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.
Fat scoring is one of the most valuable skills you can learn as a producer. The fatness of your cattle determines not just their suitability to market specifications. Within a breed herd, fatness is a key indicator on the herds ability to meet key production goals such as joining, calving and weaning.
There are six fat scores used to describe the level of fat on an animal. These scores are based on the depth of fat between the animals hide and the muscle or bone beneath the skin. Fatness is assessed at both the 12th rib of the animal and at the P8 site.
The P8 site is quite a specific point, and many producers often ask me where it actually is on an animal. If you draw a line from the high bone of the animal – the third sacral vertebrae down until it intersects with a line drawn at right angles from the pin bone, that is where you find the P8 site.
When most people think of using fat scores, its often in terms of deciding if cattle have sufficient fat for market requirements.
However in a breeding herd, fat scores are also a really useful tool. In the first instance, fat score at calving time will influence how long it will take a cow to recommence cycling after calving. The higher the fat score, the more likely it will be that the cow will return to oestrus within the minimum time frame to achieve a calf every year.
We know that it normally takes a Fat Score 3 cow about 50 days to return to oestrus. Where as a cow that is Fat Score 2 will take another 20 days. So when you do the maths of pregnancy at 282 days, plus a period to return to oestrus, you’ll work out you don’t have a big window of opportunity to have fat Score 2 cows successfully delivering a calf every 12 months.
In practical terms, fat scoring is a useful way to draft your cattle into management groups. I actually think your cow management groups need to be constantly reviewed. If you can draft your cows into groups based on size, weight and fat score, you will be better positioned to efficiently meet their feed requirements.
Drafting cows into groups based on these factors, means you will have the opportunity to adjust nutrition to lower fat score animals if you need to with the use of supplements. Or if you are planning on selling a group of cattle, these can often be the easiest and most readily identified group of cattle to sell.
I reckon its also important to recognize that as Fat Scores drop, you have to be prepared to action some immediate strategies to prevent significant weight loss and to avoid compromising animal welfare. Once your animals approach a Fat Score 2 level, they are starting to metabolise body reserves of muscle and are losing weight.
If you can recognize this in your cows you can move to correct their nutrition, or make decisions about decreasing stock numbers before weight loss becomes significant.
Once a beef animal falls into the category of Fat Score 1, they are considered to be AT RISK from a welfare perspective. This means you have to commence a program of management to address their condition through feeding programs. You would be looking at ensuring calves are weaned off – to allow the cow to use all the energy she consumes for herself and not have to produce milk.
Calves should be weaned onto a ration that allows them to grow correctly and without setbacks that are lily if there was no intervention.
Cows that are AT RISK (Fat Score 1) should be drafted into a separate group and managed so that all animals are able to achieve their daily intake requirements. This also means it will be easier to monitor these animals as a group and provide other treatments if required such as parasite controls.
Over the last few weeks as drought conditions extend further across NSW, I’ve been visiting a number of farms to help draft cows into groups ad develop specific management strategies for these groups.
One of the key things I’ve learnt is that producers have been looking at their cows for so long, they don’t notice the variation in the herd, until we’ve drafted them up. Once they are drafted and plans set in place, its rewarding to see the pressure ease on producers and a clear plan of action taking place.
So if you are unsure about how you can use fat scores properly, or you’ve been looking at your cows for too long, perhaps its time to as for some help. I’m more than happy to come out and work a plan out with you and draft the cows into groups with you. Don’t forget I’m only a phone call away!
Its hard to believe that November is almost here. The year seems to have passed so quickly, and for cattle producers the next event on the annual breeding calendar is just about to kick off. If your enterprise is designed around a spring calving, that event is the annual joining period. So the question is, are your bulls ready to work?
Joining is a critical event for any breeding enterprise. If it isn't well managed the cash flow over the next 1 -2 years can be dramatically reduced.
A poorly managed joining doesn't just mean less calves next year to sell. It also has implications for the culling strategies and replacement programs you might have in place. Both of these also impact on your profitability.
How you manage your joining program should be a key priority for the year.
Your bulls readiness to work is a key aspect of successful joining. Its important you take some time to check your bulls over before you introduce them to their joining groups.
Ideally your bulls will have been running together for some time in the lead up to joining. This allows them to sort out their pecking order and this will minimise the time they spend fighting with each other instead of working. it also helps reduce the risk of injury.
When you start to prepare for joining, you should bring you bulls to a location such as your yards and check them all over to ensure there are no injuries or issues that may have recently occurred. Joining is a physically demanding time for bulls and slight physical injuries can become worse over time and may prevent your bull working as hard as he should.
Even if you have only purchased your bull at this years bull sales, check him over again before putting him out to work. As a new bull he may have had some difficulty settling in and as a result could have some minor issues.
I reckon its definitely worth putting your bulls through a crush and checking everything, particularly sheath and testicles. The bulls testicles should feel firm and springy, and if they don't, this is an indication his testicles may not be as healthy as desirable, and therefore his value as working bull may be lower.
Its better to find the bull with issues before you put them with the cows, rather than mid way or at the end of joining.
Take some time to consider the mating load and length of joining for your bulls. A structurally sound bull in working condition with a Fat Score of 2.5 - 3.5 should comfortably handle a joining period of 9 to 12 weeks. In terms of a mating load, bulls in this condition and with good structural soundness should be mated at the rate of 3 bulls per 100 cows.
If your plan is to single sire mate, that is one bull to a group of cows, you need to consider the following things:
* Don't overload your bulls with too many cows. More than 40 is putting a lot of pressure on him and some cows may get missed
* Consider your paddock size. If the paddocks are too big or have undulating terrain or timber and vegetation your bull could miss some cows
*Check your bull regularly and have a back up ready to replace him
These are good guidelines for multiple sire mating. Stick to the 3% bulls to cows, and remember to check them frequently. You need to make sure a bull hasn't injured himself while working, and be prepared to replace an injured bull.
One good trick some people use is to have their replacement bulls running as a group. If there is a need to replace a bull through injury during joining, the whole group of bulls are swapped over. The new bulls should get to work without too much fighting and the other group can be rested or treated for injury if that is an issue.
Keep an eye on all your mating groups. As joining comes to a close, start thinking about how you will bring your bulls out, how you will run them and be prepared to boost their nutritional requirements following their working months.
While many people plan to put bulls out on Melbourne Cup day, which is only next Tuesday, its not too late to make some time to check your bulls and plan for the next few working weeks. If your bulls are ready to work then your joining period will be off to a good start.
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