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The following is a summary of the data collected from the Alabama Pasture to Rail Program from 2016-2018.

Performance by Year

2016 was the launch year of the program. A relatively small number of cattle participated in the program when compared to 2017 and 2018.

The 2017 data represents the cattle that were shipped from September 2017 through March 2018. Most of these cattle were harvested in 2018. Death-loss for 2017 was 1.8 percent and 15.1 percent of the cattle were treated for disease. Those numbers were consistent with national averages. Nearly 80 percent of the calves graded Choice or Prime, which is about five percent greater than the day-to-day averages from harvest facilities in southwest Kansas. The calves in the program averaged $89.92 per head added profit.

The 2018 data represents the cattle that were shipped from September 2018 through March 2019. In 2018, 72.13 percent of the cattle in the program were from producers that participated in the program in 2017. Many reports showed the winter months during this program year was the wettest on record. Wet conditions don’t favor feeding cattle. The calves in the program had to wade through mud throughout the feeding phase. This is especially true for the calves that shipped prior to Christmas 2018. While the 2018 calves had less sickness (only 6.9 percent were treated), twice as many died (3.8 percent death-loss).

A comparison of calf performance between 2017 and 2018 (Table 1) shows:

  • average daily gains were reduced by 0.31 pounds per day
  • carcass weights were 37 pounds lighter
  • percent Choice and Prime dropped 22.55 percent
  • feed cost increased $32.16 per head

Table 1. Performance by Year

*values reflect the averages among the calves
YearNumber of HeadWeight at Shipping*Alabama Value Per Head*Final Average Daily Gain*Carcass Value Per Head*Live Weight*Carcass Weight*Marbling Score*Percent Choice or Prime*Ribeye Area*Feed Cost*Profit Per Head*
2016208679$715.333.17$1,434.13125080745678.3414.16$398.32$138.20
2017667768$934.233.63$1,601.16133986449079.1514.93$415.53$89.92
2018610719$919.703.32$1,554.49128882744556.6013.78$447.69$2.18
Total1485736$897.603.44$1,558.68130584146669.7614.35$426.34$60.64

 

Performance by Sex

On average, heifers grow slower, are lighter muscled, have more fat on their carcass, and grade slightly better. The data (Table 2) from the program shows that trend precisely. The only data that cannot be capture is true feed intake and feed efficiency. Heifers tend to be less feed efficient than steers. If that could have been factored that into the equation, the profits between the two would likely be closer.

The slight increase seen in the Marbling Score translated to a much larger percentage Choice and Prime than expected. A 452 Marbling Score with the steers would be the middle of low Choice, with the 500 Marbling Score the heifers averaged being the breaking point between Low Choice and Choice Average. This half a Marbling Score increase translated to a 12.31 percent increase in percentage Choice and Prime.

Table 2. Performance by Sex

*values reflect the averages among the calves
SexNumber of HeadWeight at Shipping*Alabama Value Per Head*Final Average Daily Gain*Carcass Value Per Head*Live Weight*Carcass Weight*Marbling Score*Percent Choice or Prime*Ribeye Area*Backfat*Profit Per Head*
Heifer449720$816.103.29$1,526.97126481150078.3413.720.65$134.94
Steer1036742$932.813.50$1,572.14132385445266.0314.620.55$28.24
Total1485736$897.603.44$1,558.68130584146669.7614.350.58$60.64

 

Performance by Weight at Shipping

Behind health data, performance by weight is the second most important thing to look at. Table 3 is organized to look at the calves by how large they were when they were shipped to Kansas. This runs from 599 pounds and under to over 1000 pounds, in 50 pound increments.

As a general rule, bigger is better. Bigger calves will tend to have greater average daily gains and larger carcass weights. Producers gets paid on a carcass weight basis, so bigger is better up to 1050 pounds, where discounts start to be seen. Additionally, the bigger cattle tend to have larger ribeye areas, allowing the cattle to get a bit fatter without sacrificing yield grade. All of this, combined with generally lower Alabama values for big calves, generally equals greater profits on those big calves.

This creates two general cut off points. The first being calves shouldn’t be shipped under 700 pounds. At that point, a major drop off in performance and carcass weight is seen. It would serve well for these calves to spend 60 to 90 more days in a situation where they are allowed to grow more frame and position themselves better for that transition into the feedyard.

A second cut off point would be for quality grade. Shipping calves to the feedyard weighing greater than 850 pounds is a good option for Seedstock producers that want to tout the ability of their cattle to grade or for producers that are interested in ensuring they don’t have many Select carcasses.

Table 3. Performance by Weight at Shipping

*values reflect the averages among the calves
Weight at ShippingNumber of HeadDays on FeedAverage Daily Gain*Alabama Value Per Head*Live Weight*Carcass Weight*Carcass Value Per Head*Marbling Score*Percent Choice or Prime*Ribete Area*Backfat*Feed Cost*Profit*
Under 6001831883.26$739.301167749$1,381.0444967.2113.380.52$449.69$25.47
600 - 6491781843.25$815.141219785$1,443.2945769.6713.860.56$443.99$24.65
650 - 6992141773.32$852.501264821$1,537.0245968.2314.330.54$447.59$38.29
700 - 7492241703.47$886.591304841$1,543.5547266.5214.440.59$432.46$59.90
750 - 7992611613.41$934.781317853$1,573.3446670.1214.440.60$407.57$41.67
800 - 8491971553.50$987.661361875$1,642.4947070.5614.630.59$403.41$78.63
850 - 8991111543.65$1,003.941421907$1,691.3447773.8714.870.61$410.23$125.14
900 - 949581443.71$1,018.151448940$1,741.0950275.8714.790.67$407.16$117.79
950 - 999281463.87$1,031.601502960$1,751.0247975.0015.630.63$415.70$162.53
Over 1,000311284.33$1,083.8016041022$1,875.8950280.6516.460.65$403.75$250.06
Total14851683.44$897.601305841$1,558.6846669.7614.350.58$426.34$60.34

 

Health Effects on Performance

Table 4 details how many times the cattle in the program were treated at the feedyard. The feedyard’s standard operating procedure is to treat calves a maximum of three times. Only 12.12 percent of calves in the program were treated at some point. That is approximately three to four percent lower than USDA-APHIS National Animal Health Monitoring System data suggests should be expected. If a calf is treated even a single time:

  • average daily gain drops 0.48 pounds per day
  • carcass weights are reduced 46 pounds
  • $158.16 in profit is lost per head

If calves are treated twice, there are drastic reductions in every performance metric as well as huge impacts on the ability of those calves to hit the Choice Quality Grade. Additionally, the likelihood of death becomes exponentially greater every time the calf is brought to the hospital pen.

Table 4. Health Effects on Performance

*values reflect the averages among the calves
Number of TreatmentsNumber of HeadPercentage of TotalFinal Average Daily Gain*Carcass Value Per Head*Live Weight*Carcass Weight*Marbling Score*Percent Choice or Prime*Ribeye Area*Treatment Cost*Profit Per Head*Death or Railout Percentage*
0130587.883.55$1,579.46132584746871.4214.34$0.11$94.641.69
11288.623.07$1,464.17122580145267.9714.45$29.71-$63.5210.94
2362.422.10$1,354.96109176744247.2214.29$51.35-$250.2925
3161.080.48$447.188197043650.0013.70$78.53-$1,019.0581.25
Total14851003.44$1,558.68130584146669.7614.35$4.88$60.643.91

 

Percentile Rank of Performance Traits

Table 5 lists some of the carcass and performance data in a percentile rank order. Note: This does not mean that the top one percent of all cattle had a 1066 pound carcass and graded Prime with 0.19 inches of backfat. The table serves as a place to look at each trait individually and see how a producer’s calves compare with the rest of the cattle in the program.

Table 5. Percentile Rank of Performance Traits

*values reflect the averages among the calves
Percent RankLive Weight*Hot Carcass Weight*Average Daily Gain*Calculated Yield Grade*MarblingMarbling Score*USDA Quality GradeRibeye Area*Backfat*Carcass Value*Carcass Price*Premium*Payable Amount*Profit*
1168510665.291.09Slightly Abundant755Prime18.540.19$2,013.07$208.02$13.57$1,458.85$455.73
515751,0004.581.52Moderate654Choice+17.480.28$1,901.73$205.02$9.00$1,361.64$362.72
1015189654.34190Moderate618Choice+16.600.36$1,838.81$202.62$7.49$1,300.60$310.98
2514229053.922.38Modest516Choice015.500.44$1,714.29$196.61$5.27$1,182.56$212.86
5013158443.452.91Small449Choice-14.300.56$1,572.45$188.04$2.87$1,060.08$91.83
7512087792.973.71Slight395Select13.200.69$1,431.36$177.69-$7.00$940.27-$26.93
9010997162.494.06Slight364Select12.190.84$1,293.01$170.13-$13.56$812.45-$1,265.11
997516170.665.15Slight315Select10.101.12$925.86$151.88-$31.16-$258.60-$1,265.11

 

Conclusion

  • Health is key. It’s impossible to make money on dead calves, and sick calves aren’t much better. Producers can’t prevent all illnesses, but they can work hard with health programs to prevent as much as possible. This means following good vaccination strategies, providing proper nutrition, and having good animal husbandry practices.
  • Don’t send calves too small. Little calves struggle in the feedyard. The transition from the home farm to this kindergarten-like environment, where calves from across the country commingle, is tough to say the least. Bigger calves seem to handle it better.
  • Steers and heifers perform differently. This is largely why heifers are cheap, but a good set of heifers that are managed correctly at home might be a nice little profitable niche.
  • Mother Nature is unavoidable. Rain, snow, wind, blizzards, floods, drought: they are out of a producer’s control. Have a plan in place on how to handle these things and understand their effects on the market and the performance of animals.
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