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Evolution in Cattle Feeding, Management and Consumer Demand

Producers who background and finish beef cattle have learned a lot over the past quarter-century thanks to research, including acquiring a better understanding of how nutrition plays into maintaining the health of the animals and meeting market demand. 

“There’s been a tremendous amount of research in this area,” says Dr. Karen Beauchemin, who is a retired principal research scientist of ruminant nutrition at the Lethbridge Research and Development Centre with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.  

BCRC 25 Years of Advancement Through Science

This is the third in a four-part series celebrating 25 years of industry investment into Canadian beef research and extension.  

Dr. Karen Beauchemin
Dr. Karen Beauchemin

Back in the early 1980s, Beauchemin remembers projects that showed how barley could be fed to cattle while avoiding acidosis. Under-processing the barley reduced its digestibility while over-processing it created greater fermentation in the rumen, producing more acid. Adding forage to the feed optimized rumination, avoiding acidosis.  

“We understood, finally, that we could feed barley safely, but we had to know how to process it properly,” she says, adding that the introduction of ionophores as feed additives also contributed to decreasing the risk of acidosis. 

Barley is now, generally, the grain of choice for feedlot operators across Western Canada, although other grains such as corn and wheat are fed depending on their availability and cost.  

Changes over the years

“Working more closely with nutritionists is the biggest change I’ve seen over the years,” says Jack Chaffe, who finishes about 3,000 head of cattle annually at his operation north of Mitchell, Ontario. He’s a fourth-generation producer who’s also president of the Beef Farmers of Ontario and vice president of the Ontario Cattle Feeders’ Association. 

beef producer walking along feed bunk with cattle
Ontario beef producer Jack Chaffe

He says feeding more by-products from distillers means it’s crucial to have a balanced ration as well as to use the expertise of nutritionists. 

Chaffe uses a wet fibre with syrup (FWS) on his operation, which is similar to wet distillers’ grain. 

“It has a little less protein, more fibre and less fat,” he says, adding that he’s also been feeding corn screenings since the mid-1980s. His farm’s location in the heart of southern Ontario’s crop country helps.  

“There are some falls where we’re taking screenings from five different elevators,” he says, noting that the quality can be variable from elevator to elevator, so he gets it tested, especially for protein and energy levels. 

Dr. John McKinnon
Dr. John McKinnon

Dr. John McKinnon says that finishing weights are heavier today.  

“In the 1980s, weights were about 1,200 to 1,300 pounds for steers, in the late ‘90s they were 1,350 to 1,400 and today, they’re up to 1,500 pounds and more,” says the professor emeritus at the University of Saskatchewan and consulting nutritionist. 

A lot of the change is related to genetics, “hotter” diets (with higher grain content), and more aggressive implant programs.  

Implants and additives

Growth promoting implants are used to increase cattle’s feed efficiency and weight gain and produce leaner carcasses.  

McKinnon says that, in addition to the 90-to-120-day implants of the past, there are implants now that are active for 200 days in the animal’s ear.  

“That gets us away from some re-implanting programs,” he says.  

One feed additive is used as a repartitioning agent in the last 20 to 40 days of finishing to move the animal’s metabolism away from fat deposition towards making muscle. 

“We’ve been able to have fewer cattle on feed but produce the same amount of beef as in the past, ” McKinnon says. “That means using fewer resources and producing fewer greenhouse gas emissions.”  

Another new feed additive he mentions is unique in that it reduces ammonia gas emissions from finishing animals, contributing to the industry’s environmental sustainability.  

Hotter diets

McKinnon says that, whereas feedlot cattle diets used to be 70 to 80 percent cereal grains, today they are at 80 to 95 percent.  

“We’re able to feed diets that are higher in energy,” McKinnon says. In Ontario today, producers are supplementing feed with corn distillers’ grains (DDGs), which have a higher gross energy content than the original corn used during the fermentation process. These by-products are also higher in protein. While corn is the primary grain, DDGs can also be wheat- or sorghum-based.  

truck feeding cattle at feedlot

“The feedlot industry in Ontario is almost based around the ethanol mandate, and we really felt it during the pandemic when DDGs were in tight supply,” Chaffe says.  

Corn DDGs are a by-product of ethanol manufacturing. In 2007, the Ontario government mandated that regular gasoline had to have at least five percent ethanol content. That amount was doubled in 2020 and is on track to rise to 15 percent by 2030. 

When COVID-19 hit, people stopped driving cars and buying gasoline, so the market for ethanol dried up too.  

“Producers were constantly on the phone to nutritionists trying to source different feedstuffs to keep a balanced ration,” he says. “There was about three weeks when there was next to nothing coming out of ethanol plants.”  

After a bit of a scramble in which some producers used protein substitutes like soybean meal or wheat shorts and corn for energy, drivers went back on the roads, ethanol plants revved up production again and the supply chain restarted. 

Many research projects into the effectiveness of DDGs as a feed ingredient have been conducted over the years, and many of them were funded by the Beef Cattle Research Council.  

McKinnon says that grain used for feed in Manitoba is mostly corn with some barley, depending on price and supply. In Saskatchewan it’s mostly barley, with some increasing use of corn silage. In southern Alberta, supply and price determines whether corn and/or barley is used.  

“In Western Canada, distillers’ grain is used as an energy and protein source in feedlots,” he says.  

Beauchemin says that cost is a big factor in what producers feed cattle.  

“The feedlot industry is very flexible, and it doesn’t rely on a single ingredient,” says Beauchemin. “The diets are very fluid in terms of price points for these various ingredients.” 

She cites everything from food that would otherwise be wasted from grocery stores and restaurants, to meal made from pressing canola into oil and newer hybrids of corn. 

On the last point, Beauchemin says there’s been a definite shift in Western Canada from barley silage to more corn silage over recent times.  

“In the early 1980s, you couldn’t grow corn silage in the west,” she says. “With climate change causing a longer growing season, along with hybrids that have been developed to grow in more northerly climates, it allows us to grow corn silage, which is higher in energy than barley silage and is generally higher yielding for dry matter.”  

In the last 10 years, a handful of larger feedlots in southern Alberta have begun installing steam flakers in their feed mills to further process both corn and barley. 

Feeding cattle ‘hotter’ or higher grain diets doesn’t come without its problems, and for that, the use of ionophores as feed additives has helped. 

“They help with feed efficiency, preventing bloat and controlling acidosis to some degree,” McKinnon says, adding that antibiotic compounds help control liver abscesses and digestive upsets.  

Feeding and bunk management also has improved over the years, including the number of times of day the cattle are fed, how that feed is put out in the bunk, how the bunks are called (the amount of ration in a particular pen) in terms of the cattle’s intake levels and more.  

McKinnon says that today, there’s a greater appreciation for the role of trace minerals like copper, manganese and selenium in the animal’s general metabolism and its immune response.  

He says the introduction of micro-machines has been a great leap forward in technology, providing an efficient method for adding vitamins, minerals and antibiotic supplements to feed.  

“In the past, they would need separate supplements for steers, heifers and weaned calves,” he says. “Micro-machines are controlled by computer and they mix supplements for every load of feed.” 

Canadian grade AAA stamp

Market Demand

McKinnon says that the lean meat yield on carcasses has decreased over the past 25 years. 

“We’re feeding for more marbling, but at the same time, we’re getting carcasses that are overall fatter than what we were seeing 25 years ago,” he says, adding that the market is not looking for either A or AA grade beef, but looking instead for AAA or higher grades

Thanks to improved feeding practices in recent decades, beef quality has improved and, consequently, consumer demand for Canadian beef has increased. 

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