Beef experts share productivity advice

Bigger carcass size is key to productivity, but that must go hand-in-hand with quality, low-fat meat to reap profits

When the Canadian beef strategy was released last year, one of its goals called for a productivity increase of 15 percent by 2020.

During the Canadian beef industry conference held last month in Calgary, four major players ex-plained their approach to achieving that goal. It involves better genetic selection, adoption of technology and improved information exchange.

All the players spoke about the need to work more co-operatively and share information.

“We are in the beef industry and we need to stop fighting each other for our piece,” said seedstock producer Kevin Blair of Blair’s.Ag Cattle Company, based at Lanigan, Sask.

“We will be far more productive if we pull as one.”

The Blairs run a fourth generation family operation with 1,200 registered red and black Angus, as well as Herefords. They sell their herd genetics to six countries. Blair’s also operates farm service outlets and employs 105 people.

Blair said the hardships of the drought of 1988-89, and the market collapse caused by BSE in 2003, forced the industry to change for the better. People had to learn new ways of doing things.

He says productivity is too broad to measure because it means different things to different segments of the industry, such as seedstock producers and feedlots.

“Stay focused on your own business sector. You are responsible to your customers and your stakeholders. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be educated, but you need to stay focused,” he said.

The seedstock industry has to be educated as it works to provide better breeding stock to commercial operators. It also needs to entice more young people who have studied science, marketing and branding within a global context.

“You need highly intelligent, motivated, driven people in the seedstock industry if we are going to increase productivity by 2020,” he said.

Darren Bevans, who manages the Alberta operation for at Deseret Ranches, which operates ranches throughout the United States and Canada, said strength in numbers is key to the Alberta division.

The division operates on 110,000 acres and maintains 7,000 cows and 2,000-3,000 summer yearlings.

“It is easy when times are good and cattle prices are high, but when things get a little tough that is when things like productivity and focused management really pay off,” Bevans said.

Five years ago the company made major changes. Rather than each operating independently, it was decided to change to a vertically integrated system.

New ideas have been adopted, such as swath grazing in winter and selecting cattle for better feed efficiency. A geneticist helps develop better bulls to improve cow herds. Top genetics are developed and replicated through artificial insemination at the larger ranches to produce bulls used on all their commercial cows.

The company bought a Kansas feedlot and for the last five years it has shipped all production through that yard. Information on performance is shared.

“That has helped us and our strengths and weaknesses have become very clear to us.”

Bevans said some of the biggest opportunities in the Canadian beef industry rely on working closer together.

“We don’t have to be integrated but can work together through alliances and sharing information through systems and finding ways to capture value all the way through rather than fighting against each other,” he said.

Feedlot operator Leighton Kolk of Picture Butte, Alta., said increased efficiency starts with people.

The family owned operation was also willing to adopt new technology. Roller compacted concrete flooring was installed in pens to reduce mud. Cattle carrying too much mud are 10 to 20 percent less feed efficient, he said.

Chute side computers are used to get instant data on every animal wearing an electronic ear tag as it passes through at processing.

The company also uses near infrared technology to assess dried distillers grain, pellets and other feedstuffs to measure moisture, protein, digestible energy and fat content. A computer program is also used to deliver the correct ration to every pen of cattle.

Staff was taught low-stress handling techniques and new handling facilities were installed.

“It cost a lot of money to install originally, but it pays back day after day,” Kolk said.

They also use ultrasound so every heifer is pregnancy checked upon arrival because they do not want calves being born in the yard.

Improved carcass quality is part of the beef strategy to produce more salable meat. At present, cattle are being fed to larger weights and consequently many are carrying too much fat, which has little value.

“Genetics is one of the fastest ways we are going to get efficient in this business. When we are putting this much bark on the back of an animal to get Choice or AAA and then cut that fat off for four cents a pound it is not efficient,” Kolk said.

His company developed a computer program to project when cattle have achieved the target weight to earn the most profit.

“We want to maximize the carcass weight before the packer is going to take money out of our pocket for making it too heavy. But we don’t want to sell it before it’s time,” Kolk said.

Norwich Packers, a small processor in Ontario, has had to carve out its own niche in a competitive market, said Matthew Heleniak of the family-owned company.

It processes about 350 cattle per week and has about 2,500 to 3,000 head a year in three feedlots. There is also a 110 cow-calf operation.

His grandparents started with a custom butcher shop. The company experienced considerable growth in the 1970s and by the mid-1990s a new business plan was needed. It needed to get bigger or develop a niche.

“We did not want to compete on a price basis or a commodity basis with a lot of those big players,” he said.

They feed Limousin and other Continental breeds that are high-yielding. Animals get special rations and are tagged to monitor weight gain and health. The company emphasizes humane handling to keep cattle calm and produce better beef.

“Tenderness is a huge part of productivity. I think we lose a lot of productivity in the beef industry,” he said. “Poor beef hurts the whole business.”

While some productivity measures can cost more, these operators contend that the result is a better, more valuable product.

Yield is most important but they want less fat. Butchers trim steaks and roasts to a quarter inch fat depth.

“We have to maximize our buying abilities to make sure I get product that has a maximum eating experience for everybody but at the same time leads to less waste at the end of the day,” he said.

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