Marketing and weaning calves |

Marketing and weaning calves

Ivan G. Rush, Beef Specialist
University of Nebraska Panhandle Research and Extension Center

I recently attended a cattlemen’s meeting in Nebraska where a panel consisting of a cow-calf producer, feedlot operator, packer buyer and a retailer from the 10th largest retail store in the U.S. all spoke on different industry issues and how it impacted their business. The retailer led off indicating one of his biggest problems was the trimmed wholesale cuts that he received were too fat and often times did not meet the specification of 1/4 inch trim plus or minus 1/8 inch. He pointed out that the excess fat not only cost him money because of its very low value ($.06/lb.) but also the labor costs to cut it off plus at times he did not have the availability of skilled labor.

The packer buyer responded that they too at times did not have adequate skilled labor so some wholesale cuts may go in the box out of specs. The packer buyer went on to say that their profits were largely based on carcass yield – “That’s where it is all at – carcass yield.”

Factors such as fill, weigh conditions, amount of muscle, skin thickness and mud all effect carcass yield but a large factor is the amount of fat cover on the carcass – generally the fatter the carcass the higher the yield. I find it very frustrating that two segments of the industry sit at the same table and address the same issue – trimmable fat – and one is saying they pay more for high fat and the retailer saying they don’t want it and if it is delivered it costs them big money to trim it off.

Yes, we do need quality or marbling in our beef for consumer acceptance and currently that is defined quality grade. Yes, in general the longer fed and fatter cattle tend to grade higher but why do we price cattle on fat cover or carcass yield that may grade higher when we have the tools to pay for quality grade directly. I can see no way with our current marketing system – where the majority of cattle are sold live – that we will make progress in delivering quality lean beef to our consumer without using the knife to trim fat that costs the industry money and the consumer won’t buy. This has frustrated me for 35 years, partly because we have some genetic tools and marketing systems that will allow us as an industry to do better, but after the meeting the other evening, I see little hope for significant change.

The panel also addressed country of origin labeling (COOL). The retailer indicated as the law is currently written in his store alone it would require an expenditure of $6 million just to replace scales that can print a larger label. He also related many other problems that will increase his costs. We know who will eventually pay for this but I need to get off my soap box.

It is hard to believe, but cow-calf producers are starting to think about weaning and marketing calves this fall. In some areas rains have not occurred and forages are short. Early weaning should again be considered. I realize that feed costs are high as compared to past years and we are reluctant to consider high quality calf feed with a high price tag, but unfortunately, all costs have increased including forage and cow supplement cost. Therefore it is very important to maintain relatively good cow condition unless we know we have some relative inexpensive forage to go after the calves are weaned this fall. Examples may include crop aftermath such as corn stalks, volunteer small grains, summer or fall seeded forages such as turnips, triticale and perhaps re-growth on meadows or summer annuals. If there are inexpensive forages available before severe cold weather, perhaps some body condition loss on the cow can be tolerated.

It looks like it is more important than in years past to do everything possible to provide a weaned calf that will have high market acceptance or if retained that will perform well in the growing and finishing phase. With higher feedlot costs the feeders will be more discriminating on calves and will be more willing to purchase calves that have been conditioned to enter the feedlot with minimum weight loss, sickness or reduced overall performance including carcass quality. This may include weaning and bunk breaking in many cases as well as a well carried out vaccination program. It may also include certified source and age verification.

Remember, just because you know the origin and birth date of the calves, that does not mean that your calves are eligible for source and age verification markets. In general terms unless someone has visited your operation to verify your record keeping system and certified your operation, you are not going to qualify for a source and age verification program.

As far as weaning management is concerned, I am convinced that fence line weaning is less stressful than cold hard separation where the calves can not have contact across with the cows. Ranchers that fence line wean continue to tell how much easier and less stressful it is for the calf. They also report less sickness. The good news is that research backs up producer observations. The University of California reports that calves that were fence line weaned gained 18 more pounds two weeks after weaning than totally separated calves in a two year study. I often hear, “That just can’t be done at our place.” I would encourage you to think in terms of how can it be done because I think you will like the results.

Have a great rest of the summer, enjoy the county fair and support our young people.

Email Ivan Rush at


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