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Previous issues of the BEEF Cattle letter

Issue # 668

January 6, 2010

Agsight: Vegans, Let's Get Real Here - Nevil Speer, Professor, Animal Science, Western Kentucky University

Wandering off in every direction must be inevitable. That is, any discourse about vegan or vegetarian lifestyle seemingly invokes every supposed validation - relevant or not - and we end up with a big can of worms. It's increasingly difficult to initiate any type of discussion about animal agriculture without putting opponents on the defensive. One item leads to another to another.

More specifically, last month's AgSight simply addressed a particular attitude or perspective among some vegans and vegetarians towards meat eaters:

Perhaps the motive is more deeply rooted. Is it about creating a sense of superiority and/or imposing a restrictive worldview upon the rest of us? That's consistent with much of what I hear and read…Eating meat, milk and eggs (not to mention enjoyment from doing so) gets you tagged as being depraved and incapable of care or compassion - a threat to humanity with potential to commit abusive, violent crimes (including murder).

The column was NOT meant to justify or endorse one lifestyle over another. To the contrary, the point was to convey concerns about the mind-set of some who opt to avoid meat in their diet. Judging by web-posted comments, staying on topic isn't important.

For example, one reader questioned whether, ". . . causing animals unnecessary suffering is acceptable?" Never mind that in the next-to-last sentence I intentionally pointed out, "I don't condone animal abuse or mistreatment." Alternatively, another implored me to ". . . consider being a vegan for 30 days, and see if your health improves." I find that presumptuous. (For the record, my resting heart rate is approximately 50 and recent blood-work culminated in a cholesterol/HDL ratio of 2.0 - 176 vs. 89, respectively - well below the low-end benchmark of 3.5. The supposed health benefits of eliminating meat are . . .?) But that's all somewhat trivial.

Let's tackle the bigger issues. Comments drifted proclaiming broader detrimental assertions against eating meat: "There are so many reasons to go vegan (ethics, environment, health, world hunger) and only three to continue business as usual: taste, convenience, and money for agribusiness." The defense is potentially limitless as evidenced by the moral argument ". . . that it wasn't so long ago that slavery was accepted as normal." Granted, one can't refute every single false claim. But leaving those types of comments uncontested allows the drift towards perceptions of truth.

Meat, milk and egg opponents often refuse to cite any beneficial contribution of animal agriculture to society. Most importantly, animal products in the human diet result in improved growth and mental development - especially in areas of persistent food shortages. Moreover, animal production across the globe also serves as a critical food reserve - it represents a buffer for many societies which experience unreliable and irregular weather conditions resulting in large variation in annual crop production. Lastly, consider the vast global acreage producing inedible materials such as crop residues and by-products that would otherwise go unutilized without animal agriculture - thus leaving many people in a constant state of hunger.

Animal agriculture also delivers indirect, and often overlooked, benefits: medicinal objectives, draught power for more than 50% of world's cropland, maintenance of soil fertility and organic matter content, nutrient recycling / waste disposal, utilization of manure as fuel, and the list goes on. Additionally, animals often provide means for many subsistence farmers to purchase fertilizer or seed. Lastly, animal agriculture can favorably diminish need for chemical fertilizers and improve open space vegetation management (thus providing for reduced fire hazard, natural weed control, enhanced wildlife habitat, and increased biodiversity).

Those are all important considerations. Dogmatic focus on eliminating animal products from society stems largely from a narrow, egocentric worldview; amidst the vacuum of U.S. abundance, it's easy to overlook the daily challenges in many regions of the world. Case-in-point, Jane Goodall, renowned primatologist (and vegetarian), appeared on Good Morning America (September 4) promoting her new book entitled, Hope for Animals and Their World. ABC's Chris Cuomo challenged her with respect to the world as it really is, "If you look in the developed world, United States, conservation can be a luxury in a lot of cases. Go to China, go to India, so many people who are just trying to scratch out survival. How do you convince somebody in those countries that that animal is more valuable to them in the jungle than in their dinner pot?" According to Goodall, prioritizing agricultural productivity is critical to addressing poverty, hunger, conservation and habitat preservation:

Only if you improve the standard of their living. And introduce ways in which they can raise their own food and they no longer have to go out and hunt and cut down the forests. So that's what we do. In the little area around Gombe 24 villages had completely denuded - the trees had gone, the land was eroded (the Chimpanzee habitat - the famous Gombe chimps where I began nearly 50 years ago) . . . And now the people's standard of living has improved. They're using one piece of land for about four times the amount of food as before…Now they've turned around. And they're saying, "Alright, let's leave all of this land aside to regenerate". And it's beginning to grow back into forests.

Efforts at the Jane Goodall Institute are pragmatic and include livestock production: "contour farming with vetiver grasses and the use of organic manure".

In the end, despite extremists' ready-made arsenal of criticism (ethics, environment, health, world hunger), reality proves that abolishing animal agriculture is not a panacea for societal ills. The anti-animal-agriculture worldview is simplistic, arrogant and misplaced. It avoids reality - deeper, more complex and pragmatic considerations - leading us down the road of unintended consequences. And we sure don't want to go there.

Calves and the Cold - Dr. W. Dee Whittier, Extension Veterinarian, Cattle, VA-MD Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, VA Tech

Calf losses due to cold can result from both severely frost bitten parts as well as from freezing to death or hypothermia. Appropriate management can help cattle producers avoid many of these losses for those operations that have calves born during the cold season.

Frostbite is the damage to body tissues that occurs when these tissues freeze. The extremities are most at risk. Frozen ears and tails result in changes of cattle appearance but do not affect cattle performance significantly. Frozen feet generally result in a calf that must be put to sleep or will die. Occasionally teats of a recently calved cow freeze resulting in mastitis and frequently loss of milk production in at least one quarter of the udder.

Newborn calves are most at risk because they are wet and because they have a large surface area in relation to their total body mass. Calves are not fully capable of maintaining temperature the first several hours of life. Newborn calves have a circulatory system that is less able to respond to cold changes as compared to more mature animals.

Weather conditions have a great effect on the risk of frostbite and hypothermia, above and beyond just creating low temperatures. Wind is often the biggest factor. The effect of wind is often referred to as wind chill and tells how living things "feel the temperature". Wind chill is often many degrees colder than the actual temperature. Humidity has a large effect on cold as well since humid air can take more warmth away from animals.

The surfaces on which cattle must rest also have a great effect on the risk of frostbite. If cattle must lie on snow ice or frozen ground they will lose much more body heat than if they can rest on dry bedding or grass. Snow or ice from freezing rain on calves dramatically increases heat loss.

Calves that freeze to death are unable to maintain a high enough body temperature to keep body processes working. Newborn calves have a special body tissue called "brown adipose tissue" that is designed to help them deal with cold temperatures. During cold temperatures this special fat is broken down and creates heat that helps the calf keep warm. However, very cold conditions can overcome this protective mechanism and calves die.

Intake of the first milk (colostrum) and physical activity help calves maintain and generate the heat they need for body process to work properly. Attentive mothers vigorously clean newborn calves and stimulate this activity and the nursing of colostrums. Inexperienced or less attentive dams may let a calf get cold enough so it is sluggish and hyperthermia results.

Recommendations for preventing frostbite and hypothermia in Virginia Cattle:

* Provide windbreaks for calving cows when wind chill temperatures are below 20º F.

* Provide bedding for calving cows when wind chill temperatures are below 10º F. Often the most convenient way to do this is to roll out a dry round bale of hay.

* House calving cows and calves less than 1 day of age when wind chills are below 10º F. and calves cannot be kept dry because of snow or rain. Remember, housing can also be a negative because organisms that cause scours and pneumonia build up in barns and stalls. Finding the right balance of protecting calves from the cold but not exposing them to sickness bugs requires special skill when weather conditions are severe during calving.

Treatment of frostbite:

* Detect frostbite early. Examine newborn calves carefully when conditions create a risk. If ear-tips are frozen there is significant risk that feet may be experiencing damage as well.

* Thaw tissues as quickly as possible. Much of the damage of frostbite occurs during the thawing process. Ice crystals form that damage all tissues. A fast thaw decreases ice-crystal time.

* Once tissues are thawed re-freezing must be prevented. This nearly always means housing with heat for several days. Because of damage to circulation from the initial freezing these tissues will re-freeze very easily.

* Tissues that will recover from freezing should stay warm. If tissues are cold to the touch the next day there has probably been enough damage so that blood supply is gone and the feet or other parts will become gangrenous.

Treatment of hyperthermia:

* Careful observation of newborn calves during cold conditions is crucial. Healthy calves stand often, nurse large amounts of colostrums and are alert as evidenced by their holding the head up and getting up when encouraged. Extremities should feel warm.

* Cold calves should be warmed and fed warm colostrums. If they do not nurse then they should be given a bottle or tubed with colostrums or a commercial colostrums substitute.

* A number of warming techniques can be successful. A few hours in the floor board of the pickup truck with the heater on high saves many calves. Hair dryers both dry and warm cold calves. Heat lamps work best if calves are already dry. Electric blankets can be very effective. Some producers have built boxes with a forced air heater that are very effective.

* Severe cases of hyperthermia require special attention. Sometimes warming the outside of the calf shunts blood from the critical organs and results in death. Warm water baths can warm a very cold calf quickly, but sometimes result in death. Warm IV solutions or warm enemas administered by veterinarians can sometimes overcome this problem.

Careful attention and appropriate treatments during cold weather calving can save calves' lives and improve profitability in tough cattle economic times.

Bred Cow & Heifer Prices Remain High - Darrell R. Mark, Ph.D., Assoc. Professor, Department of Agricultural Economics, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Last week, a banker/rancher friend of mine emailed me to ask what bred cows were going for back in 1960. Based on my limited data for bred cow prices fifty years ago, it appeared like $165/head would have been representative of the sales back then. At the special holiday bred cow and heifer sales last week in the Nebraska Sandhills, there were standing-room only crowds paying prices ranging from $900-1400/head for bred heifers and young bred cows. To say a lot has changed since then is a bit of an understatement. Feeding costs were sure lower then, with corn at $0.95/bu and alfalfa hay at $16/ton. But, productivity was lower fifty years ago too. In 1960, we produced just over 500 lbs. of beef from each beef cow in the national herd. Today, we produce over 800 lbs. of beef per cow.

Besides my friend's question about 1960 cow prices, the most common questions I seem to get at the beginning of each year are 1) "should I sell my cows?" or 2) "should I buy some cows?" and I have emails in my inbox right now asking each of those. The typical noncommittal economist answer, "it depends," adequately responds to both questions.

Selling bred cows and heifers now is appealing because supplies are relatively tight. Volume at a couple of the main special bred cow sales over the holiday week in the Sandhills was just a little lower than last year. After two consecutive years of high beef cow slaughter and deep culling into herds, fewer good running-age cows are available to be sold as bred stock. Additionally, demand may be strong because these same ranchers have culled the most unproductive cows in their herd and are seeking replacements. Ranchers in areas like the Nebraska Sandhills, Kansas Finthills, and Montana that had adequate moisture for forage production may have the ability to increase herd size. Given the historically small calf-crop produced in the last two years and expectations for an improvement in fed cattle prices in 2010, these ranchers may be bidding up bred prices in anticipation of meeting that demand for calves later in 2010 and beyond. Bred cow and heifer prices appear steady to stronger than last year, but they are notably higher for the best replacement stock. High quality, AI bred, and reputation genetics resulted in bred heifers and young bred cows being bid up to $1,400/head.

So, to answer the "should I sell my cows" question, it appears like this would be a good year to do so if you were planning liquidate your herd due to retirement or lifestyle changes or a desire to reduce risk exposure. Cow prices are not likely to drop substantially by next year because supplies will remain tight, but it will depend on what materializes in the fed cattle and calf market, which will be defined by beef demand and general economic conditions. For those wanting to be conservative, waiting to liquidate some or all of a herd on the basis of an improving cattle market may find these factors too uncertain to wait for.

Buying cows, as suggested above, may make sense depending upon forage availability and annual cow costs. Prices for 500-600 lb. steer calves in Nebraska in the fall of 2010 are forecasted to be $115-130/cwt, and potential exists for higher prices in future years if beef demand improves. This suggests possible revenue of about $600/head after adjusting for weaning rates and split steer/heifer calf sales. Annual cow ownership costs may be about $90/head, figuring paying $1200/head for the bred cow and selling it for a cull value of $560/head in seven years. Non-ownership cash costs (e.g., feed, health, equipment, etc.) for maintaining the cow in the herd for one year are likely between $500-550/head per year for the typical, or average, Nebraska operation. So, this could quickly become a breakeven scenario: cash costs and cow ownership costs could meet (or exceed) calf revenue.

Buying those cows still might be worth consideration though. Cheaper feeding costs would significantly lower breakevens. Additionally, cow ownership costs may be averaged across the herd for a lower average cost per cow. More bullish outlook on calf prices for 2010 and beyond also could make that $1200/head bred cow purchase look more attractive.

As with every management decision, there are some risks involved in whether to buy or sell cows, but there are potential and realistic rewards too. One thing is probably for certain though: even the rancher that bought the $165 cow in 1960 wasn't sure at the time if it would turn out to be profitable.

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

LIVE CATTLE futures on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) fell on Monday. FEB'10LC futures closed down $0.800/cwt at $85.375/cwt. The APR'10LC contract finished at $89.075/cwt; off $0.752/cwt but $3.750/cwt higher than last report. The April contract was supported by large funds rolling out of February and into the April. OCT'10LC finished at $89.525/cwt; off $0.175/cwt and $2.125/cwt higher than two weeks ago. Chart based profit taking pressured futures after initial fund buying. Prices fell on overbought conditions. Cattle traded up to $2/cwt higher in Kansas City. Cash cattle were $4.50-$5 higher than week before last as USDA put the 5-area average at $84.18/cwt. Early on Monday USDA put the choice beef cutout price at $134.12/cwt; up $0.58/cwt from last week but $4.13/cwt lower than two weeks ago. According to HedgersEdge.com, average packer margins were lowered $24.30 from last report to a negative $12.15/head based on the average buy of $83.30/cwt vs. the average breakeven of $82.36/cwt.

FEEDER CATTLE at the CME finished mixed on Monday. JAN'10FC futures closed at $95.875/cwt; up $0.025/cwt and $3.025/cwt over week before last. MAR'10FC futures finished at $96.325/cwt; up $0.075/cwt and $4.425/cwt higher than last report. The MAY'10FC contract was off $0.400/cwt at $98.350/cwt. Spreading to January out of the April was supportive. Profit taking and spreading pressured April futures. Some January/March bear spreads were noted. Higher corn prices pressured feeders. The CME feeder cattle index was placed at $93.30/lb; up $0.69/lb and $0.61/lb higher than last report.

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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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