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Previous issues of the BEEF Cattle letter

Issue # 573

February 6, 2008

Forage Focus: Processing Forage Can Increase Digestibility 30% - Francis L. Fluharty, Ph.D., Department of Animal Sciences, The Ohio State University (excerpted from Energy Use in Digestion, and Increasing the Digestibility of Forages with Processing Technologies)

Feed costs are rising, and corn price projections are currently maintaining between $4.95 and $5.35 per bushel on corn futures through December 2010. This equals $.088 to $.095 per pound, or $176 to $190 per ton. Dried distillers grains and corn gluten feed are currently in this same price range, and the prices of other alternative feeds are keeping pace on an energy and protein basis, so there are no cheap supplemental feeds for cow-calf producers, stocker cattle operations, or feedlots. Therefore, forage-based operations must utilize cost effective management tools that maximize forage digestibility.

In 1999 I participated in a research project which reported on the effects of limit-feeding a high-concentrate diet which was formulated to provide daily energy and protein intakes equal to lambs grazing alfalfa, resulting in the same ADG between the two groups. The lambs fed the high-concentrate diet had lower intestinal organ weights, and retained more than twice as much nitrogen (a measure of protein status) on a daily basis compared with lambs that grazed alfalfa, resulting in carcasses with a larger loin-eye area and more lean yield, demonstrating the large energy and protein requirements of the intestinal organs. Therefore, dietary manipulation can be used to alter nutrient utilization and muscle and fat deposition through altering tissue requirements. These reductions in maintenance energy and protein requirements are the basis for the enhanced feed efficiencies achieved with most limit-fed, grain-based feeding systems, and are partially responsible for the greater feed efficiency and average daily gain which occur when growing cattle are taken from forage-based grazing systems to grain-based feedlot diets. These same principles offer potential with harvesting or post-harvest processing technologies that reduce the particle size of forages, thereby increasing their digestibility and increasing microbial protein.

In contrast to cattle being fed grain-based diets, the size of the rumen limits the amount of energy that can be consumed with forage-based diets, and digestible energy intake decreases with increasing forage maturity. From a practical standpoint with unprocessed forages, the large particle size of mature forage reduces the energy available to the animal. For digestion to occur, the microorganisms in the rumen must first be associated with the forage, and then attach to the forage. Digestion normally occurs from the inside of the forage to the outer layers. Limitations to the speed at which this occurs include the physical and chemical properties of the forage, the moisture level of the forage, time for penetration of the waxes and cuticle layer, and the extent of lignification. Undigested feed is broken down through the process of rumination and re-chewing until it is either digested, or small enough to pass from the reticulo-omasal orifice. Most particles leaving the rumen are smaller than 1mm, although particles as large as 5 cm may leave the rumen. It is, therefore, not hard to understand how reducing the large particle size of many mature forages to 1mm to 5 cm can increase digestibility.

With mature forages, and crop residues such as wheat straw, or corn stover that are harvested for feed, lignin content can be a limiting factor. Wheat straw is approximately 14% lignin, and corn stover is approximately 7% lignin. However, in many parts of the world, straw is fed as a roughage source to ruminant animals. While long-stem straw has a very low digestibility, varying between 35% and 55%, Dr. M.G. Jackson, Professor of Animal Nutrition at the G.B. Pant University of Agriculture and Technology, Pantnagar, India, reported 'the grinding of straw increases consumption leading to higher digestible energy intakes of the order of 30%. In terms of net-energy intake the increase is somewhat more than this because the net-energy value of straw is increased by grinding.'

Dr. Steven Loerch, at The Ohio State University, investigated the potential of using processing technologies to improve the utilization of prairie hay. Dr. Loerch reported that "One effective option producers rarely consider is hay chopping. Chopping hay allows the cows to eat 25-30% more energy. Costs of chopping hay (equipment, labor, etc.) should be compared to costs of purchasing supplemental energy. For some producers, this may be a cost effective option. I came to realize the potential of hay chopping from an observation at the OARDC Beef Center in Wooster. Steers fed a chopped hay based diet gained 2.5 lbs/day while those fed round baled hay (same hay source) in a rack gained less than 1.5 lbs/day." This can be explained on the basis of more surface area being available for degradation, allowing for a more rapid rate of digestion; a faster rate of passage of indigestible components from the rumen allowing for an increase in feed intake, and the possibility that these factors allowed for an increase in propionate production due to a faster rate of digestion, and an increased rate of passage of indigestible components.

Finally, harvesting techniques have been found to result in improvements in forage digestibility. Williams et al. (1995) harvested wheat forage with a mower conditioner, at an early head stage of maturity, and allowed it to wilt for either 0, 6 or 20 hours prior to being cut with a forage chopper and ensiled. They reported that wilting for 20 hours resulted in lower fermentation acids, a higher concentration of water-soluble carbohydrates, and improved fiber digestibility compared with either direct-cut or wilting for 6 hours. Hintz et al. (1999) reported that maceration, an intensive forage conditioning process that shreds forage thus reducing rigidity and increases field drying rates by as much as 300% by disrupting the waxy cuticle layer of the plant and breaking open the stem, resulted in an increase in surface area available for microbial attachment in the rumen, a decreased lag time associated with NDF digestion, an increase in NDF digestion, while having a decrease in the acetate:propionate ratio, which would be positive for growing and finishing animals.

If forage is evaluated on a price per pound, rather than a price per ton, the necessity to maximize digestibility becomes apparent. If corn is $5.04 per bushel, it is $.09 per pound. Likewise, if dried corn gluten feed or distillers dried grains are $180 per ton, they are $.09 per pound. If hay is $180 per ton, it is $.09 per pound. Normally, the digestibility of corn, corn gluten feed, and distillers dried grains are all much higher than even the highest quality hay. Therefore, in order for forages to be economically competitive, they must be managed, harvested, and potentially processed to their optimum digestibility.

In summary, high prices for all feeds necessitate that beef producers adopt practices and forage harvesting and processing technologies which reduce the animal's energy and protein requirements by increasing the digestibility of forages through providing more sites for bacterial attachment.

EDITOR's NOTE: Processing forages to improve their digestibility is one of several efficiency measures which will be explored during the upcoming programs entitled Ruminant Livestock: Facing New Economic Realities. See last week's Ohio BEEF Cattle letter for more details.

Adaptability, Body Condition Closely Connected - Kris Ringwall, Beef Specialist, NDSU Extension Service

One of the keys to surviving in the cow-calf business is adaptability, which is determined by how well one's cows fit the environment they live in. Last week, cattle hair was discussed, but hair only is one factor used to gauge adaptability.

At the onset, baseline reproductive performance must be known. The herd pregnancy rate should be 93 percent or more. A goal should be set that more than 95 percent of the cows exposed to the bull last year should be ready to calve or already have calved this year.

Nonpregnant cows are not adapting to the local conditions and need to leave. Another indicator of adaptability is calving distribution. Two-thirds of the cows should calve within three weeks of the start of the calving season and 90 percent should have calved within six weeks.

Both numbers are easy to calculate because one should know the total number of cows turned out to the bull and the number of cows calving should be in the calving book. The number calving within the first three weeks can be counted once the cows are recorded in the calving book.

Excuses for the lack of adaptability are frivolous. The combination of many traits creates the genetic code for the right cow, but even the right cow needs to be fed.

A note of caution certainly is required as one reflects on how nice the winter, at least in western North Dakota, has been. Above-normal temperatures and minimal snow cover have been the norm.

However, with good weather, the downside is that producers tend to let cows or calves run longer on fall pasture or crop residue. The end result is a loss in body condition and thin cows in the winter.

The growing season is what should determine pasture availability, not the lack of snow. Although not the best technique, drive-by evaluations of cow body condition showed more than an average number of cows in thin condition as the year ended.

Research has shown that body condition is the No.1 indicator on the ability of a cow to calf, rebreed and maintain a 365-day calving interval. After fall weaning is an excellent time to allow thin cows to gain some condition. Winter will work as well.

Remember, if the cow is thin, she needs to gain weight for her sake and her unborn calf. Upon birth, the best colostrum is needed in that first drink so the calf doesn't have to play Russian roulette with an army of invading thugs, such as bacteria and viruses.

One does not like it, but the thugs probably still will get 1 percent to 3 percent of the calves. Any death loss of more than 3 percent is too high. The goal, although not realistic, should be no death loss.

Thin cows can stretch, but spring calving generally is a month to two months before cool-season pastures are ready. Act now. Thin cows need a nutritional plan developed through consultations with a good nutritionist.

However, in terms of adaptability, some cars are gas guzzlers and some are more efficient. The same is true for cows.

Keep an eye out for those efficient cows. The efficient cows probably will be camouflaged by a good coat of winter hair, but understanding cow body condition under the hair also must not be forgotten.

Cow condition probably is the most critical component to understanding the nutritional status of the herd. So, for today, check the hay reserve and supplements. If the cows are thin, increase their intake.

Cattle Herd Drops from Drought and Attitude of "Corn over Cows" - Chris Hurt, Extension Economist, Purdue University

Beef producers responded to drought and high feed prices by cutting the size of the breeding herd last year. Severe drought in the Southeast was the primary reason for the 338,000 cow liquidation. There is also some evidence that cow-calf producers in the Western Corn Belt are choosing corn over beef cows. The results of fewer cows and high feed prices will be record high finished cattle prices and depressed calf and feeder cattle prices in 2008.

Beef cow numbers on January 1 dropped to 32.6 million head, the lowest number of cows since 1991. Beef cow numbers reached a cycle low in 2004 and started to expand in 2005 and 2006. However, that has reversed with lower numbers in 2007 and again this year. Producers say they have reduced the number of replacement heifers by 4 percent, which means the cow herd will continue to drop in 2008.

The Southeast, hard hit by drought, accounted for 74 percent of the total herd reduction. The other region that accounted for the greatest liquidation of cows was the Western Corn Belt, where Iowa cow numbers dropped by 5 percent (55,000 head) and Missouri by 3 percent (66,000 head). These states may be seeing producers shift their enterprises toward corn rather than cows. Cow numbers remained stable in the Eastern Corn Belt, with Illinois at 427,000 head and Indiana at 234,000 head.

The decline of 338,000 beef cows was somewhat offset by an increase of 92,000 milk cows. Strong export and domestic demand enabled milk prices to rise more rapidly than feed costs in 2007. The result was a 1 percent increase in the number of milk cows. Three percent more milk replacement heifers are being retained suggesting, the milk cow herd will continue to expand in 2008.

Biofuels have started competing with the beef sector for land and that competition is likely to grow. Interest in shifting some pasture land back into crops in the Midwest will likely continue. On the Southern Plains, the number of calves utilizing winter wheat pasture is down as wheat producers want to avoid any potential damage to the extremely valuable wheat plants. This makes backgrounding of calves more expensive when utilizing alternative forages. In the Southeast and parts of the Plains states, interest in switchgrass, or other fuel crops, is expected to begin to become viable in another two to four years. The recently passed energy bill encourages rapid development of cellulosic ethanol after 2012.

About 1 percent smaller beef supplies are expected this year. Exports of beef are also expected to recover to 68 percent of pre-BSE levels of 2003. The U.S. economy is expected to be very slow growing, at least in the first-half of the year, and this will temper cattle prices somewhat. Finished cattle prices are expected to average about $93 this year compared with $91.82 for Nebraska steers last year. The live cattle futures market currently reflects even higher cattle prices. Prices in both 2007 and 2008 will be new record highs. Prices are expected to move from about $90 currently to the mid-$90s in the early-spring. Prices are expected to drop back to the very low $90s in the summer and finish the year in the mid-$90s. Prices in 2009 are expected to set records for a third consecutive year.

Cattle feeders have been "whipped about" by volatile feed prices. During the months of July and August last year, corn prices averaged near $3.25 per bushel, causing a false sense of calm. Cattle moved rapidly into feedlots from August to November, averaging an increase of 11 percent in September, October, and November. However, the more recent escalation in corn and protein meal prices resulted in placements dropping 1 percent in December. Given continued high feed prices, feedlot placements are expected to remain low this winter and spring.

Calves and feeder cattle will be in shorter supply this year as the nation's calf crop is estimated to have dropped again to about 37.3 million head. However, even with smaller supplies, prices are expected to be lower due to the extremely high feed costs. For this year, feed prices may be the primary driver of calf prices, along with finished cattle prices. Last year, 500 to 550 pound steer calves at Oklahoma City averaged $1.24 per pound. This year the average price is expected to drop to $1.16 per pound. Prices of 750 to 800 pound feeder steers at Oklahoma City averaged $1.08 per pound and are expected to drop to $1.04 per pound for an average in 2008. Eastern Corn Belt calves tend to be about three to five cents per pound lower than those at Oklahoma City.

The impact of higher feed prices has the most adverse impact on cow-calf operations in the form of lower calf prices. Record calf prices occurred in 2005, but have decreased about $.16 per pound since as feed costs increased. This represents a decrease of about $80 per head on a 500 pound calf, or around a $3 billion annual decrease to the cow-calf sector. Over time, continued beef cow liquidation will help calf prices recover, but a turbulent and risky period from 2008 to 2010 is expected to be in store for the entire beef sector.

Weekly Roberts Agricultural Commodity Market Report - Mike Roberts, Commodity Marketing Agent, Virginia Tech

LIVE CATTLE futures on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) were up on Monday with the exception of the April '08 contract. FEB'07LC futures finished up $0.300/cwt at $90.525/cwt but $0.225/cwt lower than last Monday. The APR'08LC contract closed at $93.925cwt, off $0.125/cwt but $0.100/cwt over a week ago. Short covering and long funds were supportive. Reports of lower cash cattle early on Monday were countered when smaller showlists and higher beef prices encouraged packer demand. Packers wanted to bid down prices because of negative margins but are seen as limited in the ability to do so. According to HedgersEdge.com, the average beef plant margin for Monday was estimated at a negative $20.55/head, even with last week at this time but $2.20/head worse than last Friday. Pressure was put on the market because of long liquidation ahead of the delivery date. However expectations for no deliveries were noted and that is seen as supportive. USDA on Monday put the choice boxed beef cutout at $144.77/cwt, up $0.61/cwt. This level was noted as the highest since October 18, 2007. Even as USDA's 5-Area cash-cattle prices for Monday, February 4 were noticeably off $0.50-$0.75/cwt to $89.50/cwt; the market is still expected to see better beef prices later this week. Cash sellers should hold cattle until the end of this week if possible. It might be a good idea to hold off pricing corn at this time unless you can catch prices when the local elevators have plenty. This volatility will continue until the U.S. crop is planted as corn wars with soybeans for planted acres.

FEEDER CATTLE at the CME were off on Monday. MAR'08FC futures closed at $104.750/cwt, down $0.700/cwt but $2.075/cwt higher than a week ago. Feeders remained under pressure all day because of climbing corn futures and higher-than-expected cattle inventory numbers in last Friday's USDA semi-annual Cattle Inventory report. However, the report did show the 2007 calf crop at its lowest level since 1951. Feeders sold off in large part because of the rally in corn despite firm cash feeder markets and good chart signals. The latest CME Feeder Cattle Index for January 31 was placed at $99.630/cwt, up $0.21/cwt. Feeder sellers should consider selling cattle later in the week while hedging future stocker purchases. This market is due for an uptick after the U.S. crops get planted.

Visit the OSU Beef Team calendar of meetings and upcoming events

BEEF Cattle is a weekly publication of Ohio State University Extension in Fairfield County and the OSU Beef Team. Contributors include members of the Beef Team and other beef cattle specialists and economists from across the U.S.

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