News / USA

Drought, Wildfires Have Beef Farmers Looking for Cheaper Feed

U.S. President Barack Obama (R) walks around the McIntosh family farm with the owners to view drought-ridden corn fields in Missouri Valley, Iowa, Aug. 13, 2012.
U.S. President Barack Obama (R) walks around the McIntosh family farm with the owners to view drought-ridden corn fields in Missouri Valley, Iowa, Aug. 13, 2012.
Tom Banse
The people who raise the cattle destined to become steak or hamburger on Americas’ dinner plates are feeling a serious financial pinch.

Recent wildfires scorched more than a million hectares of North American rangeland. In addition, a continuing drought in the American heartland is driving up the cost of hay, grains and other basic livestock feed.

Now, ranches and feedlots are looking to cut their feed costs in the short term while working to make the cattle more efficient in the long run.

Big expense

The cost of animal feed is by far the biggest expense on the ledgers of most beef farmers. Over the past several months, prices for a variety of feeds - led by corn, or maize - have flirted with record highs.

In the northwestern state of Washington, cattleman Jack Field is going to great lengths to postpone or avoid buying hay at current sky-high prices. It's so expensive, he's made plans to truck his small herd halfway across the state -more than 300 kilometers- then move them again later, to graze on crop stubble.

"The transportation is a little bit of a pain," Field says. "It is expensive, but by moving cattle around, if I can keep from having to feed hay, I can make that pencil-and-profit in my situation."

Fortunately for Field, none of the land he rented has been scorched by wildfires. But others are not so lucky. It's been a bad fire year in the USA.

Search for alternatives

Oregon State University beef scientist Tim DelCurto is working with ranchers and feedlot owners to analyze alternatives.

He says there are plenty of options for lower-cost feed, including grass-seed straw, distillers grains left over from ethanol fuel production, cannery waste and vegetable processing byproducts such as misshapen green beans, carrots and yes, even French fries.

"I think one of the unique attributes of beef cattle, and sheep fit this, too, unique attributes of ruminant animals is that they can digest virtually anything," DelCurto says.

He's in high demand as a guest speaker at seminars this autumn, offering cost-saving tips to cattle ranchers. The focus is on short-term solutions, but there’s plenty of interest in longer-term strategies, too.

Looking ahead

Agricultural research universities have taken note of the rising cost of fodder, and many are giving greater attention to an issue that experts call "feed efficiency."
University of Idaho Professor Rod Hill with part of the university's purebred herd (VOA/T. Banse)University of Idaho Professor Rod Hill with part of the university's purebred herd (VOA/T. Banse)
x
University of Idaho Professor Rod Hill with part of the university's purebred herd (VOA/T. Banse)
University of Idaho Professor Rod Hill with part of the university's purebred herd (VOA/T. Banse)

In a cattle barn at the University of Idaho, physiology professor Rod Hill points out sensors and electronic gates on feed bins. They allow him to track exactly how much food each cow eats.

Periodically, the cows also have to be coaxed onto a scale to calculate how efficiently each is converting fodder into meat, fat, bone and hide. Hill says the variation within a herd might surprise you.

"These animals, [to] your eye and mine, they look quite homogenous," Hill says. "But the variation in intake for animals growing at the same rate is of the order of thirty-five percent."

This is a case where cows and people have something in common.

"We talk to people who say, 'All I have to do is look at the candy store and I put on three pounds.' We don't actually quantify it quite so precisely in humans, but we know in humans that some people can eat a little and they put on quite a bit of weight and some people can eat a lot and hardly put on any weight. It's a biological phenomenon."

Selective breeding

A newly published animal science book that Hill edited explains how ranchers can use selective breeding to achieve the same growth with less feed or less environmental impact on rangeland. But he warns there is risk in focusing too much on one trait.

"Less efficient animals are slightly fatter. More efficient animals are slightly leaner. We wouldn't want to just go after efficiency and then forget about body composition. We wouldn't want animals to become too lean. That might reduce marbling in the product, especially in the quality cuts where the profit is."

In the not-too-distant future, Hill expects bulls at auction to carry a score for efficiency.

But that performance measure isn't widely available or standardized just yet. In the meantime, numerous ranchers - especially in the American Midwest - are thinning their herds to control costs.

A consequence is that starting next year, beef will be in tighter supply, and domestic and export customers can expect to pay higher prices.

You May Like

UN Ambassador Power Highlights Plight of Women Prisoners

She launches the 'Free the 20' campaign, aimed at profiling women being deprived of their freedom around the world More

Satellite Launch Sparks Spectacular Light Show

A slight delay in a satellite launch lit up the Florida sky early this morning More

Fleeing IS Killings in Syria, Family Reaches Bavaria

Exhausted, scared and under-nourished, Khalil and Maha's tale mirrors those of thousands of refugees from war-torn countries who have left their homes in the hopes of finding a better life More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOAi
X
August 31, 2015 2:17 AM
Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOA

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Iraq's southern wetlands are in crisis. These areas are the spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, and source of livelihood for fishermen and herders. Faith Lapidus has more.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Rebuilding New Orleans' Music Scene

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, threatening to wash away its vibrant musical heritage along with its neighborhoods, the beat goes on. As Bronwyn Benito and Faith Lapidus report, a Musicians' Village is preserving the city's unique sound.
Video

Video In Russia, Auto Industry in Tailspin

Industry insiders say country relies too heavily on imports as inflation cuts too many consumers out of the market. Daniel Schearf has more from Moscow.
Video

Video Scientist Calls Use of Fetal Tissue in Medical Research Essential

An anti-abortion group responsible for secret recordings of workers at a women's health care organization claims the workers shown are offering baby parts for sale, a charge the organization strongly denies. While the selling of fetal tissue is against the law in the United States, abortion and the use of donated fetal tissue for medical research are both legal. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.

VOA Blogs