, or as much of it.

“Overall, beef demand could indeed get a boost from consumers who perceive they're getting a more wholesome product,” he says. “It stands to reason that if in fact we're helping to expand the consumer ‘pie,’ everybody in the beef industry will benefit.”

Looking for cattle

Ralph Peterson, Billings, Montana Ranch Brand's president and COO, has been with the company since its formation 18 months ago. He came to the program from Montana Range — a similar program that originated from the Billings, MT-based Leachman family of companies.

“We specialize in servicing small, independent retailers with whom we can develop close relationships,” he says. “Our goal is to partner with them to provide source-verified, natural meat products.” He wants Montana Ranch Brand to be the direct source of beef for their stores.

“We want to be the beginning and end of their meat programs,” Peterson explains. “We want to be thought of as their ‘cousins’ on the ranch providing meat products they can trust.”

Montana Ranch Brand is offered in nearly 50 stores in 10 states from California to Connecticut. Peterson keeps busy traveling to current and prospective customers, doing in-store demos, learning about the local businesses, and negotiating contracts.

“Of course, we want to get into more stores and fill more space in their meat cases,” Peterson says. His goal for 2006 is $10 million in sales. To do so, Montana Ranch Brand needs more — and the right kind of — cattle.

“We'd like to focus on Montana producers and work toward someday sourcing our entire product from within the state,” he says. “But for now, we're looking throughout the Great Plains and Intermountain regions for producers who want to work with us.”

Anyone interested in becoming a part of a value-added production and marketing program should contact Peterson. “We'll evaluate them and their base cattle herd first, and their location second,” he says.

Montana Ranch Brand cattle are being fed in several approved feedlots, harvested and processed in Hastings, NE.

Peterson reports a “pretty nice” incentive structure for producers who go through the extra steps required to produce the kind of cattle that meet the brand specs. Cattle raised for their natural program can earn up to $100/head in premiums for the finished animal.

“What we really need are more producers who will get involved in our Piedmontese program,” Peterson says. “Our premium structure is geared toward high-muscle genetics. We need that muscle in the ‘money meats.’”

The value chain

John Grande, Lennep, MT, is a rancher/investor in Montana Ranch Brand. He's getting involved mainly because he sees opportunity in producing what's become known in the industry as “story” beef — and believes there's some value to the “Montana” label.

When it comes to talking about the natural connection, Grande goes beyond political correctness.

“We're still producing commodity beef though, and we're not here to say one production system is better, or produces a more wholesome product, than another,” he says. “The science just isn't telling us that natural beef is any better for a person than conventional beef.”

But science or not, he thinks if there are market opportunities in producing natural beef it's something worth looking at and worth an investment. He's interested enough to have traveled to product promotions in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

“I've talked to people who at first tell us they don't eat beef, and five minutes later they're buying our product,” he says. “We're a differentiated product; if there's opportunity, why not work to capture that share of the market?”

Molly Descheemaeker says the key is fitting together all the pieces that collectively form the value chain and ultimately promise a better return for the rancher.

“We've started this business by providing a product we can be proud of — and a product we'll stand behind,” she says. “That's what goes with putting your name and your reputation on the label for everyone to see.”

Putting Hay To Work

For the past seven years, Mike Moon's had his winter-feed supply working for him three ways — as winter feed, as animal shelter, and as a fuel-saving measure.

Since 1998, the manager of the John E. Rouse Beef Improvement Center near Saratoga, WY, has stacked more than 2,000 tons of large, round bales in giant “V” shapes pointed directly into the prevailing winter winds.

The hay serves as winter feed for the Colorado State University (CSU) facility's 400 commercial Angus cows and yearlings. But the stacking method also helps stabilize the cattle's nutritional requirements by providing them with shelter from chilly winter winds. Plus, the V shape makes snowed-in haystacks a thing of the past.

Moon sets the giant, V-shaped walls of large round bales in his winter-grazing areas. He stacks the bales two deep and two high to a height of about 12 ft. The bottom rows stand vertically and the top rows lay horizontally across the top.

The two, 100-ft.-long wings (50 bales each side) come together to form a 90° wedge. The point is oriented directly into the prevailing winter winds that blow off the Sierra Madre Mountains 20 miles to the southwest.

The hay compacts to form a solid surface impervious to wind. When the wind runs into the V shape of the stack, it spills to the sides, channeling wind and snow along the sides of the wedge rather than over the top.

The diversion greatly reduces the wind velocity in the area behind the stacks for as much as 300-400 ft. downwind. It also eliminates accumulation of blowing snow in the protected area.

Moon's old-style stack yards tended to drift in, he says. It wasn't unusual to have to use a crawler tractor to cut a path into a stack yard and dig out the bales at feeding time. The wedge design, however, keeps bales accessible as the wind scours snow from along the front of the structure and deposits it downwind outside the shelter area.

“We've found the system works very well. The wedges take less space than our old stackyards and are cheaper to fence because of that,” he says. “We haven't had much snow the last five or six years but we have had a lot of wind and below-0 weather. That's when the cow's really utilize the shelter behind the wedges.”

Moon began by building two of the wedge structures the first year, and added another the following year. This winter, he plans to have four — three for cows and one to protect feedbunks in the bull-feeding area.

During the winter-feeding season, Moon feeds from the ends of the wings. To prevent feed waste to wildlife, his wedges are surrounded by game-proof fence, something operators in other locales shouldn't have to do.

“If you don't have a wildlife problem, temporary wire panels probably will work to keep cattle out of the hay supply,” Moon says. “Corral panels would work the best, but they're expensive.”

Moon feeds from the ends, working toward the middle as the winter progresses and the need for shelter dwindles. On the coldest of days (those 0° and below), he feeds behind the shelter. On most days, he spreads hay away from the shelter to draw cattle out from the protected zone to spread out the manure buildup.

The hay wedges are the brainchild of Bob Jairell, a hydrologic technician formerly with the Rocky Mountain Research Station in Laramie, WY. The idea was born out of research he and a team of blowing-snow experts developed over more than three decades. The team's methods and designs are in extensive use throughout the world.

Two of them — capturing blowing snow to augment livestock water supplies, and livestock wind shelter techniques — have been chronicled in past issues of BEEF (see “H2O On The Blow,” May 1990, page 12; and “Wind Wedges,” February 1992, page 10).

Slippery slope?

There was a story in my local paper recently about a Third-World visitor who, after spending time with host families in the U.S., was asked his favorite aspect of the trip. He replied he really liked the colorful selection of toothbrushes his hosts always made available to him in their bathrooms after dinner.

That naivete is something of a groaner to picture in your mind but it delivers an eye-opening perspective. Those of us raised and/or operating in a mindset familiar and sensible to us often don't foresee opportunities for misperception by outsiders.

The horse industry is at the center of a major battle with activists bent on banning the harvest of horses in the U.S., and export of the horsemeat. What's at issue is passage of H.R. 503, “The American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act.”

Opponents of horse harvest won a perceived victory last year when Congress pulled federal funding for inspections. The scheme was thwarted, however, when USDA instituted a “fee-for-service” system where processors pick up the tab. H.R. 503 would enact a permanent ban.

USDA says 65,976 horses were harvested in the U.S. in 2004, and 91,757 in 2005. These were unwanted animals — sold because they were no longer serviceable, infirm, dangerous, or their owners couldn't care for them. Such horses moved through three U.S. plants, with the meat exported to Europe, Japan and Mexico.

No funding provisions

But, what's to be done to provide for the eventual millions of unwanted horses under such a ban? The legislation contains no mechanism for financial support, nor is there an infrastructure of rescue and retirement facilities to care for them.

What about disposal of these animals upon their natural death? What environmental risks do the disposal of an additional 70,000 horse carcasses/year pose?

Fact is, the harvest of horses is a necessary and humane alternative, provided the animals are treated humanely in transport and harvest, and such laws already exist.

The American Association of Equine Practitioners estimates basic subsistence care for an additional 70,000 horses annually would cost $1,825/horse/year. That's just the first year. Then there are the subsequent years of care and that for the millions of horses that would later join them.

A recent analysis, “The Unintended Consequences of a Ban on the Humane Slaughter (Processing) of Horses in the U.S.,” found a ban on horse processing would do more harm than good to horse welfare in this country. Commissioned by the Animal Welfare Council (www.animalwelfarecouncil.org), the study by nine university researchers found a horse-processing ban would devastate the horse market by devaluing horses as much as $304/horse.

Beyond that, the study found keeping a horse past its usefulness isn't a realistic option for most of America's horse owners. Almost half of U.S. horse owners have an annual income between $25,000 and $75,000 — and the average cost per year for maintenance is $2,340/horse, not including vet care.

“Those supporting a horse processing ban may be well-intentioned,” says study author Gary D. Potter, Texas A&M University professor emeritus. But, he adds, “the independent study shows enacting H.R. 503 would actually make things worse for tens of thousands of other horses, the whole of the horse industry, and society in general.”

I've never tasted horseflesh, nor have a desire to do so. And I do consider horses to be among God's most noble and beautiful creatures. But these folks, driven by “companion animal” emotion, haven't much thought through their plan. And really, if emotion is allowed to drive this legislation to reality, what does it portend for animal ag as a whole in the U.S.?

Decide now or pay later

“The problem with drought is people keep wishing it'll go away instead of making decisions — until Mother Nature or the lender makes those decisions for them. Then, it's not a decision, it's managing a catastrophe,” says Greg Lardy, North Dakota State University beef nutritionist.

There's plenty of wishing going on. Large chunks of cattle country are beyond parched, with little standing forage and little hay heading into winter. And what's available is typically too costly to be practical for wintering cows.

In Lardy's part of the world, some producers began selling cows in June. Producers have already turned cattle into grain fields that wouldn't make a crop, despite concerns about nitrate toxicity.

Even with more Conservation Reserve Program ground made available for haying through USDA's emergency program, high diesel prices make it less compelling. As if that weren't enough, in some areas where forage is available, ponds and dugouts have dried up, or are shallow and of harmfully poor quality.

In Colorado, Jack Whittier, Colorado State University Extension beef specialist, says winter hay and pasture will be fed up before winter ever arrives.

“The key difference this time (compared to the 2002 drought) is diesel cost $1.35/gal. then; it's $3 and higher now,” Lardy says.

That means even in-state hay is facing extra freight on prices that have escalated, even for poor-quality hay. As an example, Lardy says increased hauling fees and diesel costs add $36/ton to hay hauled 200 miles.

“The other difference is that in 2002 we were just coming into the uphill part of the price cycle,” Lardy says. Now, calves from cows kept this winter, let alone from heifers kept to replace or expand, will be marketed on the downside.

Explains Whittier, “It's time to make sure you're wintering the right cows, and the number of cows make sense. Watch the market and don't miss the opportunity to get some value out of problem and aged cows you can't justify wintering.”

Survival strategies

There's not much new about drought, the potential ways to work around it, or the fact no one solution fits every outfit:

  • Early wean — “We learned during the last drought that early-weaned calves get along very well in the feeding system,” Whittier says. “By getting calves off the cows you can extend available forage supplies and get cows in better condition before winter. You can use that extra condition as a buffer through winter.”

    He cites University of Nebraska research indicating early weaning calves reduced feed consumption of the cow by about 25%.

  • Ship cows — Lardy says some North Dakota producers are sending cows to feedlots for maintenance; others are looking to place them with someone else to winter them more like they normally would. If considering feedlots, Lardy suggests: “Find three or four worth considering, go visit them. Interview the managers, ask for and check references. Call the veterinarian and Extension agent in the area, too.”

    Whether at the feedlot or someone else's ranch, he stresses, even with the best of care, cattle are going into a different environment, then ultimately will be making the switch back home again.

  • Utilize alternative feeds — fast-growing annuals, if there's fall moisture, for example. Freight is obviously a key with purchased feeds. And some sources considered in the past, such as ammoniated wheat straw, are less available and/or more costly than they used to be.

  • Water — Lardy cautions producers to check the water and the cattle regularly. Total dissolved solids increase as water levels decline. When cattle must walk further into the water source there's more risk of injury or getting stuck in boggy mud, too.

  • Long-term pasture health — In extreme heat, cattle congregate near water. That means pasture utilization declines, while traffic becomes too heavy in certain parts of it. Lardy recommends self-fed supplement at the opposite end of the pasture to encourage cattle to move away from the water source.

One strategy more producers are beginning to embrace in Oklahoma is limit-feeding, says Dave Jones of the Livestock Nutrition Center at Fletcher and Chickasha. Producers in his area began toying with the practice during that area's last hard drought in 1998. You can find details about the strategy on page 16, “Making Hay Without It.”

Protecting the base herd

“For most people, the goal is going to be keeping a base herd of a certain size, but that goal will be determined by their long-term outlook,” Lardy says. Folks nearing retirement may decide it's the perfect time to exit the business, for example.

“Now's the time to sit down with lenders and tell them things are getting tough, how you plan to handle it, and what it will cost. We have lenders telling us: ‘These guys need to come in and talk about what's going on so we can figure how best to help them.’”

In the meantime, if there was ever a time to lock up feed prices, this may be it.

“I look for feed prices to really escalate this year. If producers wait to buy feed as they go, they could look at prices $30-$40/ton higher than compared to last year when we get into winter and demand increases,” Jones says. “Riding the cash feed market is probably a mistake this year.”

Fitting DDGs into feeding rations

The increasing availability of dried distillers grains (DDGs), a feed-grain by-product resulting from grain conversion into ethanol, begs the question of how they can fit into cattle-production environments.

Kansas State University (KSU) researchers used 346 steers (572-lb. average) to evaluate DDGs performance in an early intensive-grazing system. The pelleted DDG was from sorghum grain.

After a brief preconditioning and backgrounding period at a commercial yard, the cattle were grazed May 1 to Aug. 3, 2005, at KSU. Four treatments were randomized over 16 pastures — no supplementation (CON); a supplemental rate of 0.3% of body weight of DDGs (LOW); a supplemental rate of 0.6% of body weight of DDGs (MED); and a supplemental rate of 0.9% of body weight of DDGs (HIGH). All were on an as-fed basis.

Supplement treatments were fed once daily June 15-Aug. 3 in feed bunks located in each pasture. Weights were estimated based on a projected average daily gain (ADG) of 1.8 lbs./day from May 1 to June 14. Supplements were adjusted every two weeks based on an ADG of 2 lbs./day during the supplement period of June 15 to Aug. 3.

Grazing trial results suggest providing DDGs as a supplement at 0.3% body weight results in about a 0.2 lb./day increase in gain relative to non-supplemented cattle. Feeding at higher levels increases gain and may allow for higher stocking density. The researchers recommend prospective users conduct a partial budget analysis of DDGs and its delivery costs to determine its financial feasibility.
KSU Beef Tips newsletter, May 2006

North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming researchers studied the effects of weaning calves 75 days earlier than normal, and followed their progress through the finishing phase.

Weaning calves early can improve cow weight and condition scoring, and stretches the forage supply. This can be especially beneficial in years of drought, when forage supplies may be running low.

In an ongoing study, researchers found backgrounded, early-weaned steers grew faster and were more efficient, but required an extra 61 days on feed to reach final harvest weight.

Cow herds from the South Dakota State University Antelope Station (SDSU, 140 cows); North Dakota State University Dickenson Research Extension Center (DREC, 88 cows); and the University of Wyoming Beef Unit (UW, 93 cows); were used in the study.

Cow body condition scores (BCS) were monitored August to November to measure early weaning's impact on cow performance, and calves' weaning weights recorded. Calves from SDSU and DREC were transported immediately after weaning to a backgrounding facility. Steers were backgrounded 49 days if they were early weaned, and 54 days for normal weaned. After 7-8 weeks of backgrounding, they were transported for finishing to a commercial feedyard. Calves from UW were managed in a similar manner.

Researchers found early weaning helped maintain and improve cows' body weight and BCS. Normal-weaned steers were heavier entering the backgrounding phase, but early-weaned steers from DREC had a higher average daily gain (ADG) during backgrounding. SDSU calves had similar ADG across weaning dates.

During the finishing stage, normal-weaned steers were an average 169.4 lbs. heavier on arrival, but final harvest weight didn't differ between groups.

Hot carcass weight and ribeye area didn't differ between groups, nor did yield and quality grades. However, UW early-weaned steers had greater yield and quality grades because that group was fed to a higher degree of finish.

Researchers say early weaning is advantageous in sparing a significant amount of forage and improving cow body condition. Early-weaned calves performed well in the backgrounding phase. Researchers are currently working on data for the study's second year.
South Dakota State 2005 Beef Report

Programmed Returns

“I've had some of the largest stocker operations in the area tell me if they had the guts, they'd get rid of every lease and go strictly to program feeding because they can put 300-400 lbs. on the calves at a similar cost to grazing, but with more predictability,” says Dave Jones, general manager of Livestock Nutrition Center facilities at Chickasha and Fletcher, OK.

Even those more inclined toward tradition are taking a harder look at it this year given the horrid grazing conditions since last fall.

“I think program feeding is the biggest opportunity for stockers in our area this year, other than getting lots of rain the next couple of months,” says David Lalman, Oklahoma State University Extension beef specialist. “At current prices, we can design a program ration for $120-$130/ton if you mix it yourself, $130-$140/ton if you have it mixed. That's 6¢/lb. for feed, and conversions are 5:1 to 6:1.”

For those unfamiliar with the practice, Lalman explains the terms “limit-feeding” and “program feeding” refer to feeding a limited amount of a high-concentrate ration to achieve a specific weight-gain target.

“A very small amount of roughage, if any, will be fed,” Lalman says. “This varies greatly with traditional management where cattle have free-choice access to forage and you take what weight gain you can get.”

More specifically, Lalman says, “With program feeding, you're limiting them to two-thirds to three-quarters of what they would normally eat. Typically, rations consist of 80-85% whole-shelled corn and 15-20% of a commercial pelleted supplement. The total amount of ration offered is increased every two weeks or so to maintain the desired level of gain.”

He adds many feed companies have supplements formulated for this purpose, and can help with supplement selection for specific classes of cattle and rates of gain.

For most folks, any non-forage discussion these days centers on grain by-products. Though some products, wheat-mids for one, are currently priced beyond program-feeding practicality, Lalman says others, like corn gluten and dried distiller's grains, remain prime candidates.

Whatever the ingredient, Lalman points out, “By-product feeds tend to vary a great deal in nutrient concentration and moisture composition. Therefore, it's a good idea to obtain a laboratory feed analysis from the supplier for each load of feed.”

If an analysis isn't available specifically for the feed you've purchased or are considering, he suggests having it tested. For most by-product feeds, moisture content beyond around 11% can create significant storage and spoilage problems.

Darrell Rankins, Auburn University Extension beef nutritionist, says he's seeing more by-product feeding. There's even talk of an ethanol plant going into Alabama, despite corn production being next to nil in that locale.

“Some producers in our area program feed almost exclusively. Most of them use a large amount of by-products, and some non-traditional sources such as weevil-infested flour,” Rankins says.

That's the exception, though. Ryegrass is the primary currency of stocker operators here, though last year's pasture was the worst Rankins says he's seen since coming to Auburn in 1989. Even then, he says, the more popular strategies were to limit numbers, transport calves to available grazing, or supplement with by-products rather than switch to a programmed regimen.

Incidentally, Rankins says some stocker operators in his locale have switched to more custom backgrounding, pooling calves from producers who lack the facilities to precondition and background themselves. They get calves in, sort them up for load lots, background them 45 days and market them for the producer.

Rankins says age has something to do with the scenario, as some stocker operators choose to deal with farm-fresh calves rather than endure the rigors of straightening out put-together loads.

Precision is a must

In order to estimate program feeding's potential, Lalman says, “The important factors in developing a ration are to obtain a high value for net energy for gain per dollar of ration cost, and then to adjust the protein and mineral content of the ration to the animal's requirements, determined by the targeted gain, the animal's sex, weight and frame size. It's simplest to calculate the ration's net energy for maintenance and growth (NEm and NEg) values on a dry matter basis.” Find a spreadsheet calculator at www.ansi.okstate.edu/software/PROGFED2.xls.

As for the mineral included, Jones believes matching it to the specific ration and goal is a key. “We're seeing 4-5¢ in better cost of gain with the right vitamin and mineral package,” he says.

Lalman cautions that feeding a single ingredient invites problems. He and OSU colleagues have tried feeding free-choice soybean hulls and the equivalent of 1 lb./day of hay on a dry matter basis.

“It works for a short period of time, up until about 45 days, then you start running into bloat problems,” Lalman says.

Bottom line, both Jones and Lalman suggest arriving at the performance goal for program feeding, then work with specialists to design a cost-effective program capable of achieving the goal.

Of course, feeding this way isn't for everyone. For one thing, cattle need to be fed the same amount at the same time every day in a situation where all calves have a chance to get to the bunk. You also must calculate and adjust the ration every couple of weeks as the cattle grow.

“Anyone with difficulty maintaining a regular time schedule should think twice about programmed feeding. You can't be sloppy, and you can't guess at it,” Lalman says.

“Program feeding is all about you deciding what you want the cattle to consume and gain. You have to go at it with the right mindset and understand the principle behind it, which is feeding two-thirds to three-quarters of what the cattle would normally eat. You don't feed hay, nor will it work in a pasture situation because you must control consumption,” he says.

Precision also extends to how cattle are sorted and grouped.

“Cattle must be as uniform as possible in body type, weight, size, age, disposition and previous background,” Lalman says. “The cattle also must be healthy at the outset, which means most stockers will be taking the cattle through a traditional receiving program before beginning with program feeding.”

Likewise, feed selection revolves around more than cost of gain and convenience. For instance, Lalman stresses, “Complete pelleted diets won't work with program feeding unless the pellet also contains cottonseed hulls or peanut hulls. The usual problem with a complete pelleted feed is it's not possible to maintain adequate roughage particle size to prevent rumen disorders and bloat.

“However, rations can be developed with only whole corn and specially formulated supplement pellets. With the whole corn program, the supplement and whole corn will have to be carefully mixed before they're fed,” he adds.

Predictability and flexibility

“Commodity feeding and supplemental feeding make stocker operations more predictable,” Jones says. “With program feeding, we've learned there are other ways to get stockers from 350 lbs. to 750 lbs. without hay or forage.”

Sometimes, that means program feeding only part of the season. In Alabama, for example, Rankins says some folks feed for about 1 lb. of gain until grass is available.

For the record, Rankins and Auburn folks conducted studies starting in 2000 to determine how feeding calves up front affected their subsequent pasture gains.

“The idea is that those cattle being limit-fed should exhibit faster gains on grass (compensatory) while those full-fed will continue on at the same rate of gain,” Rankins says.

In the initial study, one set of steers grazed stockpiled Bermuda until the first part of January, then received supplement (limit-fed soybean hulls) for a month until ryegrass was available. The cattle gained 1.26 lbs./day until grass season. Subsequently, they gained 2.54 lbs. during 60 days on ryegrass.

Another set of calves received a free-choice 50:50 ration of broiler litter and soybean hulls after the stockpiled grass was grazed. They gained 2.45 lbs. until the same out-date the end of April. Researchers saw the same thing in a study a year later. So, holding cattle didn't dilute grass gains later on.

Of course, Rankins says, “The simplest strategy for operators this year is to be cautious about their numbers early on.” He's a true stocker at heart, though; he figures it will rain.

Find a detailed fact sheet about program feeding lightweight calves at http://pods.dasnr.okstate.edu/docushare/dsweb/Get/Document-80/CR-3025pod.pdf.

Program feeding management

  • Adequate bunk space so most cattle can eat at one time.

  • Pens small enough that cattle can come up to the bunk when fed.

  • Scales or other methods of weighing out daily feed.

  • Roughage feeds to work the cattle up to a high-concentrate diet.

  • Skill on the part of the manager.

  • Sufficient business-management skill to assess the economic limitations and opportunities of limit feeding cattle.

  • A solid plan for the use or sale of the cattle following limit-growing.

Source: Oklahoma State University

Iowa, Nebraska address vet shortage

Officials at Iowa State University (ISU) and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) are cooperating to address the region's increasing need for veterinarians in rural, large-animal practice.

Under the program, 25 students annually from Nebraska will enter a four-year study of vet medicine, attending the first two years of the program on the UNL campus. Students will complete their final two years and receive a doctor of vet medicine degree at the ISU College of Vet Medicine.

UNL students will pay ISU professional-school resident tuition all four years. Nebraska will pay the difference between resident and non-resident tuition for the final two years. Before the agreement, Nebraska students would have attended out-of-state schools for their vet medical education and their tuition dollars would have left the state of Nebraska.

For more on the rural large-animal vet shortage, visit www.beef-mag.com.

Full-Circle Feeding

With some 6,300 tons of manure produced daily in nearby feedyards, Hereford, TX, sometimes can appreciate the “smell of money” only so much. But the “Beef Capital of the World” soon could smell like a rose economically while helping reduce America's dependence on foreign oil.

A 100-million-gal. ethanol plant is under construction in Hereford by Panda Energy International. Inc., a Dallas-based company that will count on 1,500 tons of manure/day to fire the plant — on a 24/7 basis (see Figure 1).

The Panda ethanol project is one of dozens of new ethanol and biodiesel plants going up nationwide in lieu of high fuel prices and tax incentives that make production profitable. It will ship in most of its corn from the Midwest, but also buy corn and grain sorghum from local farmers. Its ethanol production will likely go to markets coast to coast. Wet distillers grain (WDG) will be marketed regionally.

Bob Josserand, president of AzTx Cattle Co., which operates five feedyards in Hereford, Farwell and Dimmitt, TX; Garden City, KS; and Rocky Ford, CO; is beaming over the Panda project. As mayor of Hereford, he also welcomes a second, 100-million-gal. ethanol plant planned by White Industries.

The White project will tap natural gas to fire the plant. Panda, meanwhile, will use product from the end of a steer to produce feed for the other end — along with fuel for automobiles.

In early April, heavy equipment moved dirt on the Panda site, located only a few miles east of Hereford Feedyard. The work started about the same time another Panda manure-ethanol project south of Garden City received Environmental Protection Agency air permits. Josserand says AzTx also will provide manure for that operation.

These two plants are scheduled to be completed and on line by late 2007, according to Rhett Hurless, Panda vice president of development. A third Panda project in Yuma, CO, also planned to use manure for fuel but couldn't guarantee a large enough supply from area feedyards. It will be fired by natural gas, Hurless says. It will also provide WDG as feed for livestock.

“We have 19 feedyards in the Hereford area that will provide us with manure,” he says. “And there are seven in the Haskell County, KS, area. Each plant will require 1,500 tons of manure/day.”

Josserand has seen various deals designed to help rid feedyards of manure in one form or another fall through. Electric power plants have been discussed. So has the production of burnable pellets from manure. In a Wall Street Journal story earlier this year, Josserand indicated there had been “all kinds of wonderful schemes” to reduce manure stocks.

None have come anywhere close to the project from Panda, a company sold on developing facilities that generate energy in one form or another. It has piloted and built power plants and other projects worldwide.

The use of feedyard-manure biomass in Hereford is the first of its kind, though there are more than 80 biomass-powered facilities worldwide, Hurless says.

“Everything from olive skins, grape pits and chicken litter to pulp and paper waste are used,” he says.

The process used at the Hereford plant involves a “bubbling bed fluidized gasifier,” a combustion process in which a blanket of sand in the bottom of the combustion unit is heated to about 1,500°F. Manure is blown into moving sand. At 1,500°, methane and other gases come off the manure and rise higher up in the combustion chamber where they're refired and moved into a heat exchanger.

Ash makes up 20-60% of manure and helps determine its heating value. John Sweeten, Texas A&M University Research and Extension Center resident director in Amarillo, is one of the nation's foremost authorities on animal-waste management. He says the lower the ash content, the higher the Btu value of manure.

At 20% ash, there's a heat value of 5,500-6,000 Btu. At 60% ash, it drops to 2,500-3,000 Btu. Typical feedyard manure is 35% moisture and 40% ash, Sweeten says, adding that moisture content can also reduce the heat value. On a dry-ash basis, feedyard manure equals about 8,500 Btu. That compares to about 14,000 for coal, Sweeten says.

Make your own power?

Sweeten and his A&M colleagues have explored burning manure to create energy for more than 20 years. And they've considered whether a feedyard could create its own “manure power plant” by firing its own animal waste inventory. He doubts it.

“That type of a system would require a tremendous effort on the part of one or more feedyards to devote lots of money and manpower,” Sweeten says. “It's too complex a system, one that's outside the limits of most feedyards.

“This is a 24-hour system that would require a specialized staff to make it run.”

Panda is taking a “thermochemical approach” of heating materials to 1,500° to convert biomass to fuel, Sweeten says. Some large swine operations use an “anabolic digestion” system to create energy through covered lagoons. A liquid slurry is heated, creating methane gas for energy.

Sweeten warns this type of system, depending on temperature, can require 30-60 days or more to create enough biogas to heat the digester efficiently. If shut down, it can take long periods to bring the system back into production.

“As far as energy production is concerned, I believe most feedyards need to do what they do best, be a fuel provider,” Sweeten says.

Economic boost

Arles “Bugs” Graham, Panda's general manager of the Hereford project, gets feedyard owners and the general public fired up about the economic value of an ethanol plant, especially one in the 100-million-gal. category. Such a plant will employee 60 people and generate millions for the regional economy.

Along with ethanol, distillers grain and carbon dioxide produced from a plant, ash from the process can be added to concrete for road construction. And Graham believes the “live green and go yella” slogan used by automakers will catch on more with consumers hit with gasoline hovering at $3/gal.

But in Hereford and Haskell County, a smaller mountain of manure is as attractive as the renewable energy source the animal waste will provide.

Kevin Wagner of Centra Bank in Satanta, KS, sees the benefits of manure-fired ethanol from all sides. Some of the bank's feedyard customers have a new outlet for manure and the region's economy will be bolstered by new jobs, new markets for farmers and a new corporate taxpayer.

“The Panda plant will provide a lot of tax revenue for our county,” says Wagner, a member of the Haskell County Economic Development Board. “We worked with Panda to line up regional meetings to determine if there was community support.”

Just as in Hereford, the answer was an overwhelming “yes.”

“The idea that Panda is capable of taking manure and converting it into energy for an ethanol plant is making it a lot better for the beef industry,” says Don Cumpton, Hereford Economic Development Corp. manager. “The White plant has also received its permits for its ethanol plant, which along with Panda will provide a new market for our farmers.”

Panda Ethanol Inc. announced in early August its Hereford subsidiary had successfully completed the debt financing. It anticipates ethanol production to commence in the second half of 2007.

Cumpton also brags about a new methane gas plant recently announced outside Hereford to handle manure from dairies — methane that will be converted to enter the natural gas system.

The smell of money just keeps getting better.

Larry Stalcup is an Amarillo, TX-based freelance writer.