Selection Criteria for Home Raised Beef
Many rural consumers are switching from multiple trips to the grocery store or local butcher shop to bringing their own cattle in for custom processing. Provided the consumer has access to large areas of available freezer space as well as the ability to afford the upfront cost, this may be an economic way to supply a family with high-quality protein. Following is a guide to selecting the proper animal to feed out for harvesting freezer beef.
Importantly, it should be noted that not all cattle are born with equal abilities to provide the same quantity and quality of edible product. Variables such as diet, age, genetics, breed, and environment all play into cutability and palatability of the beef product. How these previously mentioned phenotypic and genotypic qualities are managed, determines the quality of the final product.
The first step to feeding cattle for terminal outcomes is selecting the breed type of cattle you plan to feed. Cattle breeds can be broken into two categories, those utilized for dairy production and those for beef production. While dairy cattle, such as Holsteins, are regularly fed out for their meat, it should be noted that these breeds may yield less overall consumable product, and produce a smaller steak size, often due to their larger frame size and lower genetic ability to develop muscle. However, beef from a dairy type animal can still be a high quality product that creates a great eating experience.
Common beef breeds for terminal uses consist of: Black/Red Angus, Herefords, Charolais, and Simmental. These breeds, or a composite breeding of them, are common breeds of cattle found across the United States. Breeds such as Angus and Herefords are British breeds and may be lighter muscled than continental breeds, but generally have higher qualities of meat. Whereas Charolais and Simmental, are Continental breeds, and are known for their lean/heavy muscling capabilities.
When selecting a feeder calf, begin with the end goals in mind. If you have a certain date that you would like to harvest the calf, be sure to calculate approximate harvest date. When figuring 3 pounds of gain per day, and a 1300–1400-pound finishing weight. Use the current weight of the animal and calculate the number of days it will take to reach its finished date. (e.g., If it is 300 pounds away from finishing, with an average daily gain of 3 pounds, it will be ready for harvest in 100 days)
Once the breed and size of the animal you plan to feed have been narrowed down, the actual selection of the animal can begin. It is recommended to find a reputable seller and know the health history of the calf intended for harvest. Veterinary records and health information such as knowing if the calf is bunk broke and how long it has been weaned can help determine the health status of the animal. Buying a calf that has just been weaned can be detrimental to its health and start off on the wrong foot, especially if that calf is placed in a co-mingled environment such as a sale barn.
After determining health status, the next thing to evaluate is the structure and frame of the calf. When evaluating structure, begin with the legs and feet of the calf. A feeder calf that is sound on its feet and legs should be straight up and down from the front and rear view, with all four hooves pointing forward, and possess an even claw set. The ideal pastern set of a feeder calf is 45 degrees from the side view, most cattle are not perfect in the set of their pastern, but it should be noted to avoid feeding cattle that are either too straight or too sickle-hocked. If the calf has a bad limp, abscess, or is lame on any of its extremities, it is likely to advise against purchase, as these will likely be exacerbated as the animal grows.
Cattle are sorted based on a standard grading system. The grading system utilizes frame size and width to determine thriftiness. Frame size is simply broken down into large, medium, and small frame. A large frame, market ready steer will finish around 1300-1400 pounds. Heifers will mature quicker, and finish lighter (~1200-1300 pounds). A larger frame calf takes longer to reach its terminal end point but will yield larger steaks and greater amounts of trimmable product.
Grades for the thickness of feeder cattle are broken down into five groups. A number one grade feeder calf is primarily a beef bred animal and must be moderately thick throughout, round through the back and loin with moderate width between the front and rear legs. Grades 2-4 are still considered thrifty but are lighter muscled and narrower as the grade increases. They are narrower based, lighter muscled, and have a low dressing percentage. The fifth grade is ‘inferior”, just as it sounds, these cattle are not expected to perform or finish at a grade. These cattle potentially have any combination of frame size and width.
Now that you have an idea of the animal that you would like to select, it is time to begin your feeding project. For more information on raising home sourced beef, call Connor Biehler at (402) 624-8007 or visit bigredbeeftalk.unl.edu.
Interviews with the authors of BeefWatch newsletter articles become available throughout the month of publication and are accessible at https://go.unl.edu/podcast.