Intensive Cattle Production

Each year, approximately 28 million head of feedlot cattle are marketed from feedlots for beef production. This production phase is unique to the United States by virtue of its large commercial cattle-feeding enterprises. In the United States in 2001, 26.9 million head of cattle were fed and 87% of those were from feedlots larger than 1000 head capacity. The total number of feedlots in the United States has steadily decreased by approximately 3500 each year. The amount of beef produced per animal has increased, owing to increased carcass weights over this same period. Figure 1 depicts cattle on feed by month for 2001, 2002, and 2003. Each year, the number of cattle in feedlots varies some across months and is generally lowest during summer months.

Cattle are fed diets that are energy-dense, consisting primarily of grain. Current feedlot production and management efficiently produce highly marbled beef that is subsequently low in price for consumers. Cattle are generally fed to an end point that is desirable by consumers, i.e., safe, flavorful, and tender. This end point is generally 28% to 30% carcass fat, U.S. Department of Agriculture Choice grade (indication of marbling or intramuscular fat), with 0.4 to 0.5 in. of backfat.

Numerous types of cattle are fed and generally classified either as calves for finishing (also commonly referred to as calf-feds) or as yearlings. However, many variations exist from calves being weaned and directly entering feedlots, to calves that are weaned and then backgrounded on forage, pasture, or growing diets for 30 to 300 days prior to entering the feedlot. The different classes of cattle have large impacts on health, initial and market weights, amount of time in the feedlot, and overall performance. Feedlot performance is measured as dry matter intake (DMI), average daily gain (ADG), and efficiency of feed utilization, which can be measured as ADG/DMI (feed efficiency) or DMI/ADG (feed conversion). These three parameters are each important; however, feed conversion is the most common measure used by feedlots.

Performance data have been collected by Professional Cattle Consultants as part of eMerge Interactive. Data were summarized from 1996 to 2002 for cattle fed in U.S. northern, central, and southern plains regions from member feedlots. The dataset included 13.94 million head of steers, with the average animal weighing 338 kg initially, gaining 1.42 kg per day, consuming 8.84 kg of DM per day, weighing 554 kg at market, and requiring 153 days on feed.[1]

Cattle performance is dependent upon numerous factors including cattle type, nutrition program, health, overall management, and climate. A few of these important management considerations will be outlined, along with issues facing the feedlot industry now and in the future.

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