What does it take to produce an optimal carcass? This is a question that producers often ask. While there are a number of things we can do as livestock managers, I think the first step it to actually define what an optimal carcass means.
In my mind, an optimal carcass is one that meets the target specifications for weight; fatness, eating quality – MSA Index and has a high yield of saleable meat. I also think this is something that producers need to do consistently, and do so with the most efficient use of resources. There are a few steps I think producers focused on optimal carcass production need to consider.
- Clearly define the breeding objectives for your herd. I’ve often talked and written about the importance of defined breeding objectives. The reason being, these objectives define the type of genetics you need to use to meet your market and to breed cattle suited to your program.
- Know what you are actually trying to achieve! Markets are well defined for weight, fatness, and eating quality. If you know what these specifications are, you can start to plan on the process of growing to meet these. Specifications are readily available from processors and from feedlots. So you need to get in touch or at least look at the specifications on company web sites and choose realistic options for your program.
- Focus on what your can control. There are three key areas you control as a producer. These are:
- Maturity pattern: This determines the ability of your animals to meet specifications. It also impacts on productions traits such as fertility, so you need to consider both aspects in order to be productive and profitable.
- Growth rate: Your ability to choose the correct genetics, and to manage nutrition to express those genetics, has a massive impact on optimal production. Using EBVs and feedback from previous sales can help you fine tune growth rates. But you still need to manage pastures, crops and supplements to make that growth happen.
Finally, you need to manage the way you finish and sell animals: The final stage of production, selling and transport can derail your program. Stress, poor handling or other factors can impact on your eating quality index and cause you to miss the optimal. So this final stage should be managed as carefully as your genetic decisions or feeding programs.
A large part of optimal carcass production is the management of growth of animals. This actually starts with your choice of genetics. The ability to select for growth using EBVs is an opportunity you shouldn’t overlook. It’s well proven by many research and commercial trials that, EBVs do work and can be a very effective tool for producers.
However, genetic potential can and is often limited by nutrition. Growth is a function of the daily intake of energy and protein. Ensuring your cattle have sufficient to maintain growth paths is the practical aspect of management.
The CRC for Beef Cattle highlighted the impact growth paths have on carcass yield, fatness and eating quality. The research showed quite markedly that slow pre weaning growth resulted in cattle that were smaller than normally grown cattle.
However these slower grown cattle never catch up in weight, even in feedlot conditions. The simple message being that to meet carcass weights, these cattle had to be grown longer, and this ran the risk of impacting carcass fat specifications or lowering MSA Index values. Either way, slow pre weaning growth is not ideal
Slow post weaning growth was also researched. It was found that slower than the optimal 0.7kg / day resulted in cattle that grow faster in finishing programs. They tended to be a bit leaner and have less marbling. So if this is an issue for your markets, this may also be a path to avoid.
The CRC data really suggests we aim for 0.7kd / day for animals up to feedlot entry. To do this, you should remember that your cattle will need to eat at least 3 – 3.5% of their live weight on a Dry Matter basis each day. Ideally this feed would have a minimum of:
- Energy 10.5MJ / Kg
- Crude Protein 14%
- Fibre 30 – 40% NDF
A simple rule to remember is that the faster your cattle grow, the fatter (and slightly more muscular) they will be.
There are many factors that have an impact on MSA Index values. As producers, its important to focus on the ones that have a high impact and are controllable on farm. High impact variables include Marbling and Ossification.
Your genetic selection and nutritional management will influence your animal’s ability to develop marbling. It’s a trait worth considering if this can be selected for without compromising your other production traits. Ossification, can be improved by growth rates and achieving higher weight for age. Again it’s important to balance this with other traits that matter to you, like carcass fatness and marbling.
The amount of Tropical Breed Content will impact on your MSA Index. But you need to be realistic. If your environment is nest suited to Indicus cattle, then you should use that to your advantage. You can still select for growth, marbling and fatness and achieve MSA Index scores that are quite high if you manage these traits well.
How you sell your animals also has a huge impact on your ability to meet optimum carcass specifications, particularly for eating quality. The work done by MSA highlights the impact that sale yard stress and handling has on eating quality. Cattle sold through saleyards have MSA Indexes that are 5 units lower than those sold direct to processors.
Producing optimal carcasses does require some serious attention across genetics, nutrition, and turn off. More importantly, if you don’t have a clear idea of what your optimal carcass requirements are, and utilize past feedback to fine-tune your program, you’ll find it a much harder challenge. Having some clear objectives and using the tools that are now available is the key starting point for anyone determined to consistently hit their targets.
It’s important to remember that if you are not entirely sure where to start, to seek advice or help to define your goals. Its one of the services I’ve been delivering over recent years, and it's certainly something you may want to consider in your program.
In Australia, Farm Safety week is generally held in the third week of July. The week is an opportunity to focus on the issues surrounding farm safety and ways to reduce the risk to farm staff, farm families and visitors to farms.
Personally I don’t think a week is long enough! Farm safety should be the priority for all us every day! The statistics around farming accidents are quite frightening. The National Centre for Farmer Health highlighted some of the statistics:
“In 2017, the rate of work-related injury fatalities for agriculture was 16.5 deaths per 100,000 workers. Agriculture continues to be the highest risk occupational group—with over 10 times the rate of fatality when compared to the general employed population. 27% of all work-related deaths occurred in the agriculture, forestry and fishing industries”
“Workers over the age of 55 years account for over half (55%) of all fatalities, with two-thirds of all deaths occurring in sheep, beef cattle and grain farming. Children under the age of 15 years are also a high-risk group, particularly when playing or helping out with farm jobs.”
The concerning issue is that in the past 10 years or so, the level of injury and deaths on farms haven’t really changed. So I reckon we really need to do more to reduce those risks.
So why is farming so dangerous? I think there are many reasons. The combination of issues associated with working with machinery and large, fast unpredictable livestock can be a risk. I also think that when you combine stress, fatigue, weather and exposure you increase the risks. Lastly I think there is a real risk called “attitude”.
For some reason there is an attitude towards farm safety that sees trying to be safe as being “soft”. This week I’ve been sharing posts on Facebook about Farm Safety. The response to these posts has been interesting.
For instance, did you know that horses and cattle are the most deadly animals in Australia? In the years between 2008 and 2017, horses or cattle killed 77 people. In addition the number of serous injuries was significant. I know several people who have suffered significant injuries working with cattle. In response to that post, I received comments such as:
“We don’t all push pencils you know. Leave the bush to the bush let us do what we got to do.”
“If it is the life style you like you will not be worried about the knocks and bruising. If you do not like the chance of being hurt find another job.”
I find this interesting. A little research shows many of these comments come from young males. There is a level of friction there that sees thinking about safety as being something that will stop them enjoying their job or their career.
But will it really? Being safe in your job is something we all have to consider. It is the law, and we have a duty to ourselves and others to look out and manage safety at work.
Doing your job and thinking safely doesn’t mean that everything has to change. Some things are always going to be inherently dangerous. But there are ways to make the job safer.
I use a risk matrix for many of my jobs now. I’ve been using this largely in response to my roles as a leader and manager of other people. When I was a fireman the most important consideration was that none of my crew would be injured or worse. And its no different with my clients or co-workers. I want to look out for them.
The matrix looks at what is the risk of an event occurring (its likelihood) and the consequences of the event happening. Now just because an event or a job is considered high risk, doesn’t mean it cant be done. What it mean is you have to think about ways to reduce the risk.
Can you reduce the risk by changing the way you do things? Can you reduce the risk by a mechanical means – e.g replacing a head bale on a crush; a guard around a silo ladder; or can you remove the risk. Would some training help? Simple changes could be the difference between an event being high risk or medium risk.
Not long ago I saw this statement
“One reason people resist change is because they focus on what they have to give up instead of what they have to gain”
I think this pretty well sums up lots of responses to farm safety. Making a change to be safe doesn’t mean losing your ability to enjoy being on a horse, driving a tractor or doing any of the other tasks we do in agriculture. But if you can take a few moments to assess the risk, think if there is a safer way and work to that, you will be that one step closer to coming home safe every day.
The impact of cold weather on your livestock isn’t to be underestimated. So far this July we have already seen several strong cold fronts sweep across southern and eastern Australia. These fronts have been accompanied by strong winds, snow and sleet and then days of intense frosts.
These events have a big impact on your livestock. The demand to stay warm requires extra energy. At present the intense drought conditions mean many livestock are low in body condition and surviving on minimal rations. The combination of low body reserves and reduced energy intake means your stock is less able to cope with the cold, and at greater risk of dying.
How does cold affect your cattle?
We often assume cattle can cope with cold conditions more easily than other species like sheep. However, cattle can be just as impacted by the cold as any other species. As a warm-blooded animal, cattle have a normal temperature of 380C. Under most circumstances cattle can cope with some temperature fluctuations without needing to expend too much extra energy. As the season changes they grow thicker coats, and in periods of cold weather they change their grazing patterns to find shelter.
However this behaviour can only go so far. If temperatures fall to what is known as the ‘lower critical temperature” your cattle will start to be cold stressed. To cope they start to require more energy to stay warm. And in this situation they need to have more energy in their diets.
Some research by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture in Canada identified the differing levels of lower critical temperature, depending on cattle coat thickness. These levels do vary depending on coat thickness.
Lower Critical Temperature
Summer coat or wet coat
Heavy winter coat
These temperatures don’t take into account the impact of wind speed. Wind has the biggest impact on the lower critical temperature. This can be seen below
Looking at the table, if the wind was only 8km /hour on a 40c Day, the actual air temperature is really 10C.
This is close to the Lower Critical Level for cattle with a dry winter coat. But a wet coat after rain means your animals are at real risk of cold stress.
Cold and wet conditions have a massive impact on sheep programs. At greatest risk are lambs that are often unable to cope with the impact of cold weather. Rain and moisture significantly increases the risk of mortality. As with cattle, sheep manage to cope to some degree with cold by changing behaviour and seeking shelter. They also have a fleece that will offer some protection.
However its important not to overestimate how effective a fleece may be. The table below highlights the Lower Critical Temperatures of Sheep
Lower Critical Temperature (ºC)
5-mm fleece (fixed)
As with cattle, when wind speed increases, the impact on Lower Critical Temperature is much greater. And for lambs with no fleece and a large surface area and low body mass, their energy loss is very high.
Managing the Risk
In practical terms it's impossible to avoid cold fronts. However we can manage for them. The options that are available to help your stock cope with cold conditions include:
- Increasing rations ahead of the cold front: Hay is a very good option to increase a ration. It is more slowly digested and the process of digestion helps stock stay warmer as well as getting more energy. However it’s no good just offering a bit! You need to increase your rations by 10 – 20%. If your stock are light in condition or slick coated cattle I’d definitely be increasing to 20% ahead of and during the cold period.
- Provide shelter. Breaking the wind speed up can have a dramatic effect on improving conditions for your stock. Moving them to sheltered paddocks that have trees and shrubs that break up the wind will be vital. There are plenty of well proven strategies and studies that show the role shelter has in livestock survival
- Longer term, consider developing shelterbelts and wind breaks to moderate the wind across the farm. You certainly can’t grow shelter over night, so in the short term consider what other options you have to shelter your stock.
Cold fronts often only last for a few days, and with adequate warning you can prepare your stock to cope with the challenge. It is important to make your plans happen when the fronts are forecast. Don’t leave it to the day of the windy and snow to start doing something. Often moving stock in those conditions makes it worse not better! Pre preparation is everything to give your stock a chance!
Purchasing new bulls for a program is a significant event for any producer. While many people consider the immediate cost of the bull to be the most pressing consideration, there is much more to consider than his actual cost! A bull will make a contribution to a herd that will extend for up to 15 years. So the lifetime cost of that bull in a herd is much greater than what you may pay at auction.I spend a lot of time with producers looking at bulls before sales. I’m often conscious that a large number of people I chat to have only a general idea of the characteristics of the bull that they want. As I wrote earlier, the question “what do I think of this bull?” is a hard one to answer. As we approach the spring bull selling season I’ve prepared a few suggestions to help producers prepare ahead of their next bull purchase.
- Know what you want to achieve in your herd
Your current market – are your steers and heifers meeting the weight, fat and eating quality specifications?
- Your environment – are your cows the size that suits your pasture growth patterns throughout the year
- Is your herd fertility as high as it can be? Are your cows going into calf early, delivering calves easily and rearing those calves to weaning?
- Are there traits you would like to improve further or correct with genetics?
- Use breed websites to search for bulls with specific EBVs that meet you criteria. This can be useful, however it may mean you need to do some additional searching to find the bulls you have identified with a particular breeder.
- I use on line sale catalogues available through the breed websites. This option will bring up the bulls listed at your chosen breeders sale. The easiest way to find the bulls that suit your criteria is to click on the option that asks if you would like to link to Breed Object. This will bring up the bulls with their EBVs and Index values, which makes searching much easier.
3. Use the IndexesIndexes were developed to help make selection easier in a couple of ways. The first is to remember that Indexes are developed to reflect both the short-term profit that would come from using a bull through his actual progeny. While longer term profit is the influence his daughter have on a herd. The Indexes combine the animals EBVs for their impact on the traits that impact on a specific production and market system.
I personally tend to find the Index that best suits a program and look at the top 5 bulls in the catalogue. If you need to adjust a trait for a reason, one that you have identified earlier, you can then go and fine tune your selection on specific EBVs.
- Arrive early and spend as much time as you need looking at your chosen bulls. Don’t worry about the other bulls in the pen, or what other people like or don’t like! Your herd is your concern and the bulls you’ve identified are the ones that meet your objectives.
- Look at those bulls and have a checklist. Are the bulls structurally sound? Do they reflect your maturity pattern? What is their temperament like? Do they have the muscle pattern you need?
If you do this properly you’ll have time to enjoy the steak sandwich and the social catch up! You’ll also find that when you ask me ‘what do I think of this bull?” I’ll be able to have a much more useful conversation with you!
One of the most frequent questions I’m asked is the simple “what do you think of this bull?” For such a simple question, there isn’t a simple answer I can give. Occasionally I am tempted to say “not much” but if I am stalling for time I might fall back on the standard “I haven’t really thought about him yet”. Either way, the question is one that is a challenge and requires a little time to consider a proper response.
My greatest challenge with this question is the context it’s being asked within. Selecting bulls is a key task for any breeding program. The decision made to use a bull is the start of a process that will effect up to three generations of cattle and play put over 15 years.
In that context, decisions around bulls need a lot more time than a quick “what do you think of him”.
Ultimately I try to get the person asking me that question to share more about what they are trying to achieve at home. In simple terms, what are they breeding for? What are the traits that matter to them. Are there issues in the cow herd they want to focus on. Is there an issue with suitability to their markets or the environment.
These are all the basics of a breeding objective. If you know that, you can start to determine if the bull is suited to their program or not.
The other challenge is when a producer comes up to ask what do I think of a few bulls, brandishing the raw data that is provided on the bulls. I have to be honest and respond that I need a lot more information before I give a comparison. Quite simply I don’t find raw data all that helpful, except to provide me with a weight of each animal on the day. Other than that, to me it doesn’t offer anything terribly helpful in determining how a bull will fit into a programs objectives.
It’s very easy to compare bulls for visual traits. In fact I think that’s essential. So I am very happy to assess the muscle patterns, structure and gait of a bull as he walks around the pen. I can look at his maturity pattern and make some comparisons with his sale mates.
And I can see what his individual temperament is like as I follow him around assessing his physical attributes. But, what I cant see and compare, is the genetic potential those bulls offer without accurate data.
Raw data that is often provided at bull sales shouldn’t be seen as an insight into the potential of the bull. With these supplementary sheets it's important to remember that these sheets record what the bull as an individual has done to that point in time.
So when you look at that data, or when I have it shown to me, its important to acknowledge the role that nutrition and the pedigrees have in determining a particular bulls phenotype, these are not the only two areas to consider.
There are many additional influences, ranging from the bulls age; the age of its dam; was the bull a single calf or a twin or if it was produced as a result of ET?
These are all non genetic influences on the bull that impact over and above nutrition and genetics. And when you are standing in a paddock looking at those bulls, it’s very difficult to know what these additional influences are or how to account for them in a selection decision.
My greatest concern is that often producers end up selecting on differences that are a result of these multiple factors, rather than for the genetic differences in animals. Selection on raw data is further complicated by the heritability of individual traits. Highly heritable traits such as coat color can be an easy selection decision, as these traits can be easily passed on to progeny.
However, as a trait becomes less heritable it is harder to see these differences reflected on the basis of raw data alone. Producers attempting to manipulate traits to meet breeding objectives in areas such as female fertility have a harder job to select for improvement when they are reliant on raw data and visual observation. Its not an impossible task, however it is a much more difficult, and drawn out process over several generations.
As if this isn’t difficult enough, there’s something else to remember! That’s the relationship between the trait that has been recorded and the traits that are the focus of particular breeding decisions?
Not all traits follow linear progressions. A good example is scanned data for EMA. The size of EMA at a particular point in time may not be reflective of increased muscularity, but rather a result of growth rate to that point in time. A larger EMA may be more reflective of the growth and weight of the animal when it was scanned.
It really concerns me when producers place all their emphasis on the raw data of animals as the basis for their selection decisions. Without knowing the cumulative impact of the environment, feed, and other non-genetic factors, bulls are being selected more on reflection of the year’s circumstances, rather than on their genetic capability. This often works in a counterproductive manner to selection pressure placed on the breeding group at home.
So if you are choosing bulls, you need to make this a project and allow yourself some time to make decisions based on research and preparation, rather than a comparison of animals on the day of the sale! There is tremendous value in spending time considering what you want as an objective for your herd, and looking at a range of bulls to help achieve that goal.
Breedplan figures and the search tools in Breedplan can help you find the bulls that could suit your program. Then you can go and look at them and see if they physically have structure, the muscularity and temperament to suit your program.
If you do that then when you ask me what do I think of these bulls, I’ll be able to have a focused and hopefully more helpful discussion with you!
As cattle producers, we are focused on the production of red meat that can be used to feed people. I’m not sure that many people really know just how much red meat comes from their cattle. I think it is an important trait to consider and work on improving. After all increasing red meat yield per animal is a more efficient way to use your feed resources and be more profitable in the long term.
When considering Red Meat Yield, its important not to be confused with Dressing Percentage. Dressing percentage is commonly talked about by people and confused with yield. In simplest terms, Dressing Percentage is simply the carcass weight of an animal as a percentage of its live-weight.
Dressing Percentage is a useful tool to measure and to understand, particularly for producers who are looking to market cattle direct to abattoirs. Knowing how your animal will dress and so fit a payment grid can make a big difference in receiving the grid price or suffering a discount for being over or under the weights.
It is important to remember that Dressing Percentage is influenced by factors associated with an animals live-weight. In particular the length of time off feed and water. A simple rule to remember is that as live-weight decreases, Dressing Percentage will increase. Other factors that can have an impact include pregnancy status (cows and heifers) as well as grain or grass finishing programs.
So Dressing Percentage is something that has to be considered and managed in order to achieve optimum returns when livestock are sold over a grid. However focusing on the yield of red meat should be a major focus for producers.
In basic terms yield is generally described as Saleable Meat Yield (SMY). It is defined as the proportion of the carcase that can be processed and sold to the consumer. This includes all the bone-in or boneless cuts that we commonly see at retail level, plus manufacturing meat that has been trimmed to a desired fat coverage or level.
The level of Saleable Meat Yield (SMY) can vary dramatically among animals. A real issue for processors or butchers is this variation will impact the efficiency of processing or retailing. It basically costs the same to process a carcase into its primal and retail cuts.
Lower yields either as a result of less muscle or over fatness, quickly become financial issues for that portion of the supply chain. In the longer term it reflects back on the producer who may find their lower yielding cattle are purchased for lower prices or avoided all together.
As producers the challenge is to increase the amount of saleable red meat each animal produces. There most effective methods are to focus on meeting specifications for fatness. Over fat animals require more trimming, and this impacts on the amount of product for sale after processing.
The second and major way is to focus on selection for muscle volume within the herd. This can be done using both EBV’s that address meat yield, and to visually select animals for their muscle score.
Over many years, NSW DPI has researched the impact muscle score has on saleable meat yield. One of the key findings from this research showed that selection for muscle score was a skill that could be used in all beef herds.
More importantly the research highlighted that for each increase in muscle score at the same live weight and fat depth, dressing percentage increased by 1.7%.
Saleable meat yield as a percentage, increased by 1.5 to 1.7 % and lean meat yield (denuded of fatness) increased by over 2%. In lightweight steers, this equated to 10–15% increase in value.
The research looked at this over three steers that were all the same live-weight and fatness. The additional increase in yield of saleable meat through increased muscling was a significant contributor to the value of those animals to both producers and retailers.
In the last few weeks I’ve been working through these concepts with several producers to improve their herd’s suitability to several emerging markets. We have also been looking at the breakdown of a beef carcase and the proportion of red meat from each primal cut. Selection for muscle has a positive impact on increase the amount produced as well as improving the shape and appearance of these muscles when they are processed into retail cuts.
Steer competitions allow many young people the opportunity to learn a range of responsibilities and gain skills and knowledge that can be used in their future careers and in their broader lives.
Preparing a steer requires knowledge of selection, nutrition and a commitment to ensure the steer grows according to a specific end point. For young people there is the responsibility of not only feeding and caring for the animal, its also about the preparation and training.
So what brings success in a steer ring? As a judge I have some pretty clear expectations for steers. The things I consider are important not just for the show ring. I am looking for the traits that are economically and commercially relevant. Through judging I hope that people preparing steers, learn to use that experience in their approach to commercial operations, and so produce more economically valuable animals for themselves and for the clients they hope to attract.
Whenever I consider a class of steers, my first thoughts are about the class specifications. Specifications for weight and fatness are essential! The processor for various reasons sets a weight. These range from;
• ensuring that the primal cuts that the carcass will be broken down into are the correct size for further fabrication into retail cuts
• efficiency of processing within a plant
• ease of processing. For example a local butcher has smaller lighter bodies both for retail purposes and for the simple reason that there isn’t enough room in a small chiller for a larger carcass!
If a steer is too heavy or too light for class specifications, I automatically discount it as a place winner. In the commercial world this discounting happens with a lower price offer from the purchaser.
There are some important lessons to consider beyond the obvious discounting for price (or points in a competition). If your steers are too heavy then they should have been entered into a different class. Or in commercial operations sold to a heavier market.
My second consideration for class specifications is for the specifications for fatness. Again there are fat depths set for a reason. These include the minimum required for MSA grading (3mm on the rib) as well as to ensure an evenly covered carcass. Over fat cattle create more issues with excessive trim.
The lesson to consider is that if you are preparing steers, for competition or for the market, know your specifications! If you are failing to meet the specs, does this mean you need to consider:
• Feeding program – are you growing at the optimum daily rate for your target? If it is too slow will you fall below the minimum? Too fast and will you overshoot?
• Fatness – Consider not just your feeding but also your animals maturity patter. Is your maturity pattern correct for your target market / class specifications? Later maturity animals lay fat down later, so will you be able to meet the requirements with your maturity pattern. Similarly are you not being too ambitious with early maturity patterns?
Once I’ve considered the suitability of the steers to their class specifications, I assess each steer for its overall muscle volume. Muscle is directly related to saleable red meat, and so the more an animal has, the more saleable red meat is available and so the value of that animal increases.
I assess muscle volume using the industry accepted muscle scores. I find it useful to think about volume in the same way it is calculated for any shape. Essentially it means to consider length, depth and width.
So I look at the length of the animal. I consider its width, through the loins and rib eye, and the width of stance and through the hindquarters. Lastly I look to see how deep is the muscle volume extending from the hindquarters down to the stifle. I like to see broader, rounder, longer steers.
My final consideration is to look at the overall fatness of the steer. It’s one thing to meet specifications. However it’s another to be evenly covered across the carcass. I look and feel over the major primals and over the carcass to see if the fat appears to be evenly distributed. Sometimes you can feel the fat coverage is uneven or hasn’t quite extended across the major areas.
As a carcass judge I’ve seen many bodies that are unevenly finished. This adds to the processors level of trim and overall reduces the value of the carcass to the processor. So its something I do try and consider and provide feedback on.
Essentially I use these three key areas to judge steers. Ultimately the steers that meet specification, display the high degree of muscle and even distribution of fatness are the ones I will select to be my place winners.
I don’t spend any time worrying about what the herd is like that produced these steers. I don’t worry about the heifers in the herd or anything outside of the ring. As a judge I can only assess what I see in front of me. Just as a buyer will only consider what is in front of them at the sale and if they will suit the processors needs. Focusing on these things does provide breeders with the information they need to fine-tune their program at home.
And for young people making their way into the industry, the lesson of knowing the market specifications, choosing cattle that suit their market and selecting for yield are lessons that will take them a long way into commercial and show ring success.
Feeding stock is a task that requires some prior preparation. While most feeds can be provided to ruminants, it doesn’t mean that you can feed them without following a few simple rules.
The rumen is a living environment, which hosts the micro-flora, fungi and other organisms that actually work to break feed down so that it can be absorbed and used by the animal. Sudden changes in feed type, lack or roughage and reduced water intake can all create a situation where the environment of the rumen becomes unhealthy to the micro-flora and results in digestive upsets and illness.
Mostly the rumen remains fairly stable as livestock select diets that allow the rumen micro-flora to thrive and do their job of breaking down material for absorption and digestion. Problems start to arise when diets and rations are offered that create unhealthy rumen environments.
As mentioned before common issues are changes in feed types, particularly to including grains that have high levels of starch. It also occurs when fibre is lacking or if rations are less than the animal requires and as it becomes hungrier it eats plants that may contain toxins that can result in illness or death.
Poisoning is a risk that many producers have had to consider this year. Common issues have been weeds that have been eaten as hungry stock eat whatever they can chew. It also has been an issue as new weeds arrive in drought feeds. Stock may consume plants that are poisonous simply because they have never seen them before.
However the biggest issue has been with sorghum crops that have been grazed or cut for fodder. The cause has been either from Nitrate poisoning or from Prussic Acid.
What is Nitrate Poisoning?
Nitrogen is needs by plants for growth. They absorb nitrogen through the soil and root system. Young plants and leaves have high levels of nitrates as they are growing. However when plants are stressed or not growing at a rate that allows the nitrogen to be used, the plant stores this as nitrate. Some plants are more prone than others to do this (they are known as ‘nitrate accumulators’), but most plants will accumulate nitrates to some degree if stressed.
The issue for livestock is that when the material is eaten that Nitrate is converted to nitrite. This chemical change allows the nitrite to be quickly absorbed from digested feed into the blood system where it attaches to hemoglobin. These nitrites replace oxygen cells in the blood and cause rapid impacts on the animal.
Within 15-20 minutes symptoms like staggering, difficulty breathing, spasms and foaming at the mouth start to occur. Many affected animals will lie down while some may thrash about. I’ve had it described to me that the cattle looked drunk.
Its mainly sheep and cattle impacted in this way. Horses and pigs are less affected by nitrate because they don’t convert it to nitrite. If levels are high though, the nitrate can damage the lining of their gut.
According to a number of sources, most of the species commonly grazed in Australia can cause nitrate poisoning if stressed. These are species that include oats, sorghum, maize, sudan grass, Johnson grass, canola, lucerne, kikuyu, turnip and sugar beet tops, soybean, wheat, barley and a range of weeds.
It’s essential that you consider feed testing any fodder that you purchase to see what level of nitrate is in the feed. Ask a few questions from the vendor? Was it treated with a big application of fertilizer or manure? Was it stressed before bailing? These questions can help you decide if it is suitable to feed to livestock
Prussic acid is a major concern for producers who graze or rely on sorghum varieties for fodder. It is present in most sorghum, although some varieties will have lower levels.
At a chemical level within the plant, prussic acids exist as a non-poisonous chemical called Dhurrin. This chemical can react with another plant-based material known as Emulsion. Under the right conditions, these two materials will react and create Prussic Acid. It’s also known as Hydrocyanic Acid. In simplest terms this is Cyanide Poisoning!
Damage to the pant through mechanical impact, environmental stress, trampling and even insect damage results in the mixing of these materials and the release of Cyanide.
While sometimes this can evaporate from the plant, it doesn’t all disappear. It also means that further damage, such as harvesting, or grazing will result in more Cyanide being released.
The concern with Prussic Acid is its high level of toxicity. Feed Central suggests that amounts greater than 0.1 percent (1000 ppm or mg/kg) of plant dry matter is considered highly dangerous. Some levels from the Washington State University place that level even lower at 750 ppm.
The effect on animals is very similar to that of nitrate poisoning. The acid is readily absorbed into the bloodstream and it then attaches to the hemoglobin and displaces oxygen.
Since many producers look to graze or use sorghum forage there are some basic considerations to be factored into the decision making process. Remember that:
- Leaf blades normally contain higher levels than leaf sheaths or stems
- Younger (upper) leaves have more prussic acid than older leaves
- Tillers and branches (“suckers”) have the highest levels, because they are more leaf than stalk
Most sorghum should be grazed when they are more mature. Often this is over 3ft in height. As plants mature, there are more stalks than leaves in the overall plant causing prussic acid content in the plant as a whole to decrease.
With so much drought-affected crops its important to remember levels will be much higher as the pants are mostly leaves. Sorghum grown in drought may retain high levels of prussic acid, even if made into hay or silage.
My advice to all producers thinking about using or grazing sorghum is to get it tested first! Know the levels before you feed it out. There may be alternative uses to this feed.
If you do have concerns, or you want some more advice, then get in touch with me. Asking questions can save you a lot of risk and the potential of stock losses.
The summer of 2019 has been another very hot and dry season. Coming off one of the hottest years on record, with low rainfall, this summer has had a big impact on most agricultural programs.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for graziers will be access to reliable stock water. Of all the resources available to graziers, stock water is the most vital, and generally the most limiting. Water plays a role beyond ensuring survival. The quality of water offered will impact on feed intake levels and can restrict livestock production if it is outside acceptable ranges.
So how much do your animals consume? Daily consumption varies with the size of your animals, their production status. Obviously a lactating animal will require more water than a dry animal. The feed animals are consuming and weather conditions will also determine daily consumption levels.
As can be seen in this table, consumption for livestock is often higher than many people consider. Dry cattle for example will require between 50 – 70 litres a day depending on their size. However, hot conditions will see that level of consumption increase significantly.
Some research presented by Future Beef noted that rises of 10ºC (e.g. from 25ºC to 35ºC) can almost double daily consumption, particularly if there is high humidity as well. Its also important to recognize that lactating cows may have a 30% higher daily water intake than dry cows.
Water quality is a key factor in livestock intake. There are several components to water quality.
- pH will impact on consumption and influence feed intake and rumen function. Low pH (more acid) will impact on rumen acidosis levels and suppress feed intake. While higher pH levels (more alkaline) will cause rumen upset, diarrhoea and poor feed conversion.
- Salinity levels will also determine consumption levels. Salinity tests on water assess the sum of all mineral salts in water. Salinity can impact animal health as a result of their feed, temperature and humidity and the levels of salinity in the water itself
- Algae, contaminants such as mud or debris from storm run off, and contamination from faeces are all issues that will restrict intake or cause health issues.
How much water is in your dam?
Part of any plan regarding water is to know how much you have stored. Most people I speak with don’t really know how much they may have in a dam or in total, which can significantly add to the stress levels people feel.
The easiest way to work through estimating a dam’s water amount requires:
- a tape measure
- some very strong twine (like plumbers line)
- two heavy duty lead sinkers
- a dozen (or more) fishing floats.
Firstly you need to attach the sinkers to the end of the line. Then tie a slot every metre from the end of the line. Number each float with a large number suing a colour you can read easily.
Step 1: Measure two sides of your dam (this allows you to work out your surface area in square metres)
Step 2: Drag your sting across the deepest part of your dam and allow the floats to bring the line to vertical.
Step 3: Read the number of the float holding the line vertically.
Step 4: Multiply the surface area (From Step 1) by the depth you have just measured.
Step 5: To allow for the shape of your dam, multiply this figure by 0.4. This will tell you the total volume of your dam.
Step 6: To convert this total to mega-litres, divide the number by 1000.
Doing this exercise once a month will give you a fairly accurate stock take of water supply. If you calculate how many animals you have, and how much they drink each day, you will soon determine your overall levels of consumption.
Dividing this consumption by your total water supply will give you a time period for your current water supplies.
Effective plans need to have a time frame, and if your water supplies are the most limiting issue on farm, then it’s vital to have a time estimate. This estimate gives you the chance to make new plans and be proactive in your management, rather than responding or reacting when your options are much more limited.
When you do these evaluations, you will quickly determine that trucking water to stock is a task that can't be done effectively. The shear demand of water, let alone time and access may make the exercise extremely difficult. For many people trucking water is an impossibility when they realistically assess their livestock demand and the resources and time they have to meet the daily demand of livestock. Early planning will help you weigh up your options and focus you on using your limited resources as well as you possibly can.
If you need help in making plans or you require some advice, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. This is a key service I provide to producers and I’m happy to help where I can.
Across Australia, the impact of the extremes of climate is playing out with disastrous consequences for hundreds of families. Its been easy for some people in metropolitan NSW to think that the coastal rain and storms have been widespread. In fact the NSW DPI reveals in their latest Seasonal Update that the Combined Drought Indicator (CDI) has 99.8% of NSW experiencing drought conditions.
To break that down over a third of the state (36.8%) is classified as Intense Drought, The remaining areas of the state are considered wither in drought or drought affected. The impact of heat waves and above average temperatures, plus no rain has many producers on edge.
Of course the drought is not confined to NSW. Many parts of Queensland are now in the fifth or sixth year of drought. Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and parts of Western Australia have all recorded below average rainfall and are in drought or rapidly approaching drought conditions.
In Tasmania this has resulted in unprecedented bushfires. While many fires have impacted wilderness areas, there have been losses of homes, buildings and farming country.
Last week a huge part of North Queensland, some 20,000KM2 (almost the entire size of Kenya) was swamped by monsoon rain. This event has inundated stations, roads, railways and swept away 100’s of thousands of cattle. So many people in this region are struggling to start assessing the scale of their losses let alone even to consider rebuilding.
So what can you do to help? It’s a good question. The Australian way is to offer help and to want to look after those people doing it tough. I know that I feel that way myself.
The reality is, these events are huge. They will have an ongoing impact that will last for much longer than the news cycle or the next trend on Facebook. It extends across farms to impact businesses, towns and communities.
So any help that you would like to offer should be something that reflects the scale of the events and can be useful.
If you would like to offer or donate money, the Country Women’s Association have appeals that are directly focussed on communities. The CWA are community driven and have a long commitment of helping their community. In Qld, the QCWA Public Crisis Fund has been established to provide direct support in the event of disasters such as floods and fires. In NSW the CWA has established a fund specifically for drought aid. Alternatively the Australian Red Cross and St Vincent De Paul are charities that I have worked with and are focussed on direct assistance.
However, there are two other things you can do.
Go and visit these communities for a holiday.
When the worst of this is over, and communities start to rebuild, the money your visit brings in is essential. Small towns in the Huon Valley depend on tourism. In the Central West of NSW or the Far West, the difference your visit can make to a café, motel, and service station is just as important to a community as anything else you can do. And this is something you can do and make a difference in a real way over a longer term.
Support regional businesses.
It can be as easy as having an extra beef or lamb meal each week! However there are lots of small regional businesses that provide products and trade on line. Many of these support faming families with a little extra income. These little businesses are important to families, and communities so any support for them will have a direct benefit to people who need your help.
As communities recover over the coming months and years, don’t forget to check in on people you know. Keep visiting, keep supporting communities in these simple and practical ways. It will take a while to recover, so these are ways you can help for a longer time than just in the immediate aftermath of the disasters we are seeing right now.
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- Selection to Increase Saleable Meat Yield
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