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Increasing marbling in young calves

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

“Is marbling that important? When we consider where the industry is headed, with consolidation, segmentation, and a grid spread that’s not there all the time, is it still important?” questions UW professor and Extension Livestock Specialist Scott Lake.
“In the top 10 Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) listed quality defects, number one is a lack of uniformity, consistency and tenderness. Number two is that cuts are too large for food service and restaurant establishments. Number three is excess fat.
“In our export markets the top three beef quality concerns include unknown age and source and no mandatory identification and traceability, size and weight variability, and marbling.
“In the top 10 beef quality challenges, number two is inadequate tenderness and number three is insufficient marbling and quality grades being too low,” says Lake.
“Marbling is still extremely important. For years the U.S. has had little competition in producing grain fed beef, and foreign markets like our beef. But, we are losing ground to Australia and Brazil. They have good cattle in Brazil just like we do.
“From an economics standpoint, the beef industry loses more than $1.3 billion a year in profit due to excess fat and insufficient marbling. Around 2005 we saw a real drop off in quality grades in both heifers and steers. We think ethanol was the main driver in that dip in quality grades. That was the time period that ethanol took off, and corn was expensive, and maybe we weren’t feeding cattle long enough.
“In the last five years, we’ve had a 15 to 16 percent increase in the supply of choice cattle and a 30 percent increase in the share of prime cattle. In the last three years there has been a 40 percent increase in cattle making the CAB grade. We’re feeding cattle longer, learning how to utilize dried distillers grains (DDGs), and constantly increasing the health of our calves,” explains Lake.
“But, how can we affect marbling back home on the ranch, prior to cattle entering the feedlot,” he asks, adding this was a question that resulted in targeted research to get an answer.
“There is a marbling window, between birth and 120 days, where you can really impact fat cell deposition and proliferation. We can target that window and take advantage of it and help cattle build fat cells,” says Lake.
He explains an experiment he’s involved in that weans calves at about 100 days, puts them in a feedlot and pushes them hard. “We put them on full feed and have them gaining over three pounds a day,” he notes.
Traditionally, these cattle have been kept in the feedlot until they’re fat, which results in smaller framed, really fat cattle that grade well.
“No matter what the grid is, weight is still the primary driver, and we wanted them a little bigger. So, we continued with weaning at 100 days and feeding them hard for another 100 days. Then we turned them back out on poor quality feed for a while, then brought them back and finished them out for another 90 days in the feedlot,” explains Scott.
He says the cattle maintained those fat cells developed during their first 100 days in the feedlot. “We used to think you had to maintain those fat cells during the entire feeding period. But we’re learning you can re-capture that benefit you added early during the finishing phase.”
He notes that the experimental feeding plan may not be viable in all commercial operations. Early weaning doesn’t work for every operation either, and Lake lists creep feeding as another alternative.
“Getting calves eating starch early in life dramatically increases marbling. The best success we’ve had with creeping was to start about 60 days prior to weaning,” says Lake.
“If a calf’s growth potential is being held, marbling won’t be maximized. I don’t think that’s throughout his lifetime. I believe you can push early, then back off and still recover at the end,” says Lake.
Scott Lake spoke during the Ranchers Forum during the Wyoming Stock Growers Association Winter Roundup in December. Heather Hamilton is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at

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