Study looks for naturally raised beef premium

Research is determining how much to pay producers for raising beef without hormone implants and antibiotics

University of Saskatchewan master’s student Janelle Smith is in the second year of a two-year study to determine the cost differences between common methods of raising calves in Western Canada.

“There is a lot of interest in marketing natural beef. It’s still a small sector of the market but there is growing demand for natural beef and while it isn’t formally regulated, some restaurants like A&W have kind of picked up on that kind of marketing,” says Smith. “We want to inform western Canadian producers on the cost differences between conventional and natural management so they can make informed decisions about their marketing.”

The study, conducted at the Livestock and Forage Centre of Excellence near Saskatoon, takes in 240 calves each year. It splits them into two groups, conventional and natural, then divides each of those into three weight classes — light, medium and heavy — that follow the three management streams that calves normally go into at weaning.

“Heavy animals are put directly on full feedlot feed, medium cattle background on high forage feed until March and then are put on finishing ration and the light cattle background over the winter and are then grassed over the summer and go for fall feedlot entry,” says Smith.

When the calves arrive at weaning, they are given the standard blackleg and bovine respiratory disease vaccines, as well as parasite protection. The conventional calves are then given an antibiotic and a hormone implant.

Conventional animals entering the feedlot are given additives in their feed while the natural animals entering feedlots are given standard feed. Both natural and conventional calves are finished at 1,400 pounds.

“The use of the appropriate hormone implants, the in-feed Monensin and Tylosin and the Draxxin on arrival are the three components that separate the conventional management from the natural management,” says Smith. “There is no other difference in management.”

Smith says she believes similar studies have already been carried out elsewhere, but it’s important to find out the costs and premiums involved with raising calves in western Canadian conditions.

“How we treat our calves is a little bit different than how they would in Texas because it’s a little bit warmer there,” says Smith. “The primary objective of this study is to determine system performance and economic return of conventional versus natural management in Western Canada.”

Smith is reluctant to reveal too many details until the study is complete, but she says the first year of the study found the meat from natural calves graded at a higher quality on average than conventional calves.

Smith hopes that when she wraps up her study at the end of 2019, the data will provide enough information to set a premium for producers looking to raise their beef naturally.

“I’d take away that there is going to be a premium necessary for raising your beef under natural management. It’s just something to keep in mind if you are considering that,” says Smith. “If you are going to be raising natural cattle you should be marketing them as such.”

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