Gerry Giggins: Why visiting a US feedlot was an eye opener - both good and bad
Last month I had the pleasure of attending the annual Alltech ONE conference in Lexington, Kentucky.
The state of Kentucky, and particularly the region surrounding the city of Lexington, is synonymous with the equine industry and has strong links with the industry here in Ireland.
The predominance of Kentucky Bluegrass pastures and the tradition of distilling bourbon meant it was a home away from home and the ideal location for the late Dr Pearse Lyons to set up his Alltech global headquarters.
Over 3,500 people from all over the world attended the conference. It was billed as an ideas event and I certainly left Lexington with plenty to ponder regarding the future of the Irish beef industry.
I was part of an Irish delegation that visited Texas and New Mexico on a pre-conference tour arranged by the Alltech Ireland team.
Texas is the second largest state in the United States and we visited the Panhandle which encompasses an area of level plains at an altitude of 1,200 meters in the northern part of Texas bordering the states of New Mexico and Oklahoma. This region is best described as what we in Ireland would picture as prairie land.
The presence of water in the form of underground aquifers, differentiates this part Texas from the majority of the state. The aquifers and resulting water availability mean that corn/ maize can be successfully grown under irrigation.
This maize grain is the main feed source for both livestock feed and ethanol fuel production plants.
During our trip we visited a dairy farm, Glanbia's sister company - Southwest Cheese, a livestock auction yard, Texas A&M University Research Feedyard, a family run cow/ calf operation and a feedyard.
Given my beef background, the visit to North American feedlots is always a learning experience, both good and bad.
The feedlot is one of the largest in the US, finishing 1.2m cattle per year (80,000 of which were finished at this feedlot).
There are 48 full-time employees in the feedyard, equating to one labour unit per 900 cattle on feed. Interestingly, this figure is one of the main key performance indicators used on American feedlots. Animals are sourced from Mexico, Florida, Nebraska and Colorado.
For that reason, there is a huge variation in the cattle breeds. Black cattle were predominant throughout the feedlot but these weren't all necessarily Angus cattle.
When it came to point of sale, these black cattle could be marketed as Angus and obtain the Angus breed premium.
Given the fact that animals aren't registered on national database at birth, and the lack of traceability on animal movement details, in many cases meant these cattle were of Black Limousin, Black Simmental and even Brahman type genetics.
Apart from the scale, the main drivers of profit on the feedlot were low labour costs, cheap maize grain, access to cheap feed by-products from ethanol production plants, the use of hormones and feed additives.
All maize grain fed to cattle was steam flaked in a purpose-built mill on the farm and is included at a rate of 20pc in the TMR.
Interestingly, the feeding of fine milled maize or maize meal was not practiced. Long fibre in the form of hay, straw or corn stalks is the scarcest feed material available to the farm. As a result, all finishing rations contain no more than 6pc long fibre, which would be unheard of here in Ireland.
Where we rely on long fibre to help regulate rumen conditions, usually above 10pc plus inclusion, the US systems are overcoming this challenge with the use of medicated rumen enhancers or feed additives that have been removed from the market in Europe over 20 years ago.
The biggest component in the finishing ration is moist maize distillers in a couple of forms from the ethanol plants, comprising over 60pc of the ration. One of these by-product feeds is branded as Ramp, which is mixed with the vitamins and mineral supplements.
Other ingredients used were glycerine and fat by-products from the food industry, one of which was rather amusingly branded as 'Yellow Grease', which was very aptly named from its appearance.
All cattle undergo a standard vaccination and worming protocol upon arrival on the farm and after a short rest period they receive the first of a two-shot hormone treatment.
Steers are carried for a 200 day feeding period, with heifers slightly shorter. The farm runs an all-in, all-out system on their 200 head pens.
Given the high specification of their finishing ration, limiting digestive upsets with the use of rumen enhancers and the enhanced performance from the use of Beta agonist, very plain feeder cattle at 300kg can comfortably double their live weight in a six-month period.
Feed conversion efficiencies were excellent at 6.5:1, although it was interesting to note that the farm management totally dismissed feeding Friesian/ Holstein steers because of their poor feed efficiency even given their access to hormones.
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