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Beef Tips: Five ways beef cattle have changed in last 25 yearsBeef Tips: Five ways beef cattle have changed in last 25 years

January 21, 2016

8 Min Read
Beef Tips: Five ways beef cattle have changed in last 25 years

*Dr. Larry Corah is professor emeritus at Kansas State University.

AS we enter 2016, it is a great time to reflect on what happened in 2015: Maybe there were personal changes like a new family member or the loss of a loved one, or maybe a change in jobs or the structure of a personal business.

It's also a great time to reflect on changes that have occurred over a longer period. For me, visiting with an old friend over the holidays led to a discussion about how different cattle are today compared to 25 years ago.

To the credit of both seedstock and commercial cow/calf operators, cattle today are very different from years ago. I'll argue that they are far superior to the cattle we used to raise, and here are the five biggest factors involved:

Beef Tips: Five ways beef cattle have changed in last 25 years

1. The ability for cattle to grow. Perhaps no other change is more noticeable in cattle today than their size and ability to grow. The increasing trend for this really started in the late 1950s and '60s as the use of Continental genetics changed this industry, creating cattle with considerably greater growth potential.

The second component of this came about in the early 1980s as work by population geneticists created estimated breeding values and then expected progeny differences (EPDs) that made genetic selection for growth more predictable and easier. This was rapidly embraced by seedstock producers raising what are typically referred to as English breeds (Hereford, Angus and Shorthorn) to make great genetic improvements. All of a sudden, weaning weights increased, along with heavier fed cattle and carcass weights.

Maybe a simple look at carcass weights reflects this change as much as anything, with the past couple of years being especially dramatic. Over the past 25 years, the average weight of a carcass has increased by 150 lb., with a virtually linear increase of about 3 lb. per year highlighted by an increase of nearly 10 lb. per year in the past two years (Figure).

This is further illustrated by cow size. The beef cow that once averaged 1,000-1,100 lb. now routinely weighs 1,300-1,400 lb. — all as a result of the focus on growth EPDs. Have they gotten too big? Opinions differ sharply, and probably only time will sort out the correct answer.

Another way to measure the change in growth is at the feedlot level. In 1975, I started a newsletter called "Focus on Feedlots" that contained performance data gathered from cooperating Kansas feedlots. In those early years, the monthly average daily gain of feedlot cattle was 2.4-2.6 lb. per day, and any pen gaining more than 3 lb. per day was pretty special. Today, the same data show that feedlot cattle gain an average of 3.2-3.4 lb. per day, and it is not unusual to see pens gaining more than 4 lb. daily.

I also used to do sale barn surveys that referred to one category of cattle as "short blacks," which were calves sired by Angus bulls and, once placed in a feedlot, typically were finished at about 900-950 lb. There were even small packers whose sole harvest was focused on these short blacks. Today, to the credit of performance-minded producers, such cattle are rarely ever seen in a sale barn.

2. The impact of genetic selection on other traits. The array of genetic predictors like EPDs or index values has further changed cattle beyond just growing faster.

Disposition would be one great example as methods of evaluating and measuring docility have allowed genetic selection to improve a trait that has made cattle much more functional, safer to work with and, as data show, more likely to grade better.

The collection and application of carcass data allowed great genetic progress in selection for improved levels of marbling, a larger rib-eye size and less fat cover. Even genetic selection for tenderness is starting. The net result of this has been an improvement in the beef product being brought to the consuming public today.

Yet another trait for making cattle more functional has been the focus on reporting birth weights so that both maternal and direct calving ease EPDs could be developed.

Gradually, we are finding ways to select for improved reproduction through EPDs for heifer fertility and, in some breeds, longevity.

The bovine genome map now allows us to incorporate DNA information into the calculation of EPDs. Future advanced uses of DNA technology will allow genetic selection for traits like feed efficiency, disease resistance, tenderness and probably numerous other economically important traits.

3. A more black-hided cattle herd. One need only walk the aisles of a cattle show or drive the pens of a feedlot to realize how black the U.S. cattle herd has become. On a recent trip from northern Kansas to South Dakota covering 300 miles, I passed tens of thousands of cows out grazing on corn stalks and was amazed that I never saw anything but solid black-hided cows.

As the Continental breeds were introduced in the 1960s, nearly all of the new breeds were red, with the exception of Charolais and a few others. The genetic makeup of commercial cattle, at least in the western half of the U.S., was Hereford based. Hence, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture started measuring and reporting hide color, not surprising, only 40% of the cattle in 1990 were black-hided.

Today, the change is startling and continuing. Packing data would suggest that, if removing Holsteins from the fed cattle mix, 75-77% of domestic beef cattle are black-hided.

Survey data collected by numerous beef publications suggest that about 60-65% of the bulls turned out annually are black Angus, which is supported by breed registration numbers. Not to be overlooked, many of the once red breeds, such as Limousin, Simmental and Gelbvieh, now report black hides as the majority of their registration. There are even black Hereford and black Charolais breed organizations.

There likely are many reasons for this change, but many would quickly point to the impact of beef brands, notably the Certified Angus Beef brand. This brand alone sold nearly 900 million lb. of branded product from the 3.6 million head of cattle qualifying for certification in 2015. All annual trend lines suggest no change in the near future.

4. A reduction in calving difficulty. For years, one of the labor issues with raising cattle was the number of heifers — and, sometimes, cows — requiring assistance with calving. Not only was this time consuming, but the increased calf and heifer death loss associated with difficult births was a costly piece of cattle production.

It was not unusual for survey data to show that 25-35% of first-calf heifers required assistance. Today, however, ask the same question, and producers will start counting on one hand the number of heifers or cows they assisted. Progress? Absolutely.

Why the progress? As previously alluded to, all breeds started to record calving information. Genetic EPDs were developed for birth weight and calving ease so that today's commercial cow/calf producers can rely on much more predictable bull selection information.

Perhaps no other change has had a more positive impact on how functional cattle are today.

5. Cattle grade much better. From 1975 to 1995, the beef industry entered a period of continued decline in quality grade, resulting in a decline in beef demand. Fortunately, the industry recognized this issue and started making genetic and management changes.

In the late 1990s, progress started to become evident but then regressed again to the point that, in 2004, just 12 years ago, only 55-57% of cattle graded Choice and Prime. Further highlighting the issue, barely more than 14% of black-hided Angus-type cattle qualified for the Certified Angus Beef brand.

By 2015, considerable progress had occurred — reaching historical highs, in fact. For the year, nearly 70% of fed cattle graded Prime or Choice, and cattle qualifying for premium Choice brands like Certified Angus Beef reached 28%.

Two main factors account for most of this progress. First, breeds such as Angus, but also others, started applying considerable selection pressure for marbling, stacking genetics on both the male and female sides to realize great improvements. The second key factor is that, with the decline in corn prices starting in 2011, the price of fed cattle exceeded the cost of each pound of gain, creating an economic incentive for feedlots to put more weight on the cattle, which helped accentuate quality grades.

The bottom line in all this is that the industry is producing the highest-quality product in years, perhaps ever, thus helping to keep beef as the consumer's protein of choice.

Indeed, this industry has really changed the kind cattle raised today ... for the better.

Volume:88 Issue:01

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