By Harold Harpster
A "time of change" doesn't quite describe what the beef industry has been through. How about "shock and awe"? Once unimaginable prices have become the norm.
We'll be playing catch-up for a few years before we can even think about truly expanding the national herd. But how the mother cow and calf are fed and managed has long-term impact on the final quality of the beef on our plates. Consider these three factors:
• Cow and calf nutrition and health: Long-term research suggests that final fed beef quality is heavily dependent on cow nutrition and even events the day her calf is born. A Virginia Tech study found that colostrum immunoglobulin concentrations won't change in cows fed 100% or 57% of recommended pre-calving nutritional levels. But colostrum volume and calf IgG absorption will be lower from the restricted cows.
In another study, calves born from dams with restricted pre-calving nutrition are more susceptible to disease from scours and have a higher mortality rate, notes John Comerford, former Penn State Extension beef specialist. And a sheep study indicates improper nutrition from mid to late pregnancy in ewe lambs altered colostrum quality and quantity and reduced offspring birth weight.
Numerous other studies confirm that steers with restricted colostrum intake at birth had lower feedlot growth rates and lower carcass grades. The bottom line here is: Pre-calving feed quality and intake by mother cows has significant life-long impact on calf performance.
Genes matter >>
• Genes matter: Cow-calf producers put high priority on the pounds sold at weaning time. That's why we emphasize growth traits and milk production when selecting breeding stock.
Yet since final beef quality is heavily influenced by marbling ability, it's our job to keep that trait in our selection criteria.
Maybe it's time to consider a selection index where you define the traits you're interested in. Then, give each one a weighting based on the economic value you give it plus the trait's heritability.
Marbling has a moderate level of heritability. And in this era of increased traceability, feedlot buyers know where to find calves that "make the grade" down the road.
• Assure your beef quality: Beef Quality Assurance programs enjoy tremendous success all across the country. This is no time to become lax in following program guidelines.
Rough handling, poor health protocols and careless injection procedures all affect the final quality of the finished calf – and the cull cow – at marketing time.
Beef quality enhancement starts with the cow herd, not at the feedlot gate. Do your part to meet those expectations. It's a golden opportunity that your paycheck depends on!
Harpster is a beef producer and retired Penn State University animal scientist.