Early For Grain, Late For Forage

“If I want them for a feedlot-based production system, I’d be willing to pay a premium for the early-calved steers because I can get them ready for slaughter 2.5 months earlier.”


Calving on grass in the spring is not only easier on the rancher and the vet bills, it’s also cheaper in terms of production costs.

How much cheaper?

Preliminary results of a study done by AAFC researchers at sites in Brandon, Lanigan, and Swift Current of three herds of roughly 60 head each found that the calves born in May-June were about 11 per cent cheaper to get to weaning age compared to those born in March-April.

But what’s cheaper for the cow-calf producer may not be so appealing to the buyers.

That’s because the latest data seems to show that early calves are better for quick feedlot finishing on grain, while later calves are better for slower, forage-based finishing programs, according to Hushton Block.


In a presentation at the Manitoba Zero Tillage Research Association’s Annual Grazing Club tour on July 9, the AAFC researcher cited the latest results gleaned from a study that began in 2007 on the performance of calves from all three herds that were brought to AAFC Brandon for finishing.

Post-weaning finishing was split into two streams, one rapid and one slow. All animals were slaughtered when ultrasound backfat measurements hit the target of eight mm.

In the early-calving group that was weaned at the beginning of October, the rapid finishing program saw them backgrounded until late January, run through a feedlot, and then hanging on a hook by June.

The slow finishers were backgrounded all winter, turned out on grass from June until pastures started to dry up in July, then early-season swath grazed in August and late September on oats underseeded with triticale that had been seeded as early in spring as possible. Then, in October, the animals were moved onto the feedlot for a short grain-finishing period, then slaughtered in three groups by the end of February.


The later-born calves were weaned in December, then run through virtually identical rapid and slow finishing streams as the early calves. It was found that the rapid group needed a slightly longer grain-based finishing period to hit the backfat target. They were slaughtered in two groups between mid-September to early November the following year.

The late-born , mainly forage-finished calves went to slaughter in four groups between mid-December to March, just slightly later than their early-calved counterparts on the same feed regimen.

The early-calved, rapid finishers were done in 14 months, but the early-calved, mainly forage-based finishers weren’t ready for the hook until 22 months of age – an extra eight months.

“The only way that is going to make economic sense is if you can get a premium for those cattle because you fed them on forages, or if by feeding them on a forage-based system your cost is way less,” said Block.


In comparison, the latecalved steers in the rapid finishing feedlot-style stream hit the backfat target at 16.5 months on average, and ended up in the feedlot from May to mid-August.

The reason they needed the extra 2.5 months, said Block, could be that the late-summer hot weather was causing the steers to cut back on their feed intake.

“The first response of cattle under heat stress is to stop eating. If they stop eating, they stop getting fat. They’ll keep growing, but they don’t grow as quickly,” he said. “That makes it take longer to get them to the right fat endpoint.”

On the other hand, the latecalved steers showed significant advantages under the slower, mainly forage-based finishing program. They were slaughter ready between mid-December and early March, almost at the same time as the early calves.

“For some reason, those late-calved steers that went into the high-forage, slow-production system are finishing at the same time as the early-calved steers in the same system,” he said. “Or perhaps slightly faster, and definitely at a younger age.”

The reason may be that they are hitting the pastures and swaths during the hot summer months at smaller sizes and are less affected by the heat. Also, they are coming into the feedlot lighter, and are fattening more quickly.

“That impact of age is going to be huge, I think, in determining the price of the calves being marketed out of the early-or late-calving systems,” he said.

“If I want them for a feedlot-based production system, I’d be willing to pay a premium for the early-calved steers because I can get them ready for slaughter 2.5 months earlier.”

An added benefit to marketing is the time of year. Fat cattle ready in June generally meet higher prices ahead of the summer barbecue season, while later fats may be affected by the fall marketing slump.

A further aspect of the study, which is looking at marbling, seems to show that older animals are more likely to hit the higher marbling grades, he added.

“Animals that are older, and are at the same fat point, have more marbling. That means if we get enough of a premium for marbl ing grades, it might make sense to feed on a slower system,” he said. [email protected]

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