For cattle feeders who have cattle getting close to market, this is a scary time. We don’t know how long we will be backed up for, all we know is that it is nearly certain we won’t be able to market a sizeable number of our cattle in the near future. With this comes many questions about how we can hold cattle in the pens for longer than we were expecting to, so that when the time comes to market them they aren’t too big and we haven’t spent a small fortune feeding them.
There’s a lot of talk in the country about maintenance diets for fat cattle. I’d like to throw a word of caution out about that idea. Feeding cattle a maintenance diet does just that — keeps them at the same weight. This means we have no animal growth to recover the costs we incur in feeding this maintenance diet. To minimize losses, we have to keep the cattle growing, albeit at a slower pace than we are accustomed to.
If we are going to hold back cattle, we also need to pick the right kind of cattle to do this with. Keep in mind that the longer fat cattle live, the more likely they are to die. No, this doesn’t mean their environment is unhealthy, but the law of averages says that the more days a beef steer spends on this earth before his slaughter date, the more likely it is he may die from another cause than the butcher’s hand.
This means when selecting which pens to hold back, keep the pens that have had the least health issues. Problem groups of cattle are more likely to incur death loss prior to harvest, and the best way to minimize this loss is to harvest the cattle in a timely manner. Even if this option is not immediately available to you, as marketing opportunities develop, knowing which cattle need to go first will help decrease the amount of money lost overall.
Once we have our marketing order developed and we have the correct maintenance rations, we need to consider how we deliver these lower-energy rations to our cattle. If you are limit feeding cattle, bunk space may be an issue. On lower-energy rations with limited bunk space, aggressive cattle may out-compete their passive pen mates at the bunk. One option is to deliver half the ration in one feeding, then come back with the second half in two hours. This way, the first half of the pen will feel full when more feed comes, allowing the second half of the pen to get their meal.
With all of these scenarios, this chaotic time underscores more than ever how vital it is to work with a good nutritionist. It’s one thing to create a basic diet to maximize weight gain, but quite another to create one that targets a lower than normal gain that the cattle will adequately consume.
As a final word, though this column is targeted toward cattle feeders, knowing this is published in a community newspaper I wanted to reach out to the folks who are not in the cattle business. Those of us who are want to thank you for the support we’ve received from you all in choosing beef to feed yourselves and your families all these years.
To clarify some misconceptions I’ve seen on social media or in talking to others, the increase in price you may see at the grocery store is not a result of cattle farmers increasing the price of their cattle. The price for the live beef animal has actually decreased since the outbreak of COVID-19, which means nearly all cattle farmers and ranchers are operating at a loss. Currently, due to shutdowns at packing plants there are less cattle being harvested than normal, creating a bottleneck in the supply of beef. This means that we have live cattle that were supposed to go to harvest that now cannot, hence the reason for the recommendations in this article to cattle farmers.
As this problem gets worked out so that workers can safely return to their jobs at the packing plants, I suggest shoppers consider the many small-scale butchers in our towns. Several in South Dakota are inspected by state employees to insure they uphold the same standard as the federally inspected packing plants. They provide a variety of beef and pork products raised close to home.
These local butchers are knowledgeable about meats and willing to provide unique products not easily found in supermarkets. This includes everything from chislic to blueberry brats to ring baloney. Take this opportunity to give them a try, and you may find a new favorite to visit even after this pandemic passes.
Jake Geis, DVM, works with Sioux Nation Ag in Freeman.