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Beefs and Beliefs

Reader Says Grazing Management Doesn't Pay, Quality Does

Here's my response to a reader who informed me grazing management takes more labor and cows should be producing more Choice carcass feeders.


I received a letter the other day from an Illinois seedstock producer chastising me for recent articles on grazing management and on R.P. Cooke's column on the "near-perfect cow."

I'm always glad to trade correspondence with readers but I cannot other than take issue with most of what the reader wrote.

He begins by telling me, "I am an Angus seed stock producer in central Illinois. I realize that you are producing articles for other publications across the US, but I disagree with articles promoting things like mob grazing. My customers here in the Midwest are looking for less labor, not more. It's just not practical for anyone I deal with."

"Also the article on defining the ideal cow I totally disagree with. In Illinois and most of the Midwest where feed resources are plentiful, we need to be producing cows that have the genetics to produce calves that perform in the feedlot and on the rail. I don't believe there are very many 950-pound cows getting that done. Small frame does not necessarily mean more efficient. We have EPD's and high-density DNA marker panels that we need to utilize in our cow herds to produce more efficient beef. I think there are many articles you could do on that topic."

First, I think we need to address the reader's use of the term "mob grazing," which normally refers to ultra-high density grazing. However I have about ceased to use the term because it is now a buzz word adopted by novices to describe nearly every form of controlled or "rotation" grazing. Therefore it means nothing at all.

But the reader's choice to eschew whatever form of grazing management to which he refers because of his desire for "less labor" is antithetical in its simplest form. Every top beef producer I've ever met who uses managed grazing says he and his family and/or employees expend less labor with the implementation of managed grazing, rather than more labor.

This is not to mention the many fringe benefits which improve the forage and the land, decrease the need for inputs, improve the health of the grazing animals, and drastically increase profitability as per the information I present in links further down in this column.

So when I read or hear such statements about beef producers not having time to manage grazing, what I hear is I don't want to make more money or improve the land or increase my stocking rate or decrease my hay feeding or reduce my overheads.

As for the "near-perfect cow," I can only say the debate rages on about bovine efficiency within the scientific community and neither EPDs nor high-density chips can therefore predict efficiency since the scientists who create these tools cannot agree upon what determines efficiency.

Some beef producers, on the other hand, are figuring out how to define and to select for efficiency at the ranch level with great effect.

The reader is correct that small-framed cows aren't necessarily efficient, but the statistical odds are you will be able to select more efficient cattle from a smaller-framed herd because their metabolic requirements are distinctly lower and they are more likely to be able to meet those needs, as defined by NRS standards and many others in the scientific community. Johann Zietsman explains this very well in this YouTube video.

By combining the highest sustainable stocking rate and the most forage-efficient cattle they will be wildly more profitable than the rest of the crowd. Period. You'll find a great deal more on this in the upcoming August issue of Beef Producer.

Chasing quality is not necessarily conducive to profits, especially on the ranch level. I've been following the scientific work on efficiency and its relationship to carcass quality for years and am not finding any comprehensive answers, likely because there are none. I do know, however, that the few old lines of British cattle still extant tend to be smaller, denser, keep better on grass and still producer good carcasses when fed by those who understand how to do it.

An interesting piece I did with one such feeder a few years ago, along with one of his best customers in Oklahoma and one in Texas, lays out some of this dilemma.

Certainly, there is a place for quality beef as currently defined by the industry, but it exists for only about half the cattle currently traversing the American feedlots.

I disagree, too, with the idea that feedstuffs are "cheap" anywhere, although everything but cottonseed products would certainly be cheaper for the reader than they would for me because of proximity.

Finally, I close with two other points. First, the beef market is moving steadily away from what the industry has defined as quality and toward ground beef. That is well documented and is explained in one of my recent blogs and in this well-done article by Wes Ishmael in BEEF magazine.

Second, if the selection tools we now have are so exacting, why are the "best" herds achieving only 60-80% Choice in retained ownership and why is Certified Angus Beef, the granddaddy of branded beef programs, still only certifying only about 25% of those cattle nominated, with slow increases up from about 15-17% just a few years ago.

I can't find much to agree with this reader about but I'm glad to hear from him, as I would be to hear from any of you. In my opinion, public discourse is more important than the flow of "news" through traditional media channels and yet there's very little of it actually happening.

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