Source: Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs
Mystery in The Feedlot
Predicting cattle performance is one of the great mysteries of the complex art/science known as feedlot production. Feedstuffs are evaluated, rations are balanced and vaccines administered. Cattle are sorted and grouped for best effect. Bunks are managed and barn ventilation controlled. Sick calves are picked out quickly and treated with vetmeds and TLC. The cattle look great, they must be doing great ! But are they?
Figure 1. BIO Ultrasound Technician Scott Bothwell uses real-time ultrasound to look under the hide.
Feedlot operators know that some groups of cattle work well while others under perform, for no apparent reason. And even within some seemingly uniform groups there are both doers and duds, power packed cattle and those with a power shortage. Sometimes it seems like the only accurate evaluation possible is to feed the cattle first and then see how they measure up. But cattle feeders know that certain cow-calf farms seem to produce consistently superior performing calves, and these reputation cattle are in demand.
What’s up with this?
Proper health management and good sorting are important. But a large part of the answer is in the genetic make up of the calves. However, most feeder cattle are sourced without accurate knowledge of their genetics. Educated guesses are made to place them in breed and breed cross categories based on their visual appearance. This assumed breed composition is then used as an informal predictor of feedlot performance, including daily gain and finished weight. But, as the sayings go, beauty is only skin deep, and looks can be deceiving ! While some traits like frame score and muscling can be visually appraised, the true genetic power of these animals to grow, convert feed, finish and marble is hidden from our view, locked in their DNA !
Figure 2. Ultrasound scan image which is used to evaluate backfat, rib eye area and intramuscular fat.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could accurately predict these performance characteristics before the cattle go on feed ? This information would allow purchasers to accurately estimate the economic value of the cattle, and make informed buying decisions. This ability is near at hand. We live in the information age, and we can use existing genetic information to take a lot of the guess work out of predicting feedlot performance. This knowledge is of significant benefit when evaluating animals for a given feedlot production and marketing scenario, allowing feedlot operators to minimize at least some of the risk in feeding cattle.
The feedlot performance potential of a calf is strongly influenced by its genetic make up. Most feedlot traits are highly heritable. The assortment of genes which the calf receives from its sire and dam exert a large impact on its daily gain, feed conversion, finish weight, marbling and rib eye area. Ontario is fortunate in having a wealth of genetic information on beef cattle available. Beef Improvement Ontario provides world leading genetic evaluations, and many Ontario seedstock producers participate in valuable breed based evaluation programs. So information is out there … how does it apply to the feedlot ?
Let’s consider a simplified example which shows the impact that calf genetics for daily gain can have on feedlot performance. We’ll look at the effect on performance and economics of feeding calves (of the same breed type or cross) with either High Power, Average Power, or Low Power genetics for daily gain.
- High Power Genetics: steers from parents in the top 10% for postweaning gain genetics
- Medium Power Genetics: steers from parents who are average for postweaning gain genetics
- Low Power Genetics: steers from parents which are in the bottom 10% for postweaning gain genetics
- Finishing program, steers from 1000 lbs to 1400 lbs
- High Power steers gain 3.40 lbs/day
- Medium Power steers gain 3.20 lbs/day
- Low Power steers gain 3.00 lbs/day
- Corn based diet costs 5.3 cents per lb (as fed basis)
- Cattle consume 30 lbs (AF) of diet per day
- Daily feed cost is $1.59 /hd/day
- Other costs including yardage, health, interest and marketing total 75 cents per head per day
- Feeder yearling purchased for $1.00 per lb live weight, or $1000/hd
- Finished cattle sale price 95 cents per lb live weight, or $1330/hd
Table 1 shows the impact that higher rates of gain have on production costs. Cattle that grow slower spend a longer time on feed and consume a lot more feed to put on the same weight gain than fast gaining cattle. The increased days on feed also results in higher costs for things like bedding and interest which accrue on a daily basis. In this scenario, High Power cattle would yield a margin of $40 more per head than Low Power cattle, and $22 more per head than the Medium Power group.
Table 1. Predicted Feedlot Performance By Genetic Power Groups
|Days On Feed
Feed Cost ($)
|Total Other Costs ($)
|Margin Relative to Low Power
*margin = selling price – (yearling cost + total feed cost + total other costs)
Most feedlots have a fixed one time capacity, but turn cattle over more than once per year. If cattle move through the feedlot faster, more head per year can be fed in total in a given facility. Many feedlots want to maximize throughput to increase total revenue and dilute fixed costs. The faster they can turn cattle over, the higher the number of cattle they can market in a year, which maximizes annual income. Table 2 considers the impact of genetic power on annual productivity and margins on a per space basis assuming the lot is kept as full as possible. In this scenario, High Power cattle require 15 fewer daysin the feedlot relative to Low Power cattle. This has a big impact on annual economic margin. High Power cattle would return an additional $117 per feedlot space relative to Low Power cattle, and an additional $67 per space relative to Medium Power cattle.
Table 2. Predicted Economic Performance Of Genetic Power Groups
|Days On Feed Per Head
|Number of Turns of Cattle per year*
|Margin per Feedlot Space per Year
|Margin Relative to Low Power ($)
*based on maximum possible occupancy rate of 90%
The bottom line is that High Power cattle gain weight faster and go to market earlier, eating less total feed and accruing less yardage in the process. And fewer days spent in the feedlot by these animals allows more cattle to be flowed through the system in a given year. This double benefit of more efficient production and more total throughput makes these cattle High Powered Performers.
In this example, we’ve considered only one genetic trait, daily gain. There are genetic evaluations available for a number of other feedlot relevant traits, such as marbling, intramuscular fat, backfat, and rib eye area. These can be used to further describe the genetics of animals headed for the feedlot. Each has economic value in the feedlot enterprise, and can be used in conjunction with the specific needs and targets of an individual operation to identify the cattle that best suit that system.
The power of genetics is demonstrated by every individual in every group of cattle that goes through a feedlot. This power can be harnessed by feedlot operators and employed to identify the economic value of prospective feeder cattle. The mix of traits considered, and their relative weighting can be tailored for each feeding and marketing situation. High Power Cattle which excel in the desired traits will give consistently superior performance and higher margins.
Author: Tom Hamilton – Beef Program Lead, Production Systems/OMAFRA