Not too big… not too small.
“When taking cattle to market, condition does affect market price,” Dr. Shane Gadberry, University of Arkansas professor of animal science, told Ozarks Farm & Neighbor. “We have sale barn data we’ve looked at over three years, 2000, 2005 and 2010, and one thing we do notice is that over conditioned or fleshy cattle are discounted. That’s something to consider, especially if retaining ownership for a long period of time or using things like creep feeding.”
Thinner cattle, on the other hand, bring a premium, which Gadberry said is in part associated with the mindset of compensatory gain. But in exchange for that premium, your animal will tip the scales at a little bit lower weight. Therefore, an animal “that’s in good condition, not fleshy but just average condition, is probably going to be carrying a little bit more body weight, and therefore may bring a better price,” he said.
Gadberry said with feed costs so high, over conditioned calves are rare, well managed animals on a good plane of nutrition should be gaining at least 1.5 lb/day, perhaps as much as 2.0-2.5 lbs/day, but they’ll be developing frame and increasing muscle expression. “What would cause a calf to become excessively fleshy,” he said, “would be a combination of a very high-quality diet being fed to a calf that is very early maturing.” Those cattle may start to develop fat and carry extra condition at around 650 pounds of body weight; later maturing and larger framed animals are going to be converting more of their nutrients into frame growth and muscle development, so it would be later before external fat would become really noticeable.”
Dr. Justin Sexten, University of Missouri Extension specialist in beef nutrition, noted the goal is to put together a feeding program allowing calves to gain weight efficiently, but not at the cost of putting on excess fat early in the feeding period. “You’ve got a fair amount of leeway with different ingredients and feeding rates,” Sexten told OFN. “You don’t want to feed them so heavy they start laying down fat before they have an opportunity to grow. For many people who are backgrounding calves for 45 days after weaning and then go to market them, the likelihood those calves will get over conditioned is not very high. But if the calves have been on creep feed all summer and then they are fed for an extended period of time after weaning, you increase the likelihood those cattle will be carrying extra condition at market.”
He said the most important thing when you start managing the cattle is to have a market in mind. If the cattle will be sold through a named program, the producer should ensure they are as uniform as possible from a weight and condition standpoint, and should not overfeed them. It is also advantageous to get the cattle adapted to feed. “A bunk-broke calf is one of the more sought-after components in addition to a comprehensive health program,” Sexten said. With “cattle that are adapted to eating, we have the opportunity to minimize shrink in those calves, so the amount of weight that they lose through marketing channels tends to be lower with calves that are adapted to eating feed than those that are not.”
Not too big… not too small.