“PH & C” Producers Could Add 23% More Beef Calves to the U.S. Supply Chain

As you read this, you will realize that Dr. Gary Thrasher is one of those rare and truly “out of the box” thinkers. — jtl

By: Gary A. Thrasher D.V.M.

While the beef industry has become increasingly efficient, producing more beef with less cattle than ever before, can we supply enough beef to fill a growing world demand without greatly expanding the industries “hoof print” on the environment?

Can the planet provide enough grazing for a beef cow herd big enough to supply the growing world population’s taste for beef and burgers?

While market drivers in the U.S. are ripe for an expansion of the countries beef cow herd, will weather cooperate?  And for how long? Is there a limit to what grazing resources we have left for herd expansions? Are there higher priorities for the resources?

If beef producers, marketers, and retailers expect to remain relevant as a preferred protein supplier to the general populace they’ll eventually have to find a way to create and deliver additional and consistent supplies of beef calves without expanding the cow herd beyond the world’s natural resources’ ability to support them.

So how can we produce more beef calves and cattle ready for harvest without greatly expanding and maintaining an ever increasing mature cow herd?

Sometimes it seems that the beef producers, beef users, and environmental groups working on beef issues are hidebound when discussing the issues involved. All seem to agree it will take a “new approach” to address sustainability of both the industry and the environment, but little is being offered that takes into account the amazing natural biology, reproductive ability, adaptability, and rapid evolutionary capacity of domestic cattle themselves.

I have believed for many years that beef producers have overlooked and have actually fought one of beef cattle’s most valuable natural efficiencies…….the innate ability of many feeder heifers to reproduce at an age early enough that they could still be finished and harvested prior to maturity. Stocker operations and cattle feeders often discount heifers and “heiferettes” and go to great lengths to prevent pregnancies.

Over my 40+ years as a veterinarian, ranch manager, and feedlot operator I’ve seen a number of changes in how “heiferettes” are defined, valued, handled, and marketed.  Prior to the late 1970s, when early-maturing, early-puberty, mostly English  cattle were in vogue, many producers often fed-out and slaughtered heiferettes that they didn’t want for replacements after their first calf was weaned. There were many more of them at the time because they often got “accidentally” bred before they were themselves weaned and shipped.

But when late maturing, large frame Continental and Brahman crossbred became popular after the 1970’s few would reach puberty and breed early enough to carcass grade very well after their first calf. They were just too old. At about that same time herd managers started refining there breeding programs, shortening their breeding seasons, and weaning at younger ages (at 7 months old rather than 8-10 months old), and cow/calf producers quit “carrying-over” yearlings  for later marketing.   So fewer “accidentally” bred heifers came to market. Those that did come to market required extra care and handling, as did their calves, and high-efficiency feedlots did not want to be bothered.

For many years “heiferettes” have been severely discounted, and now there is little discussion about them…..so much so, that many of the current generation of cattle producers, traders, and feeders can’t even define a “heiferette.”  The term has almost totally fallen-out of cattle industry jargon.

Serving the industries demands over the years, my veterinary practices and feeding operations alone have spayed more than 800,000 feeder heifers, pregnancy tested and aborted thousands more, and fed MGA to keep them from coming into estrus during feeding…. all to try to make heifers fit into the current conventional feeding system based on steer efficiencies. It has always frustrated me.

But the industry has taken another turn in the recent decades. Chasing carcass quality, we have turned back to more early-puberty English breeds, and have selected more for early breeding heifers even in Continental crosses. So the industry has a huge potential to make use of “heiferettes” both as calf producers, and to feed and finish them as “A” maturity, high grading and yielding carcasses.

Rather than fight the “problem”, why not create a way to manage it, and take advantage of it?

Yes, there are certain management issues to overcome to breed, calve, early wean, and feed primiparous heifers and their calves efficiently so that they can be finished for slaughter young enough to yield and grade for today’s markets. But they certainly are not insurmountable.  It would probably best be developed as a new “specialty” beef production phase in limited confinement facilities. If done as a primary enterprise, it could be quite efficient and profitable once experience in the specialty is acquired. Even if only 50% of U.S. beef feeder heifers produced a calf before they were themselves finished and harvested it would produce another seven million beef calves in the U.S. without increasing demand for limited grazing resources……effectively increasing beef calf production in the U.S. by 23% without adding a single brood cow to the national herd.

Today’s beef cattle producers are already often divided into production phase specialties…commercial cow/calf producers, backgrounders, stocker operators, feeders, and seedstock producers……and dairy beef producers are often divided into calf raisers, growers, and feeder specialty operations. Each phase is managed differently and there is a certain expertise required to be successful at each phase. One more, new “specialty production phase” geared specifically toward growing, breeding, calving, and feeding beef heifers destined for early age slaughter could help fill the need for calves without a corresponding increase in mature cow maintenance.

I’m told that 50% of the total “feed energy” used (and methane released) in beef production are attributed to energy cost to maintain our mature breeding cow herd. Yet the greatest “biological efficiency” is when a heifer is producing both a calf and increasing its meat yield (growing and gaining) at the same time, while reducing the overhead cost expended to maintain the mature cow herd.

The current U.S. beef industry and risk-averse ag finance providers seem little interested in ideas that don’t neatly fit into the conventional supply chain system.   With some help promoting, support, and financing from industry visionaries or non-conventional sources, primiparous heiferette feeding and calf production (“PH&C”, for lack of a better name) as a specialty beef production phase could become a significant contributor both to the industry and efforts to control expansion of the beef industries “hoof print”.

Gary A. Thrasher D.V.M. has practiced Veterinary Medicine (Beef & Equine only) since 1973 servicing ranch clients in AZ, NM and TX. He currently owns and operates Hereford Veterinary Service, Hereford, AZ; Westlake Cattle Growers, LLC, Cochise, AZ and Jicara Livestock Co., Hereford, AZ

©Gary A. Thrasher DVM

Dr. Thrasher can be contacted at westlakecattle@wildblue.net

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