High corn prices changing livestock practices

Monday, August 22, 2011 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 11:40 a.m. CDT, Monday, August 22, 2011

COLUMBIA — High corn prices are forcing Missouri livestock producers to change their feeding practices. In addition to looking for substitutes to replace the corn used in feed rations, some are trying to fatten cattle faster than ever on less feed.

And as livestock producers face high prices, many are giving up, selling their cattle and turning pasture land into more lucrative corn fields.

Corn prices have risen steadily during the past year, and for the first time in 15 years, the price surpassed wheat, which has traditionally brought a higher premium than corn. Corn prices are being driven up by a number of factors, including increased global demand for the grain and increased ethanol production.

Monty Kerley, MU professor of ruminant nutrition, said Missouri livestock owners will increasingly turn to grain byproducts to keep their cattle gaining weight without straight corn rations.

Such byproducts are easy to find within the state. 

Six ethanol plants operate in Missouri, using 20 percent of the state’s corn crop and producing 825,000 tons of byproducts called distiller grains, according to the Missouri Corn Growers Association.

Distiller grains are the corn solids and water that remain after the corn has been processed and distilled to make ethanol fuel. The distiller grains don’t have the high starch content that is so useful in producing fat, but they do have a high protein and fiber content, Kerley said.

“Taste of meat comes primarily from fat,” Kerley said. “If you take the fat out of any meat — beef, pork, chicken, any meat — you won’t be able to tell the difference" between them.

Fortunately for beef producers, cattle, as ruminants, can process distiller grains in the diet with marginal changes to fat — and thus, meat taste. Instead, it’s the swine and poultry producers that struggle with the substitution of distiller grains for corn.

Marcia Shannon, MU professor of swine nutrition, identified corn oil, the fatty ingredient in distiller grains, as the culprit. 

“If you feed a lot of corn oil, which is high saturation fat, you get softer fat in pigs and most nonruminants,” she said. “The hottest pork product is bacon. Bacon is mainly fat and if that fat is soft, it’s undesirable for making bacon.”

With such a limit placed on the most accessible source of grain byproducts in Missouri, swine producers must get creative. “What they’ll do is try to feed as much distiller grains early on and then close to market week, say two to three weeks out, pull it out and turn to corn to get that quality back,” Shannon said.

Scientists, such as Shannon, must try to keep pace with such practices to try to ensure the quality of the nation’s pork supply. She was part of a 10-state MU study that examined feeding pigs distiller grains before switching to corn, but until the results are summarized later this fall, no one knows for sure what effect those attempts to cut costs will have on pork products.

“People like me and producers will have to be on top of finding cheaper sources of feed,” Shannon said.

Another common technique in cutting feed costs is trying to finish cattle faster on the same amount of feed.

“Beef feeders will use faster growing calves that they can butcher earlier, before they have developed enough fat to qualify for prime or choice,” Kerley said. “The carcass decline we’ve seen" in the cattle industry "is due more to high feed prices than distiller grains.”

When it comes to high corn prices, Jeff Windett, executive vice president of the Missouri Cattlemen's Association, is worried about more than simply meat quality.

The physically demanding nature of ranch work, unpredictable weather and an increasingly older age of producers have contributed to "a downward trend in the number of cows in the state of Missouri," Windett said, but high corn and soy prices have been even more influential.

“People think they can make more money raising corn or beans than keeping it in grass and feeding cattle on it,” he said.

According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, the number of beef cows in Missouri declined to 1,968,000 in 2010, from 2,116,000 in 2003. In Boone County, the number went from 19,000 to 15,200 head.

And between 2002 and 2010, Missouri farmers added 350,000 acres of corn — from 2,800,000 to 3,150,000. In Boone County, corn acreage increased from 22,000 to 25,700 during that time period.

The numbers tell only part of the story. “I think it’s sad to see that some of that land that is being converted is marginal, highly erodible land," Windett said. "I’d like to see it stay in grass, because it’s ideal for grazing opportunities. From a soil stewardship standpoint, I don’t like to see that land turned over.”

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