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Early weaning, high nutrition can increase calf marbling

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Casper – Because marbling in beef cattle has been proven to be important to consumers both in the U.S. and abroad, UW Beef Extension Specialist Scott Lake said the bottom line is how much money marbling is worth.
    Lake spoke at the early December Range Beef Cow Symposium in Casper. “According to NCBA data, beef producers are losing $1.3 billion each year due to excessive fat cover or too little marbling,” he said.
    2005 data shows a decrease in marketed heifers, while at the same time the corn market was undergoing volatility. Lake said the increasing popularity of distillers grains, fed at a rate above 30 percent, could have had a negative impact on marbling.
    “But the more recent trend is a huge spike in marbling scores in the last few years – there’s been a 40 percent increase in Certified Angus Beef in the last three years,” he said. “And that’s happening faster than we’re genetically selecting.”
    He said the increase in quality could be genetics combined with the increased health of calves and keeping them on feed, medical products that keep calves healthier, liquidated cow herds that put more heifers on the market and the increased technology used in instrument grading.
    However, he added he thinks nutrition is one of the single most important management tools producers can use to reach the genetic potential of their calves.
    “To offset higher feed costs, alternative production strategies are needed. One means of achieving that is to use more expensive feeds during critical stages in the life cycle of beef cattle when a high plane of nutrition is necessary for optimal economic performance, using less expensive feedstuffs during less critical periods,” he said.
    “Although quality is important, we’re still paid on weight, so we need to maximize both,” said Lake, adding producers also need to look at strategies to maximize corn intake strategically, because corn isn’t cheap anymore.
    Regarding the structure of the rumen in beef cattle, Lake said in a forage-based diet grass is converted mostly to acetate, which will remain in the blood. When they’re switched to a grain-based diet an increased amount of glucose will escape the rumen and be deposited as fat.
    “Of the fat developed in marbling, 85 percent is built from glucose,” said Lake.
    “We know we can impact marbling in the first 100 days of life,” he noted. “We want to get starch in their diet, but we want to maximize the starch they need while decreasing the total amount we have to feed them.”
    Lake said with strategic feeding producers can take advantage of the benefits of early weaning in carcass quality but not end up with the lightweight or fat carcasses of that system.
    He said one way to do that is early wean calves at 100 to 120 days and place them on a high-grain diet. “You want to push them like they’re in a feedlot,” he said, noting the system needs to be aggressive to develop the marbling, but safe. “We want to reduce corn intake, and even though you’re feeding them a lot of grain at that size they don’t eat a lot. It’s an expensive diet but overall consumption is not very high.”
    Then, at 200 days the calves are treated like a yearling calf on low-quality forage – stalks or winter range – and are allowed to grow and catch up then are fed the last 90 to 100 days. “We push them hard again to take advantage of size and carcass quality,” said Lake.
    In a study Lake was involved with at Purdue University he said when the calves were pulled off cornstalks they still had a higher marbling score than calves weaned traditionally and placed in the feedlot. “The marbling influence early in life was retained throughout,” he said.
    A multi-state project in collaboration with UW, Mandan North Dakota and South Dakota State University is using the same model. Lake said the traditional weaned calves were weaned mid-November and the early-wean calves have moved to the lower-quality diet.
    “Right now the early-wean calves have a 10 percent greater marbling score, and how this will end I’m not sure,” he said.
    “I’m interested also in creating a high-finishing diet utilizing byproducts or cheaper feeds. I want to know if we can feed them hard for 100 days and then feed almost entirely on byproduct. I don’t know if that will work or not,” he said of ongoing research at UW.
    Christy Hemken is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at

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