June 12, 2023
Starting the Herd Rebuilding Clock
Derrell S. Peel, Oklahoma State University Extension Livestock Marketing Specialist
The story of what will happen in the beef cattle industry has been clear for some time. Drought- forced beef cow herd liquidation has made the beef industry smaller than it needs or planned to be. There will be strong market incentives to rebuild herd inventories when it is possible to do so. Recent improvement in remaining drought regions in the central and southern Great Plains likely means that herd liquidation is ending. Residual drought remains a risk and drought could redevelop but the arrival of El Niño likely means that additional drought impacts will be minimal. Nevertheless, the beef cow herd is almost surely decreasing in 2023 meaning that the January 1, 2024 level is expected to be the low from which the industry will rebuild. However, we can now think about the timeline going forward as cattle numbers stabilize and the industry transitions to herd expansion.
The first step to stabilizing the beef cow herd is the reduction of beef cow slaughter and a lower rate of cow culling. Following record beef herd culling in 2022, beef cow slaughter is down 11.5 percent so far in 2023, a sign that herd liquidation is slowing. However, I suspect that, until recently, the decrease in total beef cow slaughter was masking some continued liquidation in the drought areas of the plains. The current rate of beef cow slaughter, if it persisted for the entire year, would result in a herd culling rate of nearly 11 percent for the year…too large to indicate herd expansion. Beef cow slaughter is expected to decrease more sharply in the second half of the year.
The definitive indication of herd expansion will be signs of heifer retention. Right now, no such signs exist, though I suspect that some heifer retention is beginning. In fact, heifer slaughter thus far in 2023 is fractionally higher than last year’s elevated level. Of course, the reduced heifer feedlot placement that follows increased heifer retention will show up as lower heifer slaughter only after several months. The July Cattle inventory report may be the first sign that shows an increased inventory of beef replacement heifers. The report will be released July 21, 2023. Heifer slaughter is expected to start declining in the second half of the year.
The January 1, 2023 inventory of beef replacement heifers, consisting of bred heifers calving this year and replacement heifer calves to breed for 2024 are both at very low levels. The bred heifer inventory is the lowest since 2011 and the inventory of replacement heifer calves is the lowest in the 23 years of data available. The number of replacement heifers is not enough to prevent more herd liquidation this year and likely not enough to do more than stabilize the beef cow herd in 2024. The big push for heifer retention will likely begin with weaning heifers this fall. These heifers will be bred in 2024, calve in 2025 and begin to increase beef production in 2026. It doesn’t seem possible to speed up the timeline.
In the meantime, heifer retention and reduced beef cow slaughter will reduce cattle slaughter and beef production. In the last herd expansion that began in 2014, total cattle slaughter in 2015 dropped to the lowest levels since 1963, resulting in the lowest beef production since 1993. We can expect analogous reductions in cattle slaughter and beef production in 2024 and 2025 at least. Increased heifer retention will pull feedlot inventories down sharply and keep them low for the expected three years of heifer retention that will be needed for the next herd expansion. With drought seemingly on its heels, the process of herd rebuilding is poised to begin.
Mark Z. Johnson, Oklahoma State University Extension Beef Cattle Breeding Specialist
For many spring calving herds, branding and working calves is soon approaching. Typical best management practices includes giving the first round of vaccinations when calves are 2 – 4 months of age. This is often when we think about facilities, either improving what we have or building something new because cattle handling can be time consuming and complicated. Because of this it is important that corrals and facilities are constructed to confine cattle safely and efficiently for close observation and to perform routine health and management procedures. To accomplish these goals, the corral and working facility design must be matched to the specific beef cattle operation. Detailed planning is important to ensure that the corral and working facility meet these needs as well as providing for efficient future expansion. As well, an important consideration during planning is to develop a design that accommodates your desired cattle working procedures while making efficient use of labor, reducing animal stress and minimizing the risk of injury to both humans and cattle.
The basic components of a cattle working facility include:
- Holding pens/Sorting alley
- Crowding area (Sweep Tub or Bud Box)
- Working Chute (Alleyway)
- Squeeze chute and head gate
- Loadout chute
The holding/sorting pens serve as the initial catch pens for cattle. Cattle are then sorted and processed to a crowding area for purpose of sending through an alleyway leading to a loadout chute or squeeze chute and head catch. The squeeze chute is the part of the system where health and management procedures would be administered.
Efficient corral design results in a means to work cattle with less labor, additional safety and greater ease. When cattle behavior is considered in designing a working system, it results in improved corral and working system plans. Several basic principles of cattle behavior include:
- Cattle want to see you
- Cattle want to go around you
- Cattle want to be with other cattle
- Cattle want to return to where they have been
- Cattle process one main thought at a time
Accordingly, once the gate has been closed on a group of cattle being held in a lot, their first and strongest desire is to find their way out. Understanding basic behavior principles results in good corral designs made to take advantage of cattle’s natural instincts.
If building from scratch, the first consideration is location. Corrals should be easily accessible by trucks and trailers under adverse weather conditions and handy to most pastures for easy movement of cattle into the facilities. For convenience, working facilities should be placed along a central fence line in an area where several fence lines and pastures converge. Drainage is another important consideration when selecting a site for working facilities. The site should be well drained to avoid mud and sanitation problems caused by standing water. On some sites, it may be best to haul in gravel or other fill materials to raise the level of the site for better drainage. While some slope is desirable, avoid steep slopes where manure runoff could cause water pollution problems. Avoid sites that are directly adjacent to neighboring residences, where dust, flies, noise, and odor might be an issue during times of high use.
A properly designed cattle working system is a long-term investment that should be thoroughly considered and planned before construction. Proper planning can result in a facility well suited for your operation and free of “built-in” problems. A good working system benefits cattle and humans alike, and can improve the productivity and profit potential of your operation. Some excellent reference materials are listed below to help get started in planning and thinking through the building process.
A.J. Tarpoff, et. al., Designing a Bud Box for Cattle Handling, Kansas State University Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service.
Ken Apple, Raymond L. Huhnke and Sam Harp. Modern Corral Design. Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension Service.
Mark Johnson, OSU Extension beef cattle breeding specialist, discusses personal safety considerations when handling cattle on SUNUPTV Cow-Calf Corner from May 28, 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=18Mku-PlWuY&t=6s
Total Quality Management – A foundational approach of the Beef Quality Assurance Program
Bob LeValley, Oklahoma Beef Quality Assurance Coordinator
One aspect of “quality” is providing products that meet or exceed expectations and established requirements. Established product requirements in the beef industry may differ somewhat from one segment of the industry to the next, but there are some common expectations fundamental to each.
The commercial cow/calf operator sells weaned calves, cull cows and bulls. Weaned calves should possess performance, health and potential carcass characteristics that satisfy stocker operators and cattle feeders, while meeting food safety requirements. Culled breeding stock must meet the food safety and carcass characteristic requirement of market cow and market bull processors.
As products of stocker operations, feeder cattle should meet the requirements of cattle feeders for performance, health, potential carcass characteristics and food safety. Fed cattle must meet the expectations of beef processors for health, carcass attributes and food safety. Commodity beef products must meet requirements of beef purveyors for fat cover, marbling, carcass size, safety, and lack of defects such as injection site blemishes, dark cutters, etc. Beef sold to the consumer, must meet expectations for both food safety and eating satisfaction.
The common theme is that quality in the beef industry includes and goes well beyond food safety. Animal performance, health, carcass characteristics and eating satisfaction, are often the result of various and cumulative management decisions, many of which go all the way back to the cow/calf operation.
The Beef Quality Assurance program focuses on many of the “quality” factors that producers will influence in each production segment of the industry. By doing so, it helps to assure consumers that that cattle shipped from a beef production unit are healthy, wholesome, and safe. To become a BQA certified producer, complete the on-line certification program at www.BQA.org or contact your OSU Extension educator, or the Oklahoma Beef Council for information on an in-person certification program near you.