How the Coronavirus Pandemic is Impacting Cattle Feeding Options

The market volatility associated with the coronavirus pandemic means that cattle producers must carefully consider their options when it comes to cattle they have on inventory.

The best choice for most cattle producers is to separate cattle by classes and evaluate all production and marketing options available. Decisions should then be based on things like cash flow, the availability of feedstuff and a cattle producer’s individual tolerance for risk.

For cattle that will be ready for market in the next three months or so increasing roughage content to slow the growth rate and prolong the feeding period is perhaps the best option. The risk here is if the feed industry fails to remain current. If this happens, there will be more heavy cattle getting heavier and requiring an outlet. The final result would be lower prices because the supply chain would be working through increased beef tonnage. Another concern is plant closures that would make it more difficult to deliver cattle. In most cases, producers would be better off shipping cattle on time instead of waiting for market improvements later in the year.

Producers of heavy background-lightweight finishing cattle might want to consider feeding these cattle a lower energy dense diet to slow gains and extend the feeding period. Of course, trade-offs come in the form of inferior efficiency and higher yardage costs. Still, this option would be worthwhile if the overall market improves. Feedlots with ample inventories of corn silage or other roughage sources on hand are the best candidates for this strategy. 

While it might seem like a good idea to forgo implanting as a way to lengthen the feeding period since implants increase average daily gain, implants result in cattle that are leaner and heavier at the same number of days. Therefore, the net result of not implanting cattle is that they would reach their fat target earlier and at a lighter weight.

Producers with light-weight cattle and forage resources might want to consider keeping these cattle in the drylot on a high forage diet, sending them to pasture for summer grazing or have them graze on annual forages. While this is uncommon, it could make sense in light of uncertainty surrounding crop production this year. Another upside is that these cattle would be ready for slaughter in the 4th quarter when seasonal prices are traditionally higher.

Finally, while carcass merit probably isn’t something producers are thinking about right now, it shouldn’t be ignored. Hot carcass weight tends to increase with extended feeding periods of lower energy diets when cattle are harvested at the same fat end point. Marbling can be reduced if energy intake is greatly limited or if cattle are implanted too aggressively. However, if cattle are gaining at about 2 to 3 pounds per day on lower energy diets, marbling shouldn’t be negatively impacted.

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