Raising Beef Cattle Naturally

Producers may receive a premium for cattle raised naturally, according to North Dakota State University (NDSU). The need for more return per calf has beef cattle producers looking at alternative production practices.
calendar icon 10 January 2010
clock icon 3 minute read

“Raising cattle naturally is a method that has attracted consumer demand,” says Mr Karl Hoppe, North Dakota State University Extension Service area livestock specialist at the Carrington Research Extension Center. “Not to be confused with organic beef production, the US Department of Agriculture has specific standards for raising cattle naturally.”

The “naturally raised claim for livestock” standard was published in the Federal Register in January 2009. The USDA’s naturally raised claim can be used for meat produced from livestock that meet the following conditions:

  • No growth-promoting products were administered to the animals.
  • No antibiotics (other than ionophores used to prevent parasitism) were administered to the animals.
  • No animal byproducts were fed to the animals.

Thus, to be considered as raised naturally, calves cannot be implanted with ear implants that stimulate growth via hormones or fed a beta agonist such as ractopamine or clenbuterol. Calves also cannot be treated with antibiotics individually or as a group via the feed or water.

If a calf is sick, it should be identified and separated from the naturally raised calves and treated with antibiotics or other appropriate therapy. But once the sick calf is treated with antibiotics, it no longer is considered to be naturally raised and cannot be sold as such.

Vaccinations that prevent disease and sickness are allowed and encouraged for naturally raised calves.

The type of feed programme, such as grass, corn, hay or silage rations, does not affect the naturally raised claim. However, feeds that contain animal byproducts are not allowed. Animal byproducts can come from a variety of sources, including a commercial protein supplement, mineral mix or animal fat. Most feed manufacturers have products that are identified as natural for use in raising cattle naturally.

During the summer, cows usually are provided a mineral mix while grazing pasture. If the mineral mix contains steamed bone meal as a calcium and phosphorous source, these calves no longer will be considered naturally raised since they had access to an animal byproduct while grazing with the cows.

Providing an ionophore to improve feed efficiency also is not allowed. Most creep feeds would have an ionophore included to help control bloat and improve feed efficiency, so calves eating a creep feed with an ionophore are disqualified from being classified as naturally raised.

“Most North Dakota-born calves are raised naturally up to weaning,” Mr Hoppe says. “With careful attention to guidelines, these calves may be continued to be raised as ‘natural.' ”

Raising cattle naturally is a lifetime claim. Therefore, producers need to keep records of treating sick calves at birth or early in life so that at weaning, those calves cannot be sold as naturally raised.

“Natural beef programmes have been increasing in popularity, and calves that qualify may bring premium prices,” says Mr Tim Petry, NDSU Extension Service livestock economist. “However, cow-calf producers sometimes become disenchanted with value-added programmes, including natural beef, because premiums are not consistent from one sale to another.”

A first step for producers considering marketing natural calves would be to talk to the market where calves usually are sold, he advises. The market can contact buyers and other producers who also may be marketing natural calves so that a sufficient number is available to encourage natural buyer attendance at a sale. Some markets hold special sales where natural calves are featured.

“Only one natural buyer at a sale may result in little or no premium, but several buyers can create the competition necessary for significant premiums,” Mr Petry says.

Premiums for raising calves naturally may not offset the loss in growth by not using ionophores, implants and other growth-promoting products, Mr Hoppe cautions. Producers need to carefully consider the costs and benefits of changing their management systems. However, a producer who already is managing the calves naturally may receive a higher selling price by making sure that the calves continue to be raised naturally.

“While raising calves naturally is not for everyone, those who can do it should seek out market channels to receive the extra premium,” Mr Hoppe says.

January 2010

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