University of Illinois Extension

Illini BeefNet Papers

Maintaining Beef Enterprise Sustainability
Dr. Doug Parrett, Beef Extension Specialist
06/06/2003

Low prices for agricultural commodities are causing problems for many producers in Agriculture. Particularly, the crisis in the swine industry is forcing all livestock producers to face reduced income opportunities for the meat animal enterprises they are involved in. Beef cow/calf producers are the most vulnerable since packers and feedlot operators adjust the prices they pay for calves according to anticipated retail values. Thus, the cow/calf producer is at the bottom of the income chain in the beef industry. It is especially important now for each producer to evaluate his beef production enterprise to determine where he can reduce cost and also produce a better beef product.

There are several steps a producer can take to produce a better beef product. Some are simple, some are complex, but all can lead to long-term, sustainable improvements for a beef enterprise.

  1. Buy a better bull! Poor genetics is never profitable. To get paid for a superior product you must produce cattle that will perform better than the average. Do not buy a bull out of the sale barn! Low-priced bulls sell for what they are worth. The Illinois Beef Expo will provide an opportunity for producers to evaluate hundreds of bulls of multiple breeds and sound purchases can be made. Remember to buy bulls based on their genetic merit (from performance EPDs) and type (soundness, muscle and frame size).

    Sire selection impacts three high profit areas:

    • Determines calving ease and growth rates for calves. These factors directly impact a producer's income.
    • Determines the frame size and market endpoints for cattle and also the cow size for replacement heifers retained.
    • Determines if the calves produced will fit market targets of carcass weight and fat thickness at the choice grade.

    Expected progeny difference information is the best tool producers have to identify sires that will more specifically produce cattle that have predictable performance. Strict culling of sires and cows that produce cattle that do not meet beef production targets is important.

  2. Crossbreeding results in the most efficient cow due to maternal heterosis. Too often producers crossbreed with no long-range plans to end up with a wide variety of cattle types. Crossbreeding goals should be to:

    • Produce a crossbred cow that is modererate-sized with moderate milk producing abilities. This should result in a low cost cow to maintain and one that is fertile over a wide range of environments.
    • Crossbred cows should be bred to terminal sires to add growth and muscle to market calves produced.
    • Industry data suggest cattle that are 50% British breed and 50% Continental breeds do the best in all phases of the industry. Producers should decide on two to three breeds that meet their objectives and use these breeds. Cattle from four or five backgrounds are unacceptable. Do not mongrelize, have a planned program.
  3. Uniform cattle are worth a premium. Uniformity in age, breed type, color, and weight are traits that are preferred by a feedlot operator. If he can predict performance and carcass endpoints, then he has less risk in buying cattle and cattle should have added value. Raise your cattle so they are born in a 90-day or less calving season and with similar genetics.

  4. Marketing strategies can improve product value. Many small producers feel like they do not really have any say in the price they receive for their cattle. To improve market potential, a producer should consider the following:

    • Small producers need to join together to have a larger volume of cattle to sell. This, of course, requires several producers to have similar cattle types (breeds, frame-size, age, condition) and similar health management programs. When producers can market cattle in groups of 100 or more, they are more attractive to feedlot operators or for retained ownership programs. Producers have to take the initiative to form these groups, no one will do it for you!
    • Cow-calf producers need to form a relationship with a feedlot operator to know the cattle requirements of a feedlot operator and what type of cattle are preferred by the packer. Remember these business relationships do not guarantee success and are hard work. Yet, it allows a producer to develop options for marketing cattle and to determine what types best fit throughout the production chain.
    • Producers at all levels need to learn exactly what the consumer, retailer, and packer demand. All producers and feedlot operators need to have a knowledge of what the "meat" industry is really about.