UNL research lassos higher beef prices

Story and photos by Heather Haskins, NewsNetNebraska

When Freshta Baher walked into Runza this month, she wasn’t thinking about beef prices.

She doesn’t have to; her parents pay for her meals. In a few years, though, like other consumers, Baher will  be looking for the best bang for her buck when she goes shopping for beef.

New research by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s animal science department could lasso higher beef prices by changing the way that cattle are fed.

The research was unveiled at the first Cow-Calf Efficiency Symposium at UNL on Sept. 12-13. 

Industry challenges

2012’s drought brought Nebraska cattle numbers to the lowest they have been in 50 years.

Fifty years ago, the cattle number was at 30 million head. In 1975, the cattle numbers peaked at 46.9 million. This year, Nebraska’s cattle herd dwindled to 29.4 million, said Larry Berger, head of UNL’s animal science department.

“Drought has played a major role in the last few years,” said Rick Rasby, animal science professor and researcher. “We continue to lose beef cow numbers because we just don’t have the forage-based resources to feed them.”

Corn residue?

The Nebraska beef industry doesn’t have to look far for a solution to the problem. UNL research has shown that one efficient alternate feed source is right in our backyard: corn residue.

Corn residue is what’s left after the corn grain has been harvested.

“This is an exciting time for UNL to be recognized as a leader in developing this type of new technology,” Berger said.

The beef industry currently only uses about 4.7 million tons of the available 42 million tons of crop residue, such as corn stalks, for cattle feed. That means that there is a large opportunity for the cattle industry to utilize available corn residue and ethanol byproducts, according to UNL researchers. 

Beef industry changing

“The traditional way of raising beef cattle is going to change due to economic forces that will cause us to explore alternatives,” Berger said. “For the beef producers, the corn stalks will be a valuable hay replacement. (It’s a) cheaper source of feed than what they have had to purchase in the last few years.”

 

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Photo: University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Confinement lots and pastures

University researchers set up confinement systems in two locations for their research: Mead and Scottsbluff, Neb.  The purpose of this was to see if confinement lots could compete with pastureland in beef production.

Researchers found that they could.

Confinement lots refer to a smaller, enclosed non-pasture setting where cattle do not have to expend energy walking long distances. This means that the cattle eat less and grow more, saving producers money.

In confinement lots, producers have complete control over what cattle eat because there is no pastureland in confinement lots. This allows producers to formulate their own diets for their cattle.

“Most cattle in Nebraska are grazed (on pastures),” Rasby said.

But this may change as more pastureland is set aside for corn production, in part due to the ethanol industry.

“We don’t have the number of forage acres,” said Rasby. “How do we maintain beef cow numbers when we have decreasing land? To me, this is an opportunity to supplement what is already (being) done extremely well.”

Still, the old way of ranching on pastureland won’t disappear entirely. Researchers concluded that in order to remain competitive, ranchers should only use confinement lots for six months out of the year.

“The opportunity to graze corn stalks starts once the corn is harvested in October,” Berger said. “The cows have to be off the corn stalks by April so the next year’s crop can be planted. Thus economically, 6 months in confinement and 6 months grazing corn stalks is the cheapest system we can develop currently.”

Alternative diets at work

Jay Wolf is the owner of Wagonhammer Cattle, a diversified cattle operation in Albion, Neb, He says his ranch suffered because of the drought, causing him to seek out alternative feeding methods. He worked with UNL researchers to come up with an alternative diet that used corn residue.

“The diet that UNL helped us design was the most cost effective we could come up with,” Wolf said. “Part of the process is that you limit feed. You don’t allow the animal to consume as much as they want.”

Wolf said that cattle aren’t much different from people.

“We all eat more than we absolutely need to,” he said with a laugh.

 

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Photo: University of Nebraska-Lincoln

In the future 

Rasby said the beef industry is going to continue to supply a safe and nutritious product.

“We are looking at opportunities to provide a safe protein source that is economical,” Rasby said.

Berger said that consumers could see beef prices lower because of this research, but the effects won’t be immediate.

“(In the) long term, it will lower the price of beef, (but) it will take a few years.” Berger said. “It will make beef more competitive with other protein sources.”

The Dr. Kenneth and Caroline Eng Foundation sponsored the Cow-Calf symposium.

 

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