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Management and antibiotic use go hand in hand

Giving cattle a shot

Change is coming, but it is nothing new — we face it every day. The use of antibiotics in food animal production has garnered a great deal of attention. We can debate the science of antimicrobial resistance and bemoan more government oversight, but the fact remains: We will see some major changes in how antibiotics are used.

We are past the time to lament how things used to be done. We must accept the task before us, pull on our boots and get after it. Not only will the Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD) come into effect on Jan. 1, 2017, but we will most likely see many over-the-counter injectable products become prescription in the near future as well.

Regarding the VFD, please get together with your herd health veterinarian and feed distributor, and go through the process of acquiring and using feed with a VFD component. When your cattle are getting sick is not the time to learn how to acquire a VFD feed.

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As the antibiotic dialogue continues, we are seeing more and more proteins offered that are antibiotic-free. Several major retailers and restaurants have started to offer antibiotic-free products, or have indicated they will offer those options soon. Of course, antibiotic-free products have been available for years, but some purveyors are now offering only antibiotic-free products.

More power to them! If the consumer wants it and is willing to pay for it, then I think we should provide it. It is a very poor business model that responds to its consumers’ wishes with, “You will take what I give you.” The only time I have a problem with these specialty or niche markets is when their benefits are oversold, or the conventionally produced meats are maligned with no scientific basis.

Our consumers (and our government) have clearly indicated that antibiotic use must be reduced — not only in regard to food production, but in human medicine as well. I choose to say “reduced” rather than “used more judiciously,” because there does not appear to be any mutually agreeable mechanism to measure the outcome. What metric do we use to determine that a reduction in antibiotic use is truly a success?

This should be very concerning to all of us, because simply being able to say that antibiotic use has been reduced doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story. If we reduce antibiotic use to the detriment of food safety, animal health or animal welfare, is it a success? I agree that we can do better as far as antibiotic use is concerned, but we must be very careful to examine the big picture.

A mentor of mine imparted a philosophy that I have tried to apply every day of my career: “Whenever we use an antibiotic, it is an indication that we have a failure in management.” When I speak to producer and veterinary groups, I often ask how many agree with this statement. More often than not, only a few hands go up. Then, I follow that statement with, “If we managed our cattle better, we could reduce our antibiotic use,” and ask how many agree. Every hand goes up.

These two statements mean about the same thing, except they are stated a little differently. But they don’t mean the manager is a failure. They simply mean that better management may have resulted in not having to use an antibiotic.

It is commonly stated that the definition of insanity is to keep doing something the same way, and expecting different results. If we want different results, we will have to make some changes. What can we change to better manage our cattle so we can use antibiotics less frequently?

Change can be difficult, so you must want it more than you dread it. Please see your herd health veterinarian for advice on better practices that can help you reduce antibiotic use.

Dave Sjeklocha, DVM, is operations manager of animal health and welfare for Cattle Empire LLC of Satanta, Kan. He can be reached at

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Post-weaning marketing strategies

Post-weaning marketing strategies

As we progress further and further through 2016, it becomes more and more apparent that the economics of running a beef cow herd in 2016 for a profit is going to be tough. As of late July, feeder cattle futures prices suggest that feeder calf prices are under considerable pressure well into 2017 (Figure 1). This does not bode well for beef cow profits with the production and selling of 2016 weaned calves.

Figure 2 presents my current price projections for fall 2016 weaning of 550-pound steer calves at $163 per cwt. This compares with $223 for the October 2015 weaning price. Figure 2 presents my price projections through spring 2017. The red numbers in Figure 2 are used in my grass cattle budgets.

feeder cattle futures prices

historical and projected calf marketing prices

What about production costs of my eastern Wyoming-western Nebraska study herd? I track Nebraska grass hay prices on a monthly basis (Figure 3). Since July 2013, the price trend has been downward, averaging about $80 per ton in 2016.

My calculated cost of gain on calves weaned has averaged $1.57 per pound of calf gain in 2014, $1.82 per pound gained in 2015, and a projected $1.54 per pound cost of gain in 2016. The big factor causing the change in my calculations has been the cost of replacement heifers.

The low market price projection in Figure 2 and the production costs just discussed suggest a projected earned net return of $29 per cow in 2016 for my eastern Wyoming-western Nebraska study herd, selling at weaning. This compares to $204 per cow in 2015 and $808 in 2014. The economics of beef cowherds in this current cattle cycle is changing — and changing fast.

It is not just beef cow producers who are facing a challenge this year. My current budget for running short yearlings on grass in 2016 with a projected sale price of $137 per cwt shows a projected negative return for 850-pound grass yearlings. A second budget for finishing these steers coming off grass in late September and slaughtered in February 2017 at 1,300 pounds at a projected sale price of $107 per cwt is also projected with a negative return.

This is a year for ranchers to focus on other marketing alternatives. As in previous cattle cycles, as calf prices turn downward, ranchers need to explore some form of retained ownership beyond weaning. My analysis suggests this appears to be another one of those years.

projected beef cow marketing outlook

Figure 4 summarizes my current projections for my study herd of four different marketing alternatives for 2016 fall-weaned calves:

  • Sell at weaning.
  • Background in dry lot with a cost of gain at 61 cents per pound and selling at 875 pounds in February 2017.
  • Custom finish these 875-pound feeders with a cost of gain at 69 cents per pound and harvest at 1,300 pounds in June 2017.
  • Custom grow and finish weaned animals with cost of gain at 58 cents per pound, and sell at 1,300 pounds in May 2017.

The key to evaluating post-weaning marketing alternatives is to price your feeders at each step of the marketing program and calculate your profits for each marketing step.  Do not subsidize the next marketing step with the profits of the previous step. I am convinced this goes on in a lot of coffee shops.

These marketing alternatives are additive. That is, weaned calves are projected to generate a $29 profit per cow (not per calf) for my 250-cow study herd, generating a projected herd net return of $7,157.

If my study herd’s weaned calves are assumed sold to the backgrounding enterprise at market price, current projections are to generate another $37 per calf (or $7,157) by growing them from weaning to 875 pounds and then marketing them.

If these 875-pound background calves are sold at market price to the custom finishing enterprise, they are projected to lose $34 per head (a minus $7,809) for my study herd.

If the weaned calves are custom grown and finished in the same custom feedlot, they are projected to finish earlier, are projected to hit a better May 2017 harvest price, and generate another $102 per head ($21,579). He who can produce slaughter cattle in May tends to win year in and year out. Easier said than done.

In summary, backgrounding or custom growing and finishing of 2016 calves gets my attention as a marketing program this fall. What do your numbers show?

Harlan Hughes is a North Dakota State University professor emeritus. He lives in Kuna, Idaho. Reach him at 701-238-9607 or

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Leveraging the power of (metabolizable) protein

Pay special attention to the mineral needs of stockers on wheat pasture The growing wheat can be deficient in calcium making this a particularly important addition to the mineral program
<p>Pay special attention to the mineral needs of stockers on wheat pasture. The growing wheat can be deficient in calcium, making this a particularly important addition to the mineral program.</p>

Crude protein (CP) has long been a key number in measuring the value of forage and supplemental feed. But for stockers hitting wheat pasture or grass this fall, the amount of “metabolizable protein” (MP) may be more telling in ensuring that cattle take full advantage of amino acid nutrition in their diet.

Kip Karges, nutritionist and director of technical services at H.J. Baker Animal Health & Nutrition, says an MP program can help increase the amount of amino acids absorbed into an animal’s digestive system. “Using MP will account for the different types of protein that can be used by the animal for production purposes,” Karges says. “MP will allow nutritionists and producers to focus on amino acid [AA] nutrition, which, at the end of the day, is what an animal really requires.”

Karges says poultry producers have been balancing diets based on digestible AA for years, allowing them to be extremely efficient in their production systems. “Likewise, dairy producers also switched to MP instead of CP to increase milk production and components, which has allowed them to balance the amino acids in dairy diets,” he adds.

He notes that the CP system has been around forever, “and it’s just that, a crude measurement of the nutritional protein content of any feedstuff. That’s how many nutritionists and producers still measure and balance diets, even though the Beef Nutrient Research Council made the move to the MP system in 2000."

“I challenge producers and feeders to consider the MP system in their production programs. It is tough to get to a point where you can balance for lysine and methionine without first adapting to the MP system.”

Stocking rate, forage quality

David Lalman, Oklahoma State University Extension beef cattle specialist, says feed supplementation needs depend on forage quality and stocking rate. “We looked at two stocker programs that work well in the Southern Plains,” he says. “One is to boost performance with no change in stocking rate. The second program is a higher feeding rate to replace wheat pasture, or to increase the stocking rate on a pasture.”

In the first program, developed as Oklahoma Green Gold about 15 years ago, the supplement is highlighted by about 62% ground sorghum or corn, 21% wheat midds, 5% molasses, 4% limestone, 4% magnesium and 2.5% phosphate; and trace amounts of salt, vitamin A and vitamin-trace mineral mix; and an ionophore.

“With the program, the average pound of supplement per pound of added weight gain has been about 4.7 to 1,” Lalman says. “With an estimated supplement cost of around $160 per ton this year, give or take $25 per ton, the cost per pound of added gain should be somewhere around 38 cents per pound. Additional costs would include the labor, fuel and storage required to deliver the feed.”

He says the second program is tailored for an increase in stocking rate. “In this program, an energy concentrate is fed at a rate of 0.75% to 1% of body weight on a daily basis,” Lalman says. “With this higher feeding rate, stocking rate can be increased by about 33%. Feed conversion in this program is about 5 to 1 on a per-acre basis. High-fiber concentrate commodities, such as soybean hulls and wheat midds, are typically more palatable and are consumed faster than grain-based concentrate feeds.”

Bryan Nichols, livestock consultant with the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, Ardmore, Okla., says adding a mineral supplement will increase average daily gain by about 0.2 pounds per day. He notes that wheat forage quality is marginal to sufficient in phosphorus and magnesium, high in potassium and low in calcium, so added calcium is a must for a mineral.

“A 550-pound steer gaining 3 pounds per day has a calcium requirement of 33 grams,” Nichols says. “If the steer consumes 16 pounds of forage, he is deficient 7.5 grams. If a steer consumes 2 ounces of mineral per day, then the calcium concentration in the mineral package needs to be 13.2%. If mineral intake is higher, calcium concentration can be reduced.”

Ionophores pay 

While some cattle are grazed and fed for the natural market, most are raised on a conventional production and marketing plan. The addition of an ionophore in the ration is a proven method of increasing gain.

Nichols says the addition of the ionophore monensin increased average daily gain 0.2 pounds per day — in addition to the 0.2 pounds already generated by the mineral supplement.

“Ionophore intake should be targeted for 100 to 200 milligrams per day,” he says. “If mineral intake is 3 ounces per head per day, cost per animal is about 10 cents per day. ADG is increased by 0.4 pounds per day, which equates to an increase in revenue of 20 cents per head per day.”

Nichols says that’s based on grazing cattle on a cost-per-pound-of-gain basis of 50 cents per pound. Over a 105-day grazing period, the average gross revenue for each animal increases by an additional $10 to $12 per head.

Larry Stalcup is a freelance writer based in Amarillo, Texas.

When times get tough, maximize capital efficiency

When times get tough, maximize capital efficiency

“Objectives have to be lined up with marketing and the financial plan,” says Sterling Liddell, a senior analyst with Rabobank Food & Agribusiness (FAR) Research and Advisory group. “Managing the balance sheet, long-term, must be as important as managing cash flow.”

The latter speaks to the ability to survive over months. The former gets at sustainability over the long haul. Both promise to get tougher.

“The current environment continues to pressure revenue and earnings for U.S. row-crop farming, and, unfortunately, the near-term sector outlook remains somewhat ominous,” Liddell says in a recent special FAR report, Farming the Efficient Frontier. “In order to survive and thrive, farmers must adopt strategies that maximize bottom-line profit, rather than simply focus on crop yield.”

In fact, FAR analysts believe transitioning the focus from yield and volume toward efficiency represents a paradigm shift necessitated by structurally lower commodity prices, relatively high input costs and an extended period of low average returns.

Liddell and fellow FAR senior analyst Don Close explain that similar forces means cow-calf producers need to begin thinking in terms of efficiency rather than volume, too.

Margin operators in the cattle business — stocker operators and cattle feeders — have plenty of recent experience trying to figure out how to earn as much or more revenue with fewer head, relative to equity levels. Now, Liddell says, cow-calf producers need to focus more intently on capital efficiency: getting the most out of every dollar of equity placed at risk.

There are different equations used by different industries at different times to get at capital efficiency, aimed at output relative to the capital required to maintain that output at a specific level. Examples are return on capital employed (earnings before interest and tax/capital employed) and asset turnover ratio (gross farm income/average total farm assets).

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One way or the other, the notion is to understand if dollars invested are working for you — and how hard. These measures can help ferret out whether a current enterprise should be continued, altered or discontinued.

Along with capital efficiency, Liddell cites these as components of efficiency-driven strategies:

• Planting discipline. Planting acreage up to, but not exceeding the point where marginal costs equal marginal profits. For cow-calf producers, aside from thinking of this in terms of cows and heifers retained, Close points out this takes on different shades, given the slower inventory turnover. But you get the idea.

• Price realization. Coordination of merchandising and hedging activities to maximize the price per bushel harvested.

In the context of the cow-calf business, producer management has plenty to say about revenue generated per cow and per acre.

Moreover, no cow-calf producer must be a simple price-taker. Never mind the opportunities to qualify calves for multiple branded programs through management — all producers have the opportunity to seek more bids for their calves.

Increased efficiency is also where Liddell and Close see the most opportunity for the beef and cattle industries as a whole, likely through increased communication and cooperation between sectors. It stems from need.

There’s competition, for one thing.

“Poultry is going to return to its long-term, real pricing trend [downward,”] Liddell says. “If protein competitors can’t or don’t respond, they simply lose market share.”

There’s also the fact that Close and Liddell say current national herd expansion appears to be ushering in the longer, more familiar cattle cycle, which has been absent for more than two decades.

“To get into that long-term cycle, we’ve got to get beef exports back to 11% of production,” Liddell says.

From the perspectives of both the industry and the nation, Liddell adds, “We have to recognize how important trade is to U.S. agriculture, and how important agriculture is to the U.S. economy.”

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Can we finally fix the price discovery problem?

Can we finally fix the price discovery problem?

There are no clear, singular solutions to bolstering cash fed cattle price discovery, but some industry participants are taking definitive steps in that direction.

Perhaps the most visible is the Fed Cattle Exchange, an online fed cattle auction developed by Superior Livestock Auction (SLA). The notion is straightforward: Increase the weekly volume of fed cattle sold in the cash market by giving buyers a chance to bid on pens of cattle consigned by feedlots — all on the internet.

This has been tried before, of course, but cash trade has never been as sparse.

“It’s as much about timing and history as anything,” believes Danny Jones, SLA president. “The number of cattle traded in the cash market is so low, and there hasn’t been a good, representative sample in terms of volume and quality. A lot of people are interested in changing that. We definitely believe in this and think it’s needed.”

SLA hosted the first Fed Cattle Exchange sale at the end of May. After four weekly sales, SLA halted the sales to work on some technical issues. By the end of July, as this article was being written, Jones says they were close to bringing the auction back on line.

Those first few sales suggest plenty of promise, though.

“We’ve received good cooperation from the industry,” Jones says. “There was good participation from both sides, buyers and sellers.” He adds that lots more feedlots registered to consign cattle than actually did so in those first auctions, suggesting that cattle feeders want to be ready to participate.

Tackling futures market volatility

Though less visible, the working group formed by the CME Group (CME) and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) continues to assess volatility in cattle futures markets.

Keep in mind that effective futures markets contribute to cash price discovery of the underlying commodity. Conversely, futures markets suffer in the absence of an effective cash market.

In January, the NCBA Marketing Committee sent a letter to Terry Duffy, CME Group chairman and president, expressing concerns about the effectiveness of cattle futures markets. Duffy attended the committee’s meeting in February and pledged his organization’s commitment to finding solutions.

“Our relationship with CME Group is the strongest it has been in the 12 years I’ve been here,” says Colin Woodall, NCBA vice president of government affairs.

Topics of concern addressed to Duffy and the CME included overall price volatility and the potential contribution of high-frequency trading (HFT) to price volatility.

Through HFT, computers make, modify and cancel trades in fractions of a second. There is no clear legal definition of HFT, but some consider it a subset of algorithmic trading. These methodologies are not unique to agricultural commodities or derivative markets like futures. Widespread use began in equity markets years ago.

HFT proponents cite advantages like lower transaction costs, increased precision in positioning and increased liquidity.

Criticism of HFT includes allegations that the practice can increase volatility and create the illusion of more liquidity than actually exists, according to the congressional report HFT Trading: Background, Concerns and Regulatory Developments. Systems like CME’s Messaging Efficiency Program (MEP) are designed to help thwart that.

At the very least, plenty of folks say HFT at least contributed to the Dow Jones "Flash Crash" of 2010, when that financial index dropped 1,000 points in a few minutes.

According to ongoing analysis by the CME Group since January, manual point-and-click traders led the market moves (live cattle) on limit up and down days. Not the HFT or algorithmic traders.

CME Group also made several changes in how cattle futures and options are traded on its exchange. Among the changes the CME Group made in how cattle futures and options are traded, as detailed in the CME FAQ “Recent CME Cattle Market Volatility,” are:

  • Reduced daily trading hours (Feb. 29) to align with the period of greatest liquidity. Roughly 87% of trading occurred between 8:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Central time last year, according to the CME FAQ.
  • Added livestock products to its Messaging Efficiency Program (MEP) on Feb. 1. Without coasting too far into the weeds, a message is sent by buyers and sellers to submit, modify and cancel orders through the CME Group’s electronic trading platform. The program monitors the ratio of messages to orders actually filled. Between January and April this year, the ratio of messages to orders filled in live cattle decreased by 15%, according to CME.
  • Implemented a pre-open period (June 6) for customers to enter, cancel and modify orders for livestock futures and options.

In August, the CME Group adopted a $1.50 per cwt discount for the October live cattle contract for cattle tendered to Worthing, S.D., in an effort to bring cash and futures prices into convergence across the delivery area. It also increased the par quality grades for Choice and Select to 60% and 40%, respectively, effective with the October 2017 contract.

According to Woodall, the CME Group is also seeking approval from the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) for a trial circuit-breaker program, by which futures trade would cease for 2 minutes if prices move $1.50 or more in either direction within a half-hour.

Woodall explains NCBA continues to expand the working group to ensure there is adequate representation by sector and regionally.

“There is still lots of frustration, and more questions than answers,” Woodall said following the NCBA Marketing Committee’s meeting in June.

Currently, he says the working group is focused on getting data from CME, something that requires going through the CFTC because of legalities that tie the CME’s hands.

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“It’s hard to determine whether a proposed action would be positive in terms of leveling the playing field for the true hedger if we don’t know who is participating,” Woodall explains. He’s not talking about knowing the identity of individuals or individual firms but the type, such as manual trading or HFT.

Along with evaluating potential futures contract modifications, Woodall says the working group will consider the conclusions and suggestions resulting from the Price Discovery Research Project (PDRP) conducted for NCBA by Stephen Koontz, agricultural economist at Colorado State University.

That brings us full circle to where this BEEF series began.

The cash fed cattle market is central to — some would argue it is the beginning of — price discovery in other markets, such as feeder cattle and beef. It’s also key to the effectiveness of risk management tools like the futures market.

“Volume will not return to cash markets. There are strong incentives for individuals to market fed cattle through methods other than negotiated cash trade,” Koontz explains in the PDRP executive summary. “But the thinning cash market problem will not solve itself. Action by the industry is needed.”

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More profit from fewer cows? Here's the secret

Research in Texas is showing that on managed pastures with rotational grazing and cover crops not only is soil health increasing but the pastures also produce more carrying capacity with fewer cows There is also more total gross revenue than continuously grazed pastures
<p>Research in Texas is showing that on managed pastures with rotational grazing and cover crops, not only is soil health increasing, but the pastures also produce more carrying capacity with fewer cows. There is also more total gross revenue than continuously grazed pastures.</p>

A real-ranch experiment in Texas is showing higher profit potential from better grazing management and reduced wintering costs, even with 40% fewer cows.

On a ranch belonging to the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service near Riesel, Texas, a tiny town just southeast of Waco, scientists and range management specialists in late 2011 began a 10-year study of conventional, set-stock grazing management vs. controlled, planned grazing together with multi-species cover cropping.

Working with existing managers, they split the ranch in half, and on the north 280 acres began changing management and measuring the outcomes of soil health, forage production, cattle production and profitability. They kept management the same as it had been for many years on the south 280 acres and measured the same things.

Jeff Goodwin, a former Natural Resources Conservation Service Texas state rangeland management specialist who now is a pasture and rangelands consultant with the Nobel Foundation in Ardmore, Okla., says the research team’s plan is to decrease inputs at the same time it improves grazing distribution, grazing efficiency, forage and soil health, soil water-holding capacity, forage production, and ultimately, stocking rate and ranch profits.

In the three-and-one-half years so far, the average return for the north unit, where managed grazing was being practiced, was $1,170 per year. On the south unit, with all the gates open and traditional hay feeding throughout the winter, the operation lost $80 per year. This despite the fact the north unit team cut the number of cows from 50 to 30 so it could immediately eliminate nearly all supplemental hay (Figure 1).

reisel ranch four-year returns

The marginally higher profit on the northern managed-grazing unit was achieved despite a three-year amortization of $10,000 in water and electric fencing improvements which helped divide that property into 14 paddocks. With that out of the budget now, Goodwin says he’s already projected a $140-per-cow profit for 2016 (Figure 2).

Reisel ranch projected profit

In addition, Goodwin explains profits will improve as the north unit soil improves, and as that allows them to increase stocking rates.

“We should really begin to see some improvements in carrying capacity this year, since it takes about three years for cover-cropping and grazing management to really start making a noticeable difference in soil health,” Goodwin says.

Why cover crops?

The north and south units both have a small amount of cropland, along with the majority pasture. For many years, the cropland was used for experiments on poultry litter and watershed nutrient movement. That work continues on separate acreage, and the north unit couldn’t get rid of the crop ground. Goodwin says they would plant it to grass if that were an option, but since it is not, they have chosen to work with the cropland on both units.

The team has chosen to use multi-species cover cropping on the cropland and some of the bermudagrass pastures to create additional grazing days, and for soil health improvements.

Goodwin explains that in cropland or pasture, the diversity provided by multi-species cover crops builds soil life and therefore total plant production and water-holding capacity of the soil.

An example: On 5 north-unit acres of degraded bermudagrass pasture, the team planted a cool-season, multispecies cover crop that yielded 25 days of grazing with no fertilizer. That saved hay feeding and built the soil so that the bermudagrass stand rose about 50% the next summer.

The former oat fields on the north property are now in a two-season cover-crop rotation. The data shows this is building the soil, but also providing more total grazing days and more recovery time for the perennial-grass paddocks.

Future plans

Goodwin adds that the team used temporary electric fencing to further subdivide the 14 main paddocks at times, and will continue to shrink those down to get higher stock densities. This will results in better animal impact and distribution of urine and dung, helping jump-start soil biology faster.

Along the same lines, Goodwin adds, one of the management plans is to keep increasing stock density on the kleingrass paddocks via temporary fencing. In the past three years, the managers have subdivided the land it into 10-acre paddocks, and then last year, into 3-acre paddocks. That boosted stock density to 13,080 pounds total cattle weight per acre. This year the team plans to go to one-half-acre paddocks and about 80,000 pounds per acre.

To figure stock density, add up your total herd weight and divide it by the number of acres.

The research team’s records show it producing and leaving behind more total forage on the north than on the continuously grazed pastures on the south side. This is important for soil building.

Jeff GoodwinThrough the first three-plus years of the trial, cows in the north unit, the one with controlled grazing, registered more consistent near infrared technology (NIR)-ranked fecal quality, showing a more consistent diet throughout the year. Cows in the south unit showed big boosts in body condition and diet quality when grazing oats in the early winter and the spring. There were not large differences in body condition between north and south.

The soils in the north side’s perennial pastures showed small increases in water-extractable organic carbon vs. those on the south side, meaning they are tending toward increased organic matter and soil life. The north side soils in the crop ground, however, made large increases in water-extractable organic carbon vs. soils on the south side crop ground. This foretells increases in soil organic matter, forage production, water infiltration and water-holding capacity.

Alan Newport is director of content for BEEF Vet and Beef Producer.

Simple choices? Not in this election

iStock photo
<p>iStock photo</p>

Computer programmers love the simplicity of a binary world and an either-or question. Cattlemen face binary questions every day, too. Sometimes you love a choice and it is no issue, and sometimes you are a realist and pick the route that provides the most benefit.

I don’t like the decision between hauling the old cow to town or keeping her around and having her succumb to old age on my place. But those aren’t tough decisions because realistically there are only two options and one is better than the other. 

What’s more, I’ve often resented picking the lesser of two evils. My mom was a full blown optimist, and she taught me that if you don’t like either choice, there is a third option and that is to go out and create a choice you love. That is great advice, but it doesn’t apply to all choices. The current presidential election is a glaring example. 

This year’s election has created more dissatisfaction among voters than ever before, simply because we don’t like either option. Voters are wondering how the system could have failed them so profoundly. The Republican establishment just can’t wrap their minds around the fact that, with a talent-laden field of candidates that initially seemed like an embarrassment of riches, the party eventually nominated one of the few people in the world who could actually lose to Hillary Clinton.   

The Democrats were never given a realistic choice, and they resent and regret that. Don’t get me wrong; there is enthusiasm on both sides of this race, but mostly because of the passionate dislike that supporters of one candidate have for the other candidate. It doesn’t matter if you are talking to a Clinton or a Trump supporter, odds are they justify their choice based more on the negatives of their opponent than the strengths of their candidate.

Getty Images / people voting

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But in the end we will all make a binary choice. Voting for a third party candidate is equivalent of voting for your worst option -- it is nonsensical at its core. We have two options; we vote for the crook or the uncouth and that is the only realistic choice that voters must make. It is a binary choice, if an unpleasant one.

A lot of decisions in life are between more than two options, but more options don’t necessarily make the decision easier. Take your relationship with God. You believe or you don’t, but you then have to decide whether you are going to become a committed follower, an enthusiastic fan on the sideline or a believer in name only.

Sometimes, I choose to not make a decision, which as has often been pointed out is actually making a choice as well. I think many times I don’t make a choice because I’m simply hoping for a better option to emerge. My dad says that every important decision in life, if done right, precludes looking back. One decision may spawn a host of others, but they are always made looking forward. 

It is like getting married. Once you say “I do,” that decision is over and all your decisions should be based on the fact that “you did.” We may decide to change paths, but we should choose to not waste regret on past decisions.

That is why I love working with cattlemen and horsemen. We don’t agree on everything, but there is that code that everyone understands – respect others, respect the animals, respect the land and perform your job with a level of quality that reflects the character and values of the person you ascribe to be. 

I was reading a book on motivation called Drive that challenges a lot of the conventional wisdom on motivation. Its conclusion is that the classical theory of punishment and reward is wholly inadequate and in many cases even counterproductive. It talks about an intrinsic drive that is fueled by three elements: autonomy (give me a goal, a job, and get out of my way and let me get ‘er done); mastery (passion, knowledge, time, sacrifice, work ethic all combined to truly master something) and; purpose (do something with meaning and value).

I think that is why people love cowboys and ranchers and the lifestyle we live because it is based on those intrinsic qualities, the code that embraces those elements of autonomy, mastery and purpose. It is why cattlemen love what they do, even if monetarily there are better options.

hard working ranchers gallery

70 photos show ranchers hard at work on the farm
Readers have submitted photos of hard-working ranchers caring for their livestock and being stewards of the land. See reader favorite  photos here.

The cowboy way of making a choice is clear; decide and go full steam ahead. It is a life without regret and a life focused on doing what is “right.” In today’s world, we are taught that there is no right or wrong, that it is all a matter of perception. But the cattle business points out the fallacy of that perception. Not only does right and wrong exist, the path you take determines your future and it is not to be taken lightly. 

Decisions have consequences. More times than not, the hard path is the right path, and it leads to a much better destination in the end. Brenn Hill, a cowboy western music artist, has a song about two cowboys riding in a storm, and the old cowboy tells the young one that this is where you separate the cowboys from the men.

The old cowboy says you can turn around, ride home and wait for the storm to pass or you can pull your collar up, your hat down and ride into the wind. Of course, the young cowboy gets it and rides into the wind. It is a simple binary choice. 

As cattlemen, as people of faith, the decisions are usually pretty straight forward. Elections not so much, but the contrasts are stark and the consequences significant. We probably shouldn’t spend much time lamenting that neither option is ideal. Rather we will have to make a choice based on our own conscious and then pull our collars up, our hats down and ride into the wind.

The opinions of Troy Marshall are not necessarily those of and the Penton Agriculture Group.


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Meat Market Update | Cutout drops $7 on heels of declining beef cut prices

Ed Czerwien, USDA Market News reporter in Amarillo, Texas, provides us with the latest outlook on boxed beef prices and the weekly cattle trade.

The weekly average Choice cutout dropped over $7 on the heels of the declining beef cut prices. The weekly cutout has a tendency to go up and down more slowly than the daily cutout because of the formula sales. However, it does follow the daily movement in a more subdued fashion. The total sales volume was 6,162 loads which dropped almost 1,000 loads due to the decline in the long-term forward contracts along with the holiday shutdown last Monday.

Find more cattle price news here or bookmark our commodity price page for the minute-by-minute updates.

Farm Progress America - September 15 2016


Stop the bawling! Why it's time to consider two-step calf weaning

One of the lowstress weaning methods that Joe Stookey and his team developed is nose flaps that keep the calf from getting to mamarsquos milk while still being around mama This mimics the way nature weans the young
One of the low-stress weaning methods that Joe Stookey and his team developed is nose flaps that keep the calf from getting to mama's milk while still being around mama. This mimics the way nature weans the young.

If Joe Stookey had his way, the term “shipping fever” never would have been coined, because it diverts attention from the primary stress associated with sickness in recently transported calves.

“I wish we could go back and name it ‘weaning fever,’ [because] that’s what it is,” explains Stookey, an animal behaviorist at the University of Saskatchewan Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM). “There is no event we impose on cattle more stressful than weaning.”

At least that’s true with traditional, abrupt weaning, where calves are separated from their dams and often loaded straight onto a truck headed for a new location. Which means that’s true of most calves.

The most recent data from the National Animal Health Monitoring Service (NAHMS) Beef 2007-2008 survey indicates that calves at 49.8% of operations left the same day they were weaned; 16.6% were held 1-31 days after weaning and before transport.

In a more recent 2015 western Canadian producer survey from the Western Beef Development Center, 70% of respondents wean by separating calves from the cows.

“How do calves get sick post-weaning?” Stookey asked at the 2016 International Symposium on Beef Cattle Welfare. “Spend a lot of time walking, a lot of time vocalizing and eating 25% less.”

Those are behavioral changes associated with cattle stress, in this case stress associated with abrupt weaning. Stookey has focused on such behaviors — causes and effects — for much of his professional career.

Nature-like weaning

“What’s so unnatural about abrupt weaning is that the mother and the milk both disappear simultaneously,” Stookey explains. “In a natural environment, in a matriarchal society, the calves are programmed to expect that the milk will be shut off at some point — but they’re not expecting the cows to disappear, too, because they’re expecting to join the herd.”

This was hard-won knowledge that ultimately led to developing what’s known today as the two-stage weaning process, in which calves remain with the cows but are prevented from nursing for four to seven days by using the type of nose flaps first used by dairy producers to prevent milk robbers.

After those four to seven days, calves are removed from their mamas and moved far enough away that there can be no further contact.

In a seminal 2005 WCVM study, following separation, calves weaned in two stages vocalized 96.6% less than the control group of calves weaned abruptly; and spent 78.9% less time walking, 23% more time eating and 24.1% more time resting. So calves weaned with the two-stage method endure less stress.

Other studies find similar advantages in behavior. How this reduction in stress ultimately translates to increased performance or decreased morbidity varies among studies.

“With two-stage weaning, you can have a weaning process that’s similar to natural weaning, a process that’s not that stressful to calves,” Stookey explains. “In many ways, this mimics natural weaning.”

Depending on the study you look at, this two-stage weaning process is also less stressful than the more popular fence-line weaning method, where calves are separated from the cows and unable to nurse, but still have contact with the cows across a fence. WCVM did some early work on that method, too; it’s what led researchers to the two-stage approach.

Based on surveys, Stookey says 22% of Canadian cow-calf producers are using fence-line weaning. Another 6% use the two-stage approach.

Understanding the stressors

In the early 1990s, when Stookey and his crew were studying the behavior of cows and calves when separated at weaning, they wondered how they could make the event less stressful. Among other notions was putting other adult cows with the newly separated calves. It made no difference.

That led to wondering about separating calves from their mamas, but still allowing contact across a fence, based on earlier work they’d done with elk. This fence-line weaning, which didn’t have a name at the time, decreased vocalization and time spent walking, while increasing the time spent lying down.

At the time, Derek Haley was a graduate student of Stookey’s who wanted to work on the subject for his doctoral dissertation. He now leads a research program in applied ethology and animal welfare science at the University of Guelph’s Ontario Veterinary College.

Haley wanted to know which posed the primary stress to calves at weaning — taking them away from their mothers or stopping the flow of milk.

When calves remained with their mothers but were unable to nurse because of the nose flap, their behavior remained virtually the same as when they were able to nurse.

So, Stookey and Haley figured they’d see a big difference when the calves were separated from the cows. There was no change in behavior after that, either.Joe Stookey on weaning calves

In retrospect, Stookey says, “If you go five days without nursing, you’re weaned. It says this idea of weaning is something that nature works out between mothers and their offspring.”

Low-stress weaning strategies

“Any opportunity to reduce stress of weaning has the opportunity to contribute to improved health and performance of calves, both during and after the weaning period,” says Adele Harty, Extension cow-calf field specialist at South Dakota State University (SDSU). Harty and Ken Olson, SDSU Extension beef cattle specialist, offer these tips from a low-stress weaning fact sheet.

Two-stage weaning

• Place plastic nose tags in all calves for four to seven days. It is important to ensure they are placed correctly to minimize loss through falling out, and so that calves can’t figure out how to nurse with the tags applied.

• After the four- to seven-day period, remove the plastic nose tag and move the cows to a remote location.

Fence-line weaning

• Place pairs in the pasture that the calves will be in following weaning so they become familiar with the fences and water in the pasture.

• Upon weaning, place the cows in the pasture adjacent to the calves so they can see, hear and smell each other, but the calves cannot nurse. This may require some modifications to fences.

• It may be helpful to place a cull cow or yearling with the calves to keep them from walking fences as much.

• After a few days, the cows and calves will move farther from the fences and not be as concerned about weaning.

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