Genetics, feed help build top cows

Producers are advised to select cattle based on the environment in which they are kept in terms of forage availability and grazing 
situations. | Jeannette Greaves photo

Nutritional developments in the beef sector have evolved in step with producers’ genetic and mating decisions

Cows and race cars have something in common — their build and their inputs are part of a winning formula and optimum performance.

“Making modifications to your car is like making genetic improvements to your cow. Make sure you are also putting in the right kind of fuel (nutrition),” said Kajal Devani, director of breed development at the Canadian Angus Association.

As cows have evolved, their nutrient requirements have shifted.

A recent webinar, “Evolution of the Cow, Evolution of Nutrition” by Angus University and Cargill, discussed how cows and nutrition have changed over the years.

Consumer demands and the drive to increase the value of beef have driven those changes.

“The consumer is looking for tender, marbled and consistent as priorities when it comes to beef,” Devani said in an interview.

“They are also very sensitive to price point. The more efficient we can make our production systems, the more sustainable our industry is. Then we can keep reasonable price points for consumers.”

However, the list of consumer preferences isn’t universal, she noted.

At one time, lean meats were preferred. That is still the case in Mexico where beef is cooked differently, as with quick-grilled fajita steaks.

“Those are definitely leaner than how North America likes to consume their meat. We want thick, juicy steaks. Our flavour palate is also different,” said Devani.

“There are parts of the world that stew their meat or make curries and things like that. They’re not looking for that juicy flavour you get from marbling because of the way they’re cooking their meat.”

North Americans have evolved to prefer marbling, a trend spreading to other parts of the world, notably Japan.

Wesley Moore, technical specialist at Cargill Animal Nutrition, said during the webinar that certain factors are required for better animal performance and efficiency.

Nutrient demands are aimed at the proper balance between nutrition and performance levels, and nutritional developments have occurred in step with genetic and mating decisions.

Producers have also heeded market demands by selecting for carcass weight and quality, marbling, milk production, fertility and calving ease.

“From a nutrient standpoint that means our cow needs more groceries to perform at a higher level,” said Moore.

“If we have selected for milk and on average, I believe we have, we increase demands for energy not only during lactation but specifically outside of lactation for maintenance of organ tissue.”

Said Devani: “You’re asking your cow to do something different, so what are you going to put into her to feed that factory? You might need to put different inputs into her so that she can realize that genetic potential.

“If you’re asking your cows for more, and we are, you might want to re-evaluate your nutritional scheme.”

Grass grown for grazing is one potentially neglected area.

“We have producers that are really innovative and trying to make things more effective for (cows). But there are also producers that haven’t even thought about, ‘I need to change my feed inputs based on the changes I’m expecting out of my genetics as I do genetic selection’, ” Devani said.

Moore said a nutrition program should reflect three factors:

  • know the cow
  • know the environment
  • know the situation

Today’s producers select cattle based on the environment in which they are kept, in terms of forage availability and grazing situations, said Tim McAllister, principal research scientist at Agriculture Canada in Lethbridge.

“If you look at the (1960s) and early ’70s, we were selecting cows that would produce calves — sort of that block type of framed animal. They thought square, and a lot of that was actually selecting for dwarfism.

“If you look at some older pictures of champion bulls, cows and heifers, they were sort of shaped like a square block with short legs. At that point in time, they believed that was filling out the carcass,” McAllister said.

“But now we’re selecting cattle much more for the environment in which they’re going to be raised in terms of the types of cattle we select for. We’ve got different cow herds in each location based on their energy requirements.”

A big part of the beef industry evolution is larger framed cows that don’t have the calving issues of the past.

“Producers are also paying more attention to the nutritional quality of the forage. Today, producers are putting more thought into the quality of the hay and matching the hay with the requirements, depending upon the production cycle — where they are, whether they’re dry cows versus gestation versus lactation,” McAllister said.

“Producers are more aware of the differences in nutritional needs depending upon the stage of production.”

Feed processing methods in feedlots have also improved.

“They used to hammer mill grain at one time. Now they realize that’s not a good practice and lots are using rolling or tempering procedures,” he said.

As well, because animals have individual variations, nutritional requirements are not the same for each.

“We will often over-formulate for certain nutrients. We know there’s a lot of levels between meeting requirements versus toxicity. And we’ll add in extra to make sure we’re covering the requirements of all animals,” said McAllister.

“Once you know the genomics of the animal you can be more precise in terms of that formulation. The only catch is that we typically don’t feed animals individually.”

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