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Research Update: Finishing Calves On Farm

There is increased interest in marketing of calves finished on farm directly to consumers. There are several items that producers should be aware of and be able to communicate to consumers. The amount of retail cuts coming from a finished calf depends on the frame, muscling, skeletal structure, fat cover, and gut fill. The conversion of live animal depends on dressing percent (the amount of carcass per pound of shrunk live weight), in grain finished calves this ranges from 58% (usually dairy calves) to 66% (highly finished heavyweight beef steers), but in forage finished calves this can be much lower, usually due to gut fill and lower fat cover. A tool to estimate red meat yield from a carcass is the Beef Cutout Calculator (http://beefcutoutcalculator.agsci.colostate.edu/). The user must be aware that this is based on the average grain finished carcasses, and differences in finishing system will affect your results. A rule of thumb is on a well finished calf (0.6 inch of backfat at the 12thrib), you can expect red meat yield to be about 50% of the shrunk live weight of the animal (empty of gut fill).

Research was conducted in Arkansas looking at a conventional feedlot finishing system compared with finishing steers on pasture with supplemental concentrate at 1 to 1.5% of calf weight. Steers finished on pasture were fed 42 days longer (174 days vs 132 for conventional finishing), gained 2 pounds per day less (2.4 pounds per day vs 4.4 pounds per day for steers finished in the feedlot), and were 130 pounds lighter at slaughter (1306 pounds vs 1436 for steers finished in the feedlot). Steers finished in the feedlot were 86% Choice while steers fed grain on pasture were 43% Choice. Steers fed grain on pasture cost $114 per head less to finish ($491 in feed and pasture cost) than feedlot finishing ($605 in feed cost), but net returns were still greater for feedlot finished steers. The conclusions of this experiment were that finishing steers on pasture with supplemental grain can produce acceptable quality carcasses, but premiums are required in valued added programs for net returns to be equal.

Many of us are forced to feed concentrate separate from the roughage when we are stepping calves up on finishing diets. Cattle should be gradually stepped up from forage based diets to grain based finishing diets. Research from the 1990’s found that feeding long-stem hay separately from grain and concentrate mixes when steers were being stepped up to high concentrate diets were as effective in decreasing acidosis and other digestive upsets as TMR diets. Calves should be transitioned from roughage diets to high concentrate diet over a 3-week period. Start with a few pounds of the final concentrate ration with a good quality palatable free choice hay, increasing the concentrate 1 pound per day until the calves are approaching full feed. Calves should be fed twice a day when the roughage is not built into the diets. When calves are on full feed, bunks should be managed with just a little bit of feed dust left in the bunk (but not licked completely slick) with hay still on offer.

Done correctly, forage finishing yields a tender, good quality product. Done incorrectly, the product is tough with off flavors, that consumers are not accustomed to. Getting a calf to acceptable fat cover (> 0.2 inches of backfat) by an acceptable age (< 20 months) is not easy and requires lots of ability in forage and grazing management. Research at Clemson University compared forage species for finishing calves on pasture during late spring and summer months. Calves grazed cool-season annuals and tall fescue the previous winter. Finishing forages included alfalfa, bermudagrass, chicory, cowpea or pearl millet. Steers grazing bermudagrass pastures gained 1.7 lbs/day, while steers grazing alfalfa (2.8 lbs/day), chicory (2.5 lbs/day) and cowpea (1.9 lbs/day) gained faster and had more backfat. Steers grazing pearl millet only gained 1.2 pounds per day and had the least backfat at slaughter. The calves averaged low Select quality grades and consumer preference was greatest for alfalfa and least for bermudagrass raised steers.

Paul Beck