The economics of raising ‘natural’ beef

Researchers are comparing conventional and other backgrounding systems and crunching the numbers


By Heather Smith Thomas, Canadian Cattlemen 

November 7, 2019


How much of a premium do producers need to cover the extra cost of backgrounding cattle without growth-enhancing technologies and can they offset some of that cost or improve carcass quality with other strategies?


Researchers are currently studying those very questions in a 2.5-year backgrounding study.


The backgrounding project is one of many feeding research projects at the Livestock and Forage Centre of Excellence south of Saskatoon, Sask. Researchers are looking at forage backgrounding calves using conventional and non-conventional (natural) beef production systems. Dr. Bart Lardner, Dr. John McKinnon and graduate student Janelle Smith are conducting the study. Kathy Larson is analyzing the finances of the systems. The study is currently in its second year.


Lardner, who is with the department of animal and poultry science, University of Saskatchewan, says this type of research is needed because of the challenges and changes to technology coming to the industry.


It’s well-established that using technologies such as implants or ionophores is more efficient and cost-effective, whether in a feedlot or backgrounding study, Lardner says. But the industry still needs to look at alternatives. Some folks want other choices, he says, and the beef industry needs those options.


If producers choose to not use growth-enhancing technologies, they must be prepared to keep animals longer. That means more feed and labour to produce the same product at higher cost. Thus they need to be paid more for the product.


“When we began, there was a lot of interest in looking at natural feed production systems and moving away from conventional systems that use growth-promoting technology — without realizing the economic impact of such a transition,” says McKinnon.


Researchers asked what premium would be needed if producers gave up technology that enhances growth and feed efficiency such as implants, ionophores and some of the medications commonly given.


“The first time we put in our application for a grant to look at this question, it was rejected because granting agencies thought we were promoting one production system over another,” says McKinnon. “So we applied again, a year later, emphasizing the economic aspects of the research, and added a twist. We proposed looking to see if we could enhance performance and quality of the animal by using extended backgrounding on grass prior to finishing.”


“We’ve been following a set of steers from weaning through slaughter, under three different management systems,” says Smith. Each year, researchers purchased a group of 240 black calves that had never received any growth-promoting technology. These steers were divided into heavy, medium and lightweight calves at weaning, and each group was further split into conventional or non-conventional management. The non-conventional groups had no growth-promoting technology.


At weaning, the heavy steers went directly into a finish program on full feed to slaughter weight, Smith explains. Medium steers went on a winter backgrounding program on a high-forage diet, preparing for spring feedlot entry to be fed to slaughter...


Extending the grazing season ... 


The forage advantage ...