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Cattle industry faces obesity, low performance in overfat calves

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Those involved in the beef production industry have seen many changes in the type and kind of cattle being raised. Most recently, obesity among cattle has risen. While producers continue to push for fat cattle, riding the line between fat and obese has become a bigger problem.  

“Calves are getting too fat too soon,” shares Faris Simon, host of the Chute Side podcast. “The problem is, once producers get calves past the point of being too fat, there is no coming back.”  

In the July 13 episode of the podcast, Simon explains, “When distilling this cattle project down, if producers stick to the basics of getting calves fat, they can have a lot of success.” 

Understanding that producers across the country have different expectations regarding fat cover, Simon outlines his thoughts, noting, “What I consider to be an ideal fat steer is one that is fat, one that handles soft over their ribs and one with tone over their loin.” 

Simon continues, “We want these cattle to be fat, but we don’t want them to be shelved off in their loin and built with round white muscle.” 

Finishing market cattle in an appropriate range of size and condition has proven to be a challenge.  

Frame and feed 

While the cattle industry is always evolving, this change did not happen overnight. The major cause of heavier conditioned cattle is short, fast growing kind of cattle being raised.  

“By moderating cattle and making them chubbier in the last 10 years, I think we have bred some performance out of these cattle as a whole,” says Simon. 

With a change in cattle build, management practices must adapt, specifically in terms of feeding protocols. Simon goes into detail on how different feeding practices affect how cattle grow.  

He begins by saying, “At a basic level, if I have a calf gaining two to 2.5 pounds per day and it needs to gain three pounds per day, I need to feed it more.” 

However, Simon has noticed this thought process slows the growth of the calf’s body frame, leading them to deposit fat earlier. 

“I am a big believer that producers cannot force gain onto a calf,” he explains. “The calf is going to gain how the calf is going to gain. People can only affect how this gain is put on.” 

“If a calf is set up to gain 2.5 pounds per day on 18 pounds of feed, doubling it to 36 pounds of feed is not going to create five pounds of gain per day,” continues Simon. “Even if producers do get four pounds a day – which I still think would be unlikely – the type of gain put on this calf and the way the animal will look is not desirable.” 

Unarguably, how much feed cattle consume is a large contributor to how they grow and put on fat. However, with the latest concern in beef production, the type of feeds cattle receive can make an impact on their growth and performance.  

Looking back on popular feedstuffs throughout the last couple of years Simon shares, “There used to be high-protein options that were the reason for growth. Then, producers would come in with high-energy options at the end.” 

 “Anymore, the feeds are higher-energy feeds: Producers are matching starch with fat and energy, which creates body condition on calves the entire time,” he says, comparing old feed to new feed. “We are seeing a lot of high-fiber feeds with a lot of energy and not a tremendous amount of protein anymore.” 

The lack of feed for growth, encourages market cattle to put on fat at an earlier stage but that comes at the expense of being smaller framed. While the industry has moved away from big, tall-framed cattle, short and fat cattle are not ideal either.  

Potential solution 

As an industry, producers are selling more smaller framed, fat cattle than ever before. This problem may stem from different types of management. 

“Once we get cattle to the weight that they are considered obese and look unhealthy, we shut down their growth and their gain dies,” Simon shares. “They do not get any more frame, and this is a management situation we need to be aware of as a cattle feeder.”  

Overviewing previous production practices, Simon explains, “Five or 10 years ago, the cattle industry had bigger cattle that needed more feed and energy and started into feed on a leaner frame.” 

However, with a shift in genetics, the old practices were not sufficient in keeping cattle at a healthy condition. To help eliminate fat, Simon proposed exercise for cattle.  

“Sometimes we lose sight of the fact that cattle are designed to be out and about,” Simon shares. “When we get cattle into smaller facilities, they do not have a lot of room for exercise. When those cattle are not getting any exercise, and with these new factors, cattle get too fat too soon.” 

With cattle trends detecting earlier maturing calves, extra laps around the pen could decrease obesity found in the industry.  

While not ideal, Simon is confident the industry has been moving in the direction of extremely fat cattle for a while. However, with correct feed and management practices, Simon hopes the cattle industry can correct excessive weight gain in cattle to realize correct weights for cattle frames.  

Savannah Peterson is an intern for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to 

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