High feed costs in recent months have made it attractive to "grow" cattle to heavier weights and feed them fewer days than usual, but there are factors to consider, a Kansas State University animal scientist said.

"Americans and most export customers are accustomed to the taste and tenderness of `grain-fed´ beef," said Michael Dikeman, meat scientist with K-State Research and Extension. "Over the years, cattle feeders have fed cattle high-grain diets to attain maximum performance and near-maximum marbling. We have created a consistent product that consumers like and have come to expect."

In a presentation prepared for K-State´s Beef Stocker Conference Oct. 2, Dikeman said that little research has been done to study the effects of leaving cattle on forage for longer periods and of feeding grain for a shorter period than is typically done in the United States. What studies have been conducted, however, show that marbling - the fat that runs through the muscle and makes beef tender and juicy - can be negatively affected by restricting energy early in an animal´s life.

Feedlots have traditionally fed cattle high-grain diets for 120 to 180 days prior to slaughter to attain maximum performance, maximum dressing percentage, near-maximum marbling, and carcasses with white fat and bright meat color, he said.

The consequences of feeding cattle less than 100 days, Dikeman said, may include:

Higher fixed costs per unit of weight gained,

Lower dressing percentage,

Reduced marbling,

Yellow fat,

Less attractive meat color,

Altered taste and tenderness, and

Less total output per animal.

Studies show that an alternative some producers are considering - feeding wet distillers grains (DSG) and dry corn - also comes with factors to consider, he said. They include:

A 40- to 50-percent increase in polyunsaturated fatty acids in meat from cattle fed higher levels of wet DSG from corn,

More rapid lipid oxidation while meat is on retail display;

Compromised color stability and a 10- to 50-percent reduction in shelf life, and

Increased off-flavor intensity ratings (although high dietary Vitamin E can neutralize this).

A large study conducted by K-State researchers found, however, that there were no negative effects on meat quality from feeding cattle steam-flaked corn and 25 percent dry DSG.

"There are potential advantages to feeding cattle for less than 100 days," Dikeman said. "There may be more economical weight gains from cattle´s `harvesting´ forage or fed forages. Harvested forage prices have not exactly followed corn prices."

But, research has shown, he added, that a minimum of 60 days on a high-energy (grain) diet is necessary to avoid yellow fat and to optimize the meat color that shoppers have come to expect.

"Feeding only 60 days is not long enough for a high level of vitamin E to be effective," the animal scientist said. "Without high Vitamin E for more than 100 days, meat quality problems could occur."

Dikeman encourages producers to pre-plan by having a market for cattle before making the decision to feed only 60 to 70 days.

"Know what possible negative consequences there might be for reduced marbling, reduced dressing percent, less-than-white fat, reduced shelf-life of meat color, and off flavors," he said. "Meat processing companies may be biased against short-fed cattle."

Dikeman outlined possible feeding and management options for heavy feeder cattle. They included:

Feeding DGS and/or grain for more than 60 days while cattle still are on grass,

Feeding DGS and/or grain for more than 60 days while cattle still are on grass and following with the cattle´s spending 40 to 50 days in the feedlot, or

Grazing cattle to heavier weights on grass or forage and then feeding DGS and/or grain for more than 100 days.

"Cattle producers are in the food business," Dikeman said. "The goals are to make a profit and to produce cattle and beef that processors, retailers, purveyors and consumers will continue to buy."