Rapid Progress in Canada's Beef Industry

Historically, the beef industry has been considered slow to change and adopt new technologies or management strategies. But is this still the case? Feedlot management is intensive and increasingly sophisticated. These operations are supported by a team of professionals including nutritionists and veterinarians. Feed rations are balanced and fine-tuned for cost effective performance. And some of these operations are using advanced computerized systems to monitor feed and water intake and animal weight on a daily basis. Information on carcass measures is starting to flow back to feedlots. Together, these indicate a high level of technology adoption and innovation in the feedlot sector.

In contrast, the cow-calf sector, which is based on extensive production practices, has generally been guided by the principle of minimizing costs in a low input/ low output system. To a large extent this has restricted the application of new technology. More recently, however, there seems to be an accelerated trend of adoption of progressive practices such as more intensive grazing management, extending the grazing season and out-wintering of cows. Do these observations indicate a new pace of change in the cow-calf sector?

Survey of Management Practices

A recent research paper by Sheppard and coworkersi provides an excellent evaluation of the rate of change of some management practices on Canadian beef farms. The 5 year time frame of the study is a very short interval for measuring management changes on an industry wide basis, so any significant changes would be very notable.

The data for this study was collected by surveying beef operations across Canada in 2005 and again in 2011 (see original paper for details of survey and analysis). Participants were selected to provide cross-sections of operations by size and type in each region. There were a total of 1380 operations sampled in 2005, and 1009 in 2011. Table 1 gives a breakdown of the data by type of operation.

Table 1. Number of operations sampled by type and year.

Operation Type
Not specified
25 (1.8%)
Finish only
140 (10%)
33 (3.3%)
Background only
69 (5.0%)
46 (4.6%)
Finish and background
25 (1.8%)
12 (1.3%)
Cow-calf only
824 (60%)
575 (57%)
Cow-calf + finish
51 (3.7%)
22 (2.2%)
Cow-calf + background
175 (13%)
261 (26%)
C-c + bkgrd + finish
71 (5.1%)
60 (5.8%)
Total operations
1380 (100%)
1009 (100%)
Total cattle
Median # hd per operation

The majority of operations surveyed were cow-calf only (60% in 2005 and 57% in 2011), more than double the percentage of the next ranked type, cow-calf + backgrounding. There were proportionally fewer large feedlots in 2011.

The surveys collected information on a large number of parameters including types of forages grown, their harvesting and storage methods, grazing management, fertilizer use, manure storage and spreading, feedlot rations, structures and shelterbelts. For this article, only a selection of practices are discussed (see original paper for full analysis).

Initial analysis showed that in general, the significant geographic differences were among 4 regions (see Fig. 1):

  1. Atlantic
  2. East Region (southern Quebec and Ontario)
  3. Boreal Shield (northern areas, Newfoundland to Saskatchewan)
  4. Prairies (areas of Manitoba to British Columbia).

Map of Canada showing geographic regions

Figure 1. Regions of comparisonii.

Unchanged Practices

Improved grazing management has been a long term focus of extension due to its benefits in improving carrying capacity and feed quality. On a national basis, the % of operations using rotational grazing was high (70%) in 2005, and similar to 2011 (tame=75%; native=65%). This shows that increased grazing intensity is well accepted by beef producers, with two thirds to three quarters of operations utilizing it.

In addition, a very low % of operations (6-11%) supplied supplemental feed on pasture June-August, showing that during the growing season pasture was adequate to meet the needs of most cattle.

Although unchanged within region, there was a dramatic difference between the East and Prairies in the proportion of hay stored under cover (tarp or roof). In the East about 75% of bales were covered, vs only 15% in the Prairies. This reflects the much wetter climate in the East, which leads to excessive spoilage of uncovered bales.

The % of operations harvesting perennial forages with either a 1-cut or 2-cut system was constant across years (1-cut=66%; 2-cut=28%). In addition, the vast majority (94%) of operations in both years stored solid manure in uncovered piles, while about 29% of the manure was covered after tillage incorporation.

Practices That Changed

Forage management

Increasing legume content is promoted to improve forage quality and quantity, reduce the need for N fertilization and improve growth during dry periods. On a national basis, there was a 48% increase in legume-dominant perennial forages (Table 2). Both the East and the Prairies followed this trend with numerical increases (+12% and +60%).

On a national basis, there was a large, significant decline in the use of nitrogen fertilizer on forage acres (25-50% less). In the East region, N usage on both annual and perennial forages was reduced by about 50%1. In the Prairies, there was an apparent decline in use of N on perennial forages, while N use on annual forages appeared to increase1. It is likely that at least some of the reduction in fertilizer N applied was due to increased legume content, although the study authors also point out that lower fertilizer prices in 2005 could account for some of the change.

Forage silage management showed a major shift away from bunkers to the use of plastic covered bales and silage bags (PBSB). Nationally, in 2005, the PBSB use for all forage types was 24%, with the remainder in bunker silos. This contrasts with 2011 when PBSB was 64% for perennial forage crops and 30% for annual crops. Although not evaluated statistically, the trends in the East and Prairies reflected the national picture for perennial forage, with PBSB use in 2011 more than double that for the combined value in 2005. In 2011, the East region had a significantly greater use of PBSB for annual forage silage than the Prairies (36% vs 21%).

1 not tested statistically

Table 2. Forage management practices in 2005 and 2011.

Attribute East Prairies Canada
% forage fertilized with Mineral N
2005 51a 41b 44 x
2011 (perennial) 19a 19 a 20 y
2011 (annual) 27 a 53 b 31 y
% of perennial forage that was >50% legume
2005 49 a 32 b 34 x
2011 55 a 51 a 48 y
of all ensiled forage, the % plastic covered bales or in silage bags (remainder in bunkers)
2005 18 a 21 a 24 x
2011 (perennial) 57a 46a 64 y
2011 (annual) 36a 21b 30 x

a,b Values in the same row with different superscripts are statistically different.

x,y Values in the same column, for a given attribute, with different superscripts are statistically different (p<.001)

Prairie Region

A higher number of respondents in the Prairie Region allowed more detailed analysis, with a few of the results shown in Table 3. Winter grazing has been an extension focus as it can lower both feed costs and expenses related to manure management. Winter grazing in the Prairies increased dramatically in 2011, by a factor of 1.8X over 2005 (an increase of 180%). This shows very rapid adoption of a progressive management strategy.

The % of feedlots using shelter structures increased by 43%, while the % of feedlots with no roof cover decreased by 36%. This could imply that more feedlots were investing in roofed shelter; however it could also be due to the reduced number of large feedlots in the 2011 sample, which tend to use mounds and windbreaks. It is possible that some of the increase in shelters could reflect a greater use of windbreaks, but this was not specifically included in the survey.

Table 3. Prairie region winter grazing and feedlot shelters.

Attribute 2005 2011
% of all cattle using winter grazing 24a 67b
% feedlots using shelter structures 63a 90b
% feedlots with no roof cover 88a 56b

a,b Values in the same row with different superscripts are statistically different (p<.001)

Winter Grazing of Cows on a Regional Basis

Extending the grazing season has been a popular research and extension topic, resulting in large cost savings through reduced forage harvesting, transport and manure handling. It has been shown to be feasible in many locations across Canada but its use may be restricted due to wet soil conditions and excessive snow cover. Figure 2 gives a measure of its adoption with cows, on a regional basis. Winter grazing was at a high level of adoption (57%) in the Prairie Region in 2005 and increased significantly to about 86% in 2011, and also increased significantly in the Boreal Shield Region. The Atlantic and East Regions followed this trend, but the change was not significant. This shows a very high level of adoption on a regional basis of a strategy which is particularly well suited to the drier areas of the West.

Bar graph showing ration of winter/summer grazing by cows on the left hand legend and years 2005 and 2011 on the right hand legend. The letters A, E, BS and P are listed along the bottom legend from left to right.

Figure 2. Ratio of winter/summer grazing of cows by region.


Over a very short (5 yr) time span, beef operations in Canada showed rapid adoption of several progressive strategies and technologies. It is likely that this was partially stimulated by the occurrence of BSE in 2003 which severely depressed prices. The beef industry demonstrated a much greater capacity for technology adoption over a short time frame than has been traditionally assumed.

i Sheppard, S.C., S. Bittman, D. Macdonald, B.D. Amiro and K.K. Ominski. 2016. Changes in land, feed and manure management practices on beef operations in Canada between 2005 and 2011. Can. J. Animal Sci. (in press).

ii Sheppard, S.C., S. Bittman, M. Beaulieu, and M. I. Sheppard. 2009. Ecoregion and farm-size differences in feed and manure nitrogen management: 1. Survey methods and results for poultry. Can. J. Animal Sci. 89: 1-19.

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