Visit Date: 29th March 2016
Location: Coalinga, California
Visiting one of the largest feedlot operations on the western coast of the US, I learned about beef production on an unimaginable scale when our Nuffield Group were lucky enough to be hosted by the Harris Feedlot Company.
Covering nearly 800 acres, the Harris Feedlot is located within California’s San Joaquin Valley, and has a capacity to produce 250,000 head of fed cattle per year.
The cattle are held in outdoor pens with shade from the intense sun and on an earth floor. Metal railings and wires separate the pens, with feed aisles between. On the day we visited, there were 85,000 head of cattle across the 1.25 square mile site, with an expectation that as summer came along and the spring grass disappears, the feedlot would fill up to its full capacity of 125,000 head.
Something that makes California’s feedlot sector unique is that many of the cattle on the feedlot operations are not traditional beef breeds. California has a huge dairy industry, with milk ranking as one of the top commodities in the state, and thus many of the steers sent to feedlots are of dairy herd genetics, predominantly Holstein. The feed to slaughter ratio for Holsteins is less advantageous compared to traditional beef breeds, but they can grade well and will be as good in quality as traditional beef breeds if feeding is managed appropriately. As a result, Holstein cattle make up a significant portion of U.S. beef market.
After typically spending 9 to 14 months grazing on range or pastureland, the cattle are thereafter transported to Harris Feedlot where they will spend 3 to 4 months to reach a finished weight of approximately 1,250 pounds, 565 kilograms. The final stage of the feed strategy prior to slaughter will focus on efficient growth and weight gain of the animals. This is achieved by providing a readily digestible, high energy diet.
Substantial forage with grains in finishing rations can lead to substantial improvement in feed efficiency. Steers fed higher grain diets grow faster, finish sooner and produce heavier, fatter carcasses. On our tour, we learned that the type and quality of grains and the balance of essential nutrients, like vitamins, proteins and trace minerals significantly impact feed efficiency. In order to prevent rumen acidosis, it is necessary to adjust cattle from forage based diets to high energy based rations appropriately and Harris implement a strict feeding programme.
Digestibility of grains like corn, barley and oats is improved when grains are processed. By cracking the outer shell of the grain, rumen microbes are better able to utilize grain starch and minerals. Processing also allows grain to be mixed with supplements, and affects palatability and passage rates. The feeding programme is strictly monitored as processing grains too finely, also leads to rumen acidosis.
A feedlot operates by reducing the amount of energy expended to find food, and through restricting movement, more energy is able to be expended on growth. Articulate management of cattle within a feedlot environment is vital to minimize stress and health problems, and this was something which Harris Feedlot were keen to emphasis was at the very heart of their operation.
The beef division of Harris Ranch annually produces and markets in excess of 200 million pounds 91,000 tonnes of beef, making the organisation, the largest, fully integrated beef operation in California. Harris Ranch beef is marketed throughout the western coast of the US.
For me, this visit was a real eye opener purely due to the vast scale of the operation, and the fact that it is so different to UK beef production.