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Three steps redefining the use of data for profitable endpoints in feedlot cattle

Feedlot operator standing on a feedlot amongst the cattle population under a blue sky

Individual and group data and information are gathered, recorded and stored every day – beginning the moment feedlot cattle step off the truck to the time they’re declared a finished product and loaded onto another trailer destined for the packing plant. Creating and morphing this data into a valuable resource to influence future decisions is key in building a sustainable business to potentially improve your return on investment across various market conditions.

Owners may not be conscious of the fact that what they’re jotting down in a notebook, typing into a spreadsheet or entering into a software program, is a small step in determining varying levels of productivity during an animal’s supply chain journey.

This collection might be as simple as marking the tag number of a steer receiving treatment for foot rot but it becomes a critical portion of the information highway that over time leads to a database of valuable information. 

Initially, a large part of prioritizing data in the feedlot is sorting cattle into the most uniform and appropriate groups upon arrival, for they all feature their own individual characteristics, weights, genders and ages. 

Marketing goals addressing outside influences

As large numbers of cattle reach feedlots, sorting decisions are constantly in high demand and under scrutiny as workers swing gates to direct animals, using a combination of experience, gut feel and in some cases, technology to guide their thought processes. Establishing core sorting practices provides foundational value as poor or limited sorting practices may invite a reduction in return on investment.

A question becomes which factors should be used to base grouping decisions on. This is challenging with numerous conditions widely impacting an animal’s trajectory through the feeding period. 

Health realities, commodity pricing, pre-arrival preconditioning along with genetics all play a role in deciding where the goalposts should be positioned. Even legislation changes may cause course adjustments as should be the case with updated cattle implant labelling regulations in the United States.

To relieve some of the pressure and help pinpoint realistic goals, many strategies now include the pairing of these varied conditions with marketing, environmental factors and nutrition and feeding strategies guided by research and consultation.

Management practices with an eye on research and consultation

Sorting tools are becoming more commonplace, including an assortment of hardware and software, to add to their judgments on a wide level of factors. 

Some feature permanently installed sensors and cameras on squeeze chutes or alleys while others are based largely on generic scales. 

“Not all cattle are created equal,” says Luis Burciaga, Ph.D., TELUS Agriculture, Animal Agriculture (Formerly Feedlot Health), Director of Latin America Business Development and Services. “A sorting technology such as TELUS Dynamic Sorting allows the producer to create subpopulations of cattle with varying average daily gain and marketing endpoints. These subpopulations could respond differently to production technologies such as ration formulation, feed additives, growth promotant implants and beta-agonists.” 

But grouping animals in the most advantageous way should take into account a wide variety of factors influencing the path from arrival to finishing state. Pricing, trends, sliding scales and grids all sway results. Average daily gains, along with projected feed efficiencies, must be tied to input availabilities, qualities and costs. Health considerations and previous realities, plus the downstream impact of mortalities may also tip the scales in helping determine positive or negative feeding margins post sorting. 

If using a technology-based system, it must be able to seamlessly adapt to the working conditions of the lot. 

“Sorting feedlot cattle on-arrival may be done effectively and efficiently for evenly weighted pens customized to the feedlot’s needs,” Burciaga says. “A system should bring the connectivity directly to the scale and scale head. It must be simple to use because that’s a limiting factor. If it doesn’t connect, or the data doesn’t flow easily, it’s an issue.”

Establishing a structured sorting protocol is an excellent beginning point but when limited to merely foundational aspects like weight without acknowledging outside influences or future conditions, it may be largely handcuffed in its successfulness and reach. The difference in value becomes the use of Ph.D. animal scientists and consulting veterinarians backed by large-pen commercial field trials to provide relevant insights. This allows the confirmation of optimal harvest dates taking market conditions and commodity pricing into consideration. 

“To capitalize on sorting opportunities we use insights, generated by 30 years of curated research by TELUS Agriculture consultants, to support production and marketing decisions,” Burciaga says. “We have a huge body of research focused on how to manage those populations, whether yearling or calf placements. We examine days on feed required after sorting, plus how to most cost-effectively use feed additives and implants in each post-sort population. This associated body of knowledge is where consulting value comes from.”

Find profitable endpoints in feedlot cattle

Use insights to capitalize on sorting opportunities

Matching marketing with risk management

Successful marketing should recognize the fed cattle market plus commodities and individual animal biology. 

As an example, Burciaga explains recent market conditions and price escalations have transitioned strategies from negative feeding margins, meaning producers were targeting early harvesting, to the current situation where incentives to feed animals longer may be advantageous, due to the market spread for June and July. 

A key value of consultation is in the capability of deciphering which pens and populations need to be marketed against a certain month or contract when hedging cattle, as several paths are available from a profitability standpoint. 

He says research indicates variation in weight increases concurrently with days on feed making sorting closer to the marketing date an effective method of optimization.

In the case of implant strategies following updated labeling regulations, timeframes should be re-evaluated to enhance terminal windows and minimize variations in finished carcasses. Understanding the value of days on feed and the impact of higher feeding margins can bring opportunity. 

“The biggest value isn’t coming from sorting the cattle, it’s how we differentiate and manage those populations to optimize profitability,” Burciaga stresses. “Marketing decisions backed by research take into consideration the current market conditions and biology of the animals being fed. Consulting veterinarians and nutritionists support the producers in determining optimal end points and adjust accordingly with the market and cost of production.”

Gathering individual and group information and data from fresh off the truck until marketing day is critical to a feedlot’s success. And while a basic sorting protocol, knowing which animals belong in which pen due to their weight is an excellent starting point. There may be more value in sorting when matching decisions to target endpoints, considering production technologies and market conditions, across the subpopulations.  

Sorting in a vacuum limits potential. Gate swings should take into account as many outside factors as possible, including nutrition, feed quality and availability, health realities, environmental limitations, genetic capabilities, response to production technologies, commodities, pricing and marketing. 

When these actions are backed by consultants using research to find optimal end points in feedlot cattle, and who add market conditions as the sliding scale to analyze data and research, data and information lead to opportunity and profitability.

Contributed by Bruce Derksen, freelance writer

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