While the outlook for favorable prices is good for pork producers, it maybe even brighter over the longer term in the beef sector.
America’s farmers and ranchers are already enjoying record, or near record prices for their cattle, due largely to a drought-reduced herd.
But that can be a double-edged sword. Producers are paying premium prices for some decidedly NOT premium replacement stock.
But producers in the “Show Me State” are trying to change that. So far, more than 100,000 Missouri heifers have been enrolled in an innovative program designed to improve breeding characteristics. Paul Yeager explains.
America’s cattle herd is smaller than it has been in 63 years, but the number of young females being kept for breeding is on the rise. The agriculture department reports the nation’s farmers and ranchers kept 5.47 million beef heifers for breeding this year, up nearly 100,000 from last year.
And in anticipation of rebounding cattle numbers, a handful of states have added or are planning heifer improvement programs such as one began 17 years ago in Missouri.
David Patterson, University of Missouri: “We’re at a very fortunate time relative to having the program in place given where the cattle industry is at. There’s going to be significant demand for good quality replacement heifers.”
In the early 1990s, Patterson established a single-county program in Kentucky, where cattle producers were worried about low pregnancy rates and calving difficulty among their heifers.
David Patterson, University of Missouri: “We essentially put together a fairly – now it would seem to be a fairly simplistic set of requirements that more or less encompassed everything from the time a heifer was weaned from her mother on up through her first breeding season, and then subsequently.”
Patterson believed the University of Missouri Extension’s statewide network of livestock specialists would make a larger-scale effort possible. So a few years later, he brought the concept with him to the number two beef cattle-producing state, setting up the Missouri Show-Me-Select Replacement Heifer Program.
Mike Kasten, Show-Me-Select: “We eliminate heifers right up front that aren’t going to succeed. Some of the top cattle economists will tell you it takes us five or six years to pay for a heifer.”
Heifers remaining in the program are eligible to be sold at Show-Me-Select auctions. In November and December of 2013, bred heifers in those sales sold for an average of more than $2,100. Heifers in Oklahoma City, the location the federal government uses to track breeding stock sale prices, brought an average of $1,287, or $900 less
University of Missouri ag economist Scott Brown says the comparison isn’t perfect because the federal government doesn’t track prices for breeding stock as closely as those of market steers and heifers. But he believes the data from multiple years does point to some added-value. Also, comparing Show-me-select-heifers with those not in the program reveals how artificial insemination, or AI, and better genetics can increase average sale prices anywhere from 7 to 22 percent.
Patrick Gunn, Iowa State University: “In the beef industry, we’re looking at about 10 percent or less of cattle in the beef industry are artificially inseminated every year, which is extremely low compared to other nations, other – and even other sectors within the U.S. The dairy industry is almost strictly AI.”
Many of the enrolled Missouri farms, 115 as of fall 2013, keep Show-Me heifers for their own herds. That’s the case at Crooks Farms, near Leeton, Missouri, where three families are involved in the cattle business.
Doug Crooks, Crooks Farms: “We started out with this program just to make a little extra money as far as selling bred heifers, but it has just turned the whole cow herd around because through the AI and being able to get better genetics.”
The program’s heifers must have pelvic bones of a certain width and height, a mature reproductive system, and have received certain vaccinations. At Crooks Farms, this year’s 125 heifers were run through a chute for the usual vaccinations, as well as a pre-breeding exam. The cattle are run through at least four more times: for placing and later removing vaginal implants that regulate progesterone levels, optional artificial insemination, and one or two pregnancy checks.
Mike Koch, Koch-Stiggy Veterinarian Clinic: “It works for some producers. It doesn’t work for other producers because it’s a lot of extra work. But then when they go to sell them, they get a lot more value added for the extra work they put into it.”
For some farmers and ranchers, the program serves as a reminder to apply those husbandry practices they might already know are ideal.
Mike Kasten, Show-Me-Select: “I think we all have good intentions and we always want to get those things done, but we have so many things going on. This puts a deadline on those things.”
The program prompts cattle producers to add practices they might not have otherwise. At Crooks Farms, they not only added artificial insemination to give themselves more options for sires, but also began implanting the progesterone devices known as CIDRs - or controlled internal drug release inserts – to synchronize their heifers’ reproductive cycles. As a result, most heifers will be fertile around the same time, and, as a group, they calve within a narrower time span.
Howard Early, Crooks Farms: “When they were bull-bred, we were up 45, 60 days at two o’clock every night, somebody was, checking the heifers. Now we’ve got them grouped to where that’s a 10-, 12- or 14-day period and we’ve kind of got that slack time that we didn’t.”
Howard Early is quick to point out, however, that the program doesn’t magically turn calving season into a day at the spa. Heifers sometimes still end up not getting pregnant when they should, and calves sometimes die at birth.
Howard Early, Crooks Farms: “That’s been one of the problems: that the perception of some of the public has been that it’s supposed to take every fault out of it. But there’s still going to be some issues.”
Statistics suggest those heifers in the program are less likely to need assistance calving.
David Hoffman, University of Missouri Extension: If we look at the national data, typically first-calf heifers have an assistance rate of 25 to 30 percent. In our Show-Me-Select program, we have pulled that down into the 8 percent, 9 percent, 10-percent assistance rate.”
Hiring a veterinarian or AI technician to work on the heifers, as well as the per-animal fees, can create new expenses, but beef experts not involved in the program understand why it could lead to a financial gain.
Patrick Gunn, Iowa State University: “You’ve got to try to ensure a higher pregnancy rate in those females and I think we have looked to Missouri and noted that they’re implementing the kind of management practices that we need.”
Less than two years ago, Missouri’s Show-Me-Select spun off a related program, Quality Beef by the Numbers, to track how steers born from the program’s females are doing when it comes to meat quality.
Mike Kasten, Quality Beef by the Numbers: “We want to trace those animals from conception to carcass.”
For Market to Market, I’m Paul Yeager.