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Feeding Cattle Conventionally versus on an All-Natural Program.

May 17, 2024

Jeff Pastoor

Beef Consultant

For years, the majority of cattle have been fed on a Conventional feeding program (using antibiotics, implants and ionophore) with a minority of cattle getting fed on a Natural program (no antibiotics, no implants, no ionophore) for a premium sale price.

When comparing the option to feed cattle on a Conventional program or a Natural market it is accepted the performance will be lower for the Natural cattle. To estimate how much lower, we have looked at the data from research on the individual technologies to estimate what the performance and economic differences might be.

The University of Saskatchewan recently published the results of a 27-month trial in the Applied Animal Science Journal that compared these two management options used on full pens of similar cattle.

240 head of Angus based, non-implanted cattle were purchased through an order buyer in 2017 and again in 2018 (for a total of 480 head). These cattle were further split into 3 groups based on in-coming payweight: Heavy (~638#) Medium (~543#) and Light (~471#) and then fed using Conventional management or Natural management. The same barley-based ration set was fed to all 6 treatments. For the 2 years on trial, there were 8 replicate pens on each treatment (4 pens each year).

On arrival, all of the cattle were vaccinated and the Conventional cattle were also given a prophylactic dose of Draxxin. After the Receiving period, the Conventional cattle were implanted as follows; a Ralgro every 60 days during the growing phase of the Light and Medium cattle, a single Revalor G during the grazing phase of the Light cattle, and a Revalor S every 80 days during the finish phase. The Conventional cattle were fed rations that contained Rumensin and Tylan. The data presented here have been converted from metric measurements.

Following a common 41 day Receiving period, the Heavy cattle were put on a Finish ration, the Medium cattle were put on a Grower Ration followed by the Finish Ration, and the Light cattle went on the Grower Ration and then had a Grazing phase prior to going on the Finish Ration. Here are the weights and days for the treatments (note that the Total DOF does not include the Receiving DOF as this was not part of the research period).

As expected, performance of the cattle was influenced by the treatment of a Conventional management versus a Natural management program.



The cattle were fed to a comparable finish weight, and were then harvested and 8 head from each group were analyzed for carcass merit. Non-implanted cattle typically grade better and have a higher back fat measurement; numerically there was less difference in marbling than one would expect, even though the differences were statistically significant. There was little difference by weight groups, so here are the results grouped by Conventional versus Natural cattle. The cattle were graded using the Canadian system, but there was enough data to calculate an approximate US Quality and Yield Grade result.

The Conventional cattle were fed Tylan in the TMR. This table shows the resulting liver abscess percentage rates for each group. The natural cattle had higher rates of liver abscesses and most of these differences were statistically significant.

The Conventional cattle all received Draxxin on arrival and had Tylan in the ration. Cattle in the Natural group were treated with an antibiotic as needed – if treated they stayed in the Natural group for the purpose of the trial data, but they would not be eligible for the Natural premiums in most programs. The following table shows the resulting Morbidity and Mortality in each group. The Mortality by group, and the Morbidity in the Heavy group were similar while Morbidity in the Medium and Light groups was greater for the Natural Cattle.

Financial analysis was done by entering the weight and performance data from above into the QLF Feedlot Management Value tool. The following table shows the assumptions used to do this analysis. Vet/Med/Processing includes vaccines, implants, feed additives, and treatments for sick cattle. The increased Other Costs per head on the Natural cattle is an estimated cost of the loss of premium from Natural cattle that were treated with antibiotics and could not be sold for a Natural premium, spread over all of the cattle in that group from cattle. The breakeven for both groups was calculated, then the difference was calculated to show the Natural Premium needed per cwt. While it is possible or likely calves purchased to feed Naturally would cost more, I did not have data to reference on the spread so they are priced the same. Due to the limited data and lack of difference in results, no difference was figured for carcass merit.

While conventional cattle had a definite (and expected) advantage in performance, the difference needed per cwt for Natural cattle falls within the range of premiums paid. USDA reports weekly on carcass premiums and the most recent report documented that Natural program premiums ranged from $24-50/cwt and averaged $33.28/cwt.

Feeding the Natural cattle to a common finish weight as the Conventional cattle is what allowed this profit per head to be as close as it was. If cattle in the two treatments were fed equal days, the difference in body weight would have given the Conventional cattle a much greater advantage.

The cost of these additional days is accounted for by the yardage, the interest, and the additional feed consumed in those days. However, if you look at profit on a per day basis instead of a per head basis to get a comparable ROI, the premiums will need to be greater.

As you can see, even when additional Premium per head is needed to get the same profit/head/day for the same ROI, these needed Premiums still fall within the range of $24-50/cwt reported by the USDA for All Natural Premiums and below the average of $33/cwt reported by the USDA.

Based on the data, feeding cattle on a Natural program appears to have some additional profit opportunity for those that have the ability and desire to pursue it. Every farm will have different outcomes, but this data from the University of Saskatchewan gives us the best overview we’ve had on this topic to date.

Whether you feed Conventional cattle or All Natural cattle, QLF has the products, programs, and consulting services needed to help you make the most out of your cattle.

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