When it comes to making quality cattle, U.S. ranchers have succeeded with flying colors when “quality” refers to beef. Ranchers today produce more pounds of better-quality beef from fewer cattle than at any time in the past.
But with eyes so intensely fixed on the prize of “more, better beef,” some other important considerations may have fallen by the wayside.
“We’re good at measuring and selecting for and improving traits that are easy to measure. The animal health side—the trend is not in the right direction,” said Wade Small, president of the Livestock Division of Agri Beef Inc.
“When you look across the industry, we’ve seen a significant increase in death loss.”
Small spoke at the Beef Improvement Federation conference, held June 20-23 in Loveland, CO. He noted the increasing rates of death loss are especially prevalent in lighter-weight feedlot cattle but also in yearlings. He also highlighted that the use of beta agonists were thought to play a role in the increased mortality of feedlot cattle, but death loss has continued to climb despite reductions in the use of beta agonists.
“Where are we making the wrong decisions? Is it management? Is it genetics? Is it feed programs?” Small asked.
According to the most recent Death Loss report (released December 2017, reporting on 2015 data) from the USDA, respiratory issues such as pneumonia and shipping fever account for an average of 55 percent of death loss at the feedlot level.
In addition to death loss increasing at the feedlot level, Small showed the audience data tracking the sharp increase in veterinary costs per head over the same time. Effectively, per-head vet costs have doubled in the past decade while death loss has continued to increase. Small opined that, while some of this increase could be attributed to increases in veterinary prices, inflation could not account for all of it.
“If that trend continues, at some point in time we will have overcome the value we’ve created from carcass quality.”
He stressed that the industry cannot shift its focus away from carcass quality because “that’s what drives our business.” However, he also pointed out that what counts as “quality” in the future, particularly in the minds of consumers, may not be what it is now.
The most recent Beef Quality Assurance audit (released in 2017, reporting on 2016 data) backs this up. Compared to a decade before, concerns like “How and where cattle were raised” were among the top issues recognized by both producers and consumers alike.
“The industry is changing. What do we need to focus on going forward from the demands of the consumer? Animal welfare is a hot topic,” he pointed out, specifically discussing the increased consumer scrutiny on antibiotic and growth promotant use.
“If we’re going to overcome the reductions in some of those things, we’re going to need to look at ways to select for cattle that are healthier, that perform better, and that can overcome some of the economic benefit that we’ve gained as an industry from using some of these products.” — WLJ