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Can weaning affect beef end-product quality?

Sarah Baker Published on 01 September 2011
Cows drinking from a feeding trough

If you are a rancher, then you are in the meat business.

Americans love the taste and enjoy the satisfaction of eating beef.

We must keep them happy if we want to stay in business.

However, most consumers want it all. They want beef that is tender, of high quality, convenient to prepare, healthy and nutritious, safe and competitively priced.

If we fail on any of these fronts, consumers will often turn to another protein source in the retail store or restaurant.

Beef quality can be interpreted in many different ways, but there are three main factors that make up beef quality: safety (wholesomeness), nutritional quality and palatability.

Palatability refers to the overall beef-eating experience, which is determined by the tenderness, juiciness and flavor of the beef.

There are many pre-harvest and post-harvest management practices and technologies beef producers can use to ensure the beef they produce is tender, juicy and flavorful to guarantee consumers a positive eating experience each and every time they consume beef.

This doesn’t just go for cow-calf producers. Ultimately, the quality and consistency of beef is the responsibility of the entire production chain.

The impact of management practices from the cow-calf producer through the consumer involves the complex interactions of many factors.

Consistent management practices and an appreciation of their impact on beef palatability are important in the production of high-quality beef.

Does weaning improve end-product quality?

Weaning calves can be an essential component in the management of a beef herd. While there are limited data to successfully link weaning practices to improved end-product quality, there are many indirect effects of weaning that can lead to improved beef quality.

Previous research has demonstrated that different strategies of weaning can affect performance of the calf, including market weight and health, as well as influence carcass characteristics.

Health management

Cattle health plays an increasingly critical role in the industry’s ability to provide high-quality beef products and can be critical to the final eating quality of beef.

Studies have shown animals that have been sick prior to placement in the feedlot have a slower growth rate, lower carcass grades, possibly have lung lesions that would render the carcass less valuable and potentially produce less-palatable beef.

It is well established that morbidity has a negative impact on feedlot performance and carcass quality, including reduced daily gains, increased percentage of carcasses that grade USDA Standard and increased incidence of producing tougher steaks according to Warner-Bratzler shear force values.

influence of sickness on performance

The effects of sickness on performance were clearly demonstrated in data collected on over 16,000 head of cattle in the Texas A&M Ranch to Rail program (Table 1).

Sickness increased the number of Standard grading carcasses by 5 percent and reduced the number of carcasses grading Choice by 12 percent.

This has the potential to impact marketing premiums relative to grid pricing systems that are largely driven by quality grade.

When medicine costs, death loss and reduced carcass value were considered, cattle identified and treated for sickness returned an average of around $88 less compared to cattle that were never treated.

Preconditioning

Preconditioning is a process that prepares calves for a change that might cause severe stress. There is no standardized definition for this term as it applies to beef calves prior to, during and/or after the weaning and shipping period.

However, in the beef industry, preconditioning generally refers to management practices implemented around weaning intended to optimize the immune system and nutritional status of calves while minimizing stress.

The outcome of this process is added value to the entire beef production system. This added value is realized through reduced incidence and associated costs of sickness, improved performance in terms of weight gain and feed efficiency, a reduction in drug use and the labor required to treat and manage sick cattle, and improved beef product quality.

Conventional preconditioning programs usually include vaccination against clostridial and respiratory diseases, parasite control, castration and dehorning.

These programs also commonly include weaning calves at least three weeks prior to shipping and training calves to eat from a feed bunk and drink from a trough.

The primary value of preconditioning programs to the cattle industry is in reducing the risk of subsequent sickness in calves.

Because of the positive correlation between animal health during the finishing period and carcass quality and palatability, preconditioning is recommended.

Numerous studies have documented preconditioned cattle have significantly higher ADGs, are more efficient, show an increase or maintain end-product quality characteristics such as USDA Quality Grade and have lower morbidity and mortality rates than calves not preconditioned.

The bottom line

If you are a beef producer, you should always be thinking about end-product quality. However, there are certainly many factors you must consider before deciding if and when you are going to wean your calves.

What will my facilities allow? What traits and qualities will bring the best return when I sell my calves? Those are just a few questions you should ask yourself when deciding on a weaning management program.

I hope whatever you decide to do will result in the selling of healthy and valuable calves because it is now fall, the time of year when all of your hard work that you put into calving, pasture management and keeping cows and calves healthy and fed all year will pay off.  end_mark

PHOTO

TOP: Preconditioning programs include weaning calves prior to shipping, and training them to eat from a feed bunk and drink from a trough. Staff Photo
BOTTOM: Influence of sickness on performance, profitability and quality grade in eight years of the Texas A&M

sarah baker

Sarah Baker
University of Idaho Extension Educator

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