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Properly sizing up today’s beef cattle

J. Benton Glaze, Jr Published on 30 September 2011

Beef cattle producers have long debated the correct size and type of cattle in the industry.

Historically, the differences in animal size and type have resulted from producers selecting and raising animals to meet the needs of the industry and the consumers that rely on the industry for food products.

However, there have been instances where changes in animal size and type have resulted in extremes that have gone beyond the needs of the industry.

For producers to remain viable in the beef industry, their operations must be profitable and sustainable. Profitable beef production is dependent upon production efficiency.

To improve production efficiency, beef producers traditionally placed emphasis on increased growth rates, heavier weaning weights and larger yearling weights in their selection programs.

For the most part, this effort was successful and resulted in more pounds of beef being produced per cow. To gain some perspective on how this effort to improve production efficiency through increased growth has impacted the beef industry, consider the results of a study (McMurry, 2011) that were presented at the recent American Society of Animal Science meetings in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Beef steer and heifer carcass weights and live weights have changed considerably over the three-decade period from 1975 to 2005 (Table 1). In 1975, the average carcass weight of steers was 673 pounds.

By 2005, the average carcass weight of steers had increased to 817 pounds. That is an increase of 144 pounds (approximately five pounds per year) during the 30-year time period. A greater increase in heifer carcass weights was noted.

In 1975, the average carcass weight of heifers was 556 pounds, compared to the average carcass weight of 750 pounds in 2005.

The average carcass weight of heifers increased 194 pounds (approximately 6.5 pounds per year) during the noted time period.

To provide a snapshot of what these steers and heifers looked like at harvest, the researchers calculated (based on average dressing percent) live weights from the carcass weights.

Live weights of steers and heifers in 1975 were 1,068 pounds and 869 pounds, respectively. In 2005, the average live weights had increased to 1,297 pounds (steers) and 1,172 pounds (heifers).

For many, seeing the increases in average steer and heifer weights over this 30-year period would be a sign of success.

Basically, beef producers implemented many of the tools and technologies (selection using EPDs, crossbreeding, herd health programs, supplementation programs, etc.) available to them, resulting in heavier steers and heifers in an effort to generate positive net returns.

But has the increase in these weights been viewed as a success by the entire industry?

Table 1: Changes in beef cattle in the U.S. beef industry from 1975 to 2005

In 1991 (updated in 1995, 1999 and 2005) beef industry leaders initiated the National Beef Quality Audit (NBQA).

One of the goals of the audit was to evaluate the beef industry and provide benchmark data identifying areas of non-conformity and quality shortfalls in fed steers and heifers.

Through the years, these audits provided the beef industry with several recommendations aimed at addressing and managing product inconsistencies and non-conformities and gave the industry some direction in improving beef’s position in the marketplace.

Generally, increased steer and heifer carcass weights resulted in larger beef cut (steaks and roasts) weights.

The larger beef cuts led to challenges (alternative fabrication of larger cuts, merchandising of larger cuts) and frustrations (inconsistent portion sizes, higher prices) faced by beef end users such as packers, distributors and consumers.

Therefore, in each edition of the NBQA, end users included excessive carcass weights and excessive beef cut weights on the list of quality challenges.

Considering the upward trend of average steer and heifer carcass weights and the information from the NBQA, it would seem the beef industry has not clearly addressed the concerns and advice of beef processors and other end users.

In the strategy workshop portion of the 2005 NBQA, end users commented that the carcass weight trend would be difficult to overcome and that meat may need to be cut and marketed differently as a result.

As new audits are conducted and strategies proposed, producers should be vigilant in determining how their cattle fit various markets and strive to produce animals sought by the industry.

In addition to presenting carcass weight and live weight information on steers and heifers, McMurry presented similar information on bulls and cows (see Table 1).

This provides some idea of the type of cattle that produced the aforementioned steers and heifers. The average carcass weight of bulls in 1975 was 682 pounds.

By 2005, the weight increased to 905 pounds, an increase of 223 pounds (approximately 7.5 pounds per year).

The average carcass weight of cows changed from 475 pounds in 1975 to 621 pounds in 2005, an increase of 146 pounds (approximately 5 pounds per year).

Calculated (based on average dressing percent) live weights (harvest weights) of bulls and cows in 1975 were 1,340 pounds and 1,047 pounds, respectively. By 2005, the average live weight of bulls and cows had increased to 1,769 pounds and 1,350 pounds, respectively.

Similarly, as with the increases in steer and heifer weights, the increases in bull and cow weights has had a definite impact on the industry.

Generally, increases in mature cow size (1,047 pounds in 1975, 1,350 pounds in 2005) come with increases in cow nutrient requirements. For example, consider the nutrient requirements of the following cows:

• A 1,000-pound cow, early in lactation, has daily nutrient requirements of 25.4 pounds of dry matter, 14.9 pounds of Total Digestible Nutrients (TDN) and 2.6 pounds of crude protein.

• A 1,400-pound cow, early in lactation, has daily nutrient requirement of 31.1 pounds of dry matter, 17.8 pounds of TDN and 3.0 pounds of crude protein.

Clearly, the 1,400-pound cow will require more nutrients to perform optimally.

Beef cattle are produced and expected to perform in a wide range of conditions and environments.

Depending on the size of the cow, some environments may not have the ability to produce adequate levels of nutrition to support the cow’s production.

Producers should have an accurate estimate of the mature weight of the cows in their herd and an accurate estimate of the amount of nutrients (forages, etc.) that can be produced on the operation.

A comparison of these measures allows producers to determine if their farm and ranch resources can sustain their cow herd’s nutritional requirements.

If these estimates are not in synch with one another, producers may need to consider altering herd size, cow size and/or herd nutritional management. Ultimately, these decisions affect the ranch’s ability to increase profit margins and remain viable.  end_mark


TOP: Steer and heifer carcass weights have climbed drastically over 30 years. Photo courtsey of Staff.

benton glaze

J. Benton Glaze, Jr.
Extension Beef Cattle Specialist
University of Idaho