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Intensive feeding systems for beef production in developing countries

P. Auriol

World demand for beef is increasing more rapidly than supply, which grew at only 2.3 percent a year in the decade 1963–72. With few exceptions, this is true of both developed and developing countries. In the coming decade there is every reason to expect an increasing gap between supply and demand for this commodity.

Associated with the growing world shortage, the progressive increases in market prices (4.5 percent per year over 1963–72) are offering better opportunities to public and private investors to embark on more intensive forms of beef production. Many of the traditional agricultural export commodities of the developing countries have been difficult to place on the world market at fair and regular prices. These uncertainties have induced governments to look for other exportable products, and beef is certainly one that offers a promising future.

P. Auriol is Beef Cattle Production Officer in the Animal Production and Health Division, FAO, Rome.

Systems of beef production

While in the developed countries production of quality beef is usually achieved through the feeding of high-energy rations to young animals (6 to 30 months old), the bulk of the beef produced in the developing countries still comes from rather extensive systems. The main systems of production, and various combinations of them, can be identified as follows.

Extensive systems

The breeding, raising, growing and finishing activities are operated by the same people on virtually the same grazings in extensive systems of beef production. This occurs in most of the pastoralist areas of Africa and is also adopted by some ranchers in Latin America. Under this system meat is often a by-product of milk production, and beef output may be as low as 7 kg per hectare per year on a carcass basis; acceptable carcass weights (equal to or above 150 kg) can only be achieved when steers are 5 years or older. The animals stay in good condition for only 3–4 months of the year following the end of the rainy season. The small gain accumulated in these months is often partly lost (up to 25 percent) when stock are trekked over several hundred kilometres to slaughterhouses, which are usually located near large urban centres. However, in such a system the production costs, except those for watering the animals, are practically nil.

Mixed farming systems

In the past this was the traditional system of beef production in many parts of Europe. Small farmers kept young males and some culled heifers for feeding and finishing, and fed them on home-grown fodder. Fattening and finishing of work oxen was also an important source of beef. Under the mixed farming systems practised today, the feeder cattle are usually, but not always, produced on specialized breeding and raising farms located on poorer land or land unsuited to intensive farming.

Specialized feeding and finishing systems

Under these systems specialists, not necessarily farmers, undertake the last phases of the beef production chain-feeding and finishing. The systems vary according to the principal feed ingredient used: grass, fodder, silage, grain, or industrial by-products. The operation of growingfinishing activities independently of breeding and rearing leads to job specialization, which is usually accompanied by a zoning of the beef industry as a whole. The breeding-rearing phase may be linked to dairy production.

Present situation in developing countries

With a few exceptions such as Argentina, southern Brazil and northeastern Mexico, there is no significant specialized growing-finishing beef industry in the developing countries. There are several reasons for this. One is that, until recently, traditional or nonspecialized beef production has been able to cope with the rather low internal demand for meat, and sometimes also with the demands of a significant export market. Also, for social and historical reasons, livestock-keeping communities have often been kept apart from the general run of country development, and in many cases are not used to farming. They generally inhabit areas where the climate precludes cropping. Likewise, traditional farmers are often not interested in livestock raising and could not produce, with their limited resources, both food for their family and feed for animals.

Under these circumstances it is not surprising that very few mixed farming systems have evolved in the developing countries. The lack of contact and of mutual confidence between pastoralists and other people has not encouraged the development of a specialized beef-fattening industry based on store cattle bred on the semiarid rangelands. Transport difficulties (young animals cannot be trekked as easily as mature ones and the road network is often insufficient to permit cheap trucking) have also considerably impeded such development. The absence of regular surpluses of cereal grains, low local prices for beef, the lack of any carcass grading system and of the expertise needed to operate large feedlots have been further contributory factors. However, over the past two decades there has been considerable change in the developing countries. Many have seen their beef imports increasing from year to year; in others, beef exports have been decreasing at a time when they needed more foreign exchange. Steady increases in prices have pushed beef to the forefront in world markets, while many other agricultural commodities have passed through critical periods. Agro-industries have grown rapidly and a much higher percentage of raw materials is now transformed locally leaving quantities of valuable by-products. With the present price trend on the market for such by-products as oilseed cakes it is indeed tempting to export them, and certainly easier than transforming them locally into meat. However, considering the added value that could be obtained through this transformation, governments could aim at a gradual reduction of these exports, while supporting their local use. More efficient techniques for beef production have been evolved(Antic, 1972; Campion, 1973; Creek, 1971; Huebl, 1973; Laurie et al., 1973; Preston et al., 1967) and are ready for mass application.

Two kinds of country may be recognized in the context of these developments: those where rangelands and natural pastures are near full exploitation or are already overgrazed, and those where large tracts of land still exist where beef production could be introduced and developed. In the latter, the problem of increasing beef production is relatively simple and would involve the expansion and development of the necessary infrastructure in the form of a network of roads, provision of water, and so on; there would be no immediate need for the introduction of new techniques for intensification of the industry. Parts of Argentina. Brazil and Peru are good examples of this kind of situation. But where traditional pasture lands are already near over-exploitation, as in many African countries, and where they are shrinking every year due to erosion and the unjustified expansion of marginal rain-fed cereal production, as in the Near East, or due to the expansion of food crops as in parts of Africa, an increase in beef production under traditional systems is no longer possible.

Better management of existing rangelands would certainly lead to increased production of fodder and meat, but it must be recognized that this is a long-term approach under prevailing socioecological conditions. In any case, it is difficult to envisage improved range management without a decrease in the present livestock populations. The introduction on a large scale of industrial systems involving feedlot techniques seems to be the only way to solve the dilemma: how to increase beef production while reducing cattle numbers grazing the rangelands.

The beef cow/calf operation: a long and risky one… for a small profit.

Calf production under low rainfall-in this part of northeast Mexico average rainfall is approximately 280 mm. Yet with very sound management the owner of this ranch, specialized in the production of weaned calves, obtains an 85 percent calf crop with purebred Hereford cows sired by Hereford bulls. First calving takes place at 24 months, without supplementary feeding… but there is only one cow per 20–25 hectares.

Advantages of industrial feeding systems

Where appropriate, the introduction of industrial feeding systems on a sufficiently large scale will normally make the whole beef industry more efficient. Increased efficiency of the breeding-rearing phase would be achieved if weaners were sold to intermediate growers or directly to feedlot operators, thus leaving the usually limited amount of feed available on the range for the beef cow/ calf operation. This would facilitate the maintenance of larger breeding herds and increased production per beef cow; more calves and heavier weaners could be obtained. There would also be increased efficiency in the growing-finishing phase, due to higher daily liveweight gains, better feed conversion and the shorter period involved. Various combinations of these three factors are shown in the graph below.

In traditional extensive systems where animals are killed at 6-7 years of age at a liveweight of 400 kg, as much as 85 percent of the feed is used for maintenance. In slightly more intensive systems, combining a less primitive breeding and rearing phase with an intensive feedlot period (say, for 150 days achieving a final weight of about 400 kg at 36 months), two thirds of the feed is used for maintenance and one third for growth.

In more intensive systems, with improved feeding in the first year followed by a 12-month raising phase on better pastures and a 3-month intensive feedlot period (animals killed at approximately 29 months when weighing some 435 kg), maintenance requirements are around 63 percent. Intensive feeding usually permits a considerable increase of the dressing percentage, which rises from 45 to 55 or even 60 percent in some cases. Expressed in feed units, the energy requirments for producing 1 kg of carcass are, in the above examples, 39, 15 and 13 feed units respectively, using similar genetic material. This means that efficiency of meat production, on a carcass basis, can be increased threefold. With some improved beef breeds or suitable crossbreds it should be possible to increase this efficiency even further. Differences between various breeds in their feed efficiency, under the same conditions, can be as large as one to three. When one considers the ability of animals to transform feed into red meat, which is what really matters, then this difference is even greater. A specialized large beef breed is able to produce 1 kg red meat with half as much feed as a breed like the Friesian (when animals are killed at 15 months and 420 kg liveweight) although the latter does achieve the same growth rates (Beranger and Malterre, 1972). Until recently there were doubts regarding the ability of many local breeds, particularly of the zebu type, to convert feed into meat efficiently. From various studies conducted in the 1960s it now seems clear that these doubts were not justified. With few exceptions, local cattle are capable of achieving satisfactory growth rates with acceptable feed conversion efficiencies. However, there is a great potential for progress in the utilization of genetically superior animals, although practical considerations make the introduction of improved genetic stock difficult in the harsh environments prevailing in many developing countries.

In highly intensive systems even shorter production cycles can be achieved, through a combination of high genetic potential with optimum feeding and management. A good example of this is the production of the Italian vitellone, a 13 to 15-month-old bull weighing some 450 kg using only 7 feed units to produce 1 kg of carcass (see graph).

Effects of feediot feeding on growth pattern and feed conversion efficiency.

A. Primitive extensive beef production (natural pastures without any feed supplementation, unimproved breeds); age at slaughter: 6–7 years; 85 percent of feed needed for maintenance only; feed conversion rate: 39 feed units/kg carcass.

A1. As above, but 180 days in feedlot starting when animals are 2.5-3 years old (Mokwa cattle ranch system, Nigeria).

B. Primitive breeding, slightly improved rearing, unimproved breeds; feedlot for 150 days; age at slaughter approximately 35 months; 66 percent of feed needed for maintenance only; feed conversion rate: 16 feed units/kg carcass.

C. Improved breeding and rearing (based on improved pasture, unimproved breeds); feedlot for 150 days; age at slaughter: 30 months; 63 percent of feed needed for maintenance only; feed conversion rate: 13 feed units/kg carcass.

D. Very intensive production (Italian vitellone - early weaning, no pasture phase, high energy ration from birth to slaughter; specialized beef breeds or crossbred bulls); age at slaughter: 13–14 months; 54 percent of feed for maintenance; feed conversion rate: 7 feed units/kg carcass.

Finishing of N'dama steers on natural pasture on a state ranch, central Ivory Coast.

A further advantage of industrial feeding systems is the possible utilization of agro-industrial by-products and crop residues which would otherwise be misused or wasted. Thus, sugarcane molasses used in a beef feedlot can be worth twice as much as when exported, and steam and pressure-treated bagasse would be worth four to six times more when fed to beef cattle than when used as fuel.

Industrial feeding systems also help to regulate meat supplies through the year and ensure greater homogeneity of the finished product, easier marketing of finished cattle, and considerably reduced assembling costs. Feeder cattle are easy to control in feedlots and the system fits well into the disease-free zone concept.

Another important consideration is that feedlot projects are likely to attract more private and external financing, not only because they can be operated as purely industrial projects but also because money turnover is relatively rapid, and there is little need for large investments in buildings and equipment. Indeed, climatic conditions in many developing countries permit building investments to be reduced to a minimum.

Prerequisites to the establishment of a feedlot industry

The creation of a sound feedlot beef industry calls for various prerequisites. The first is the availability of store cattle at a price that is fair to both the breeder and the finisher. It would be too easy, although it has often been the case, to base a feedlot industry on abnormally cheap store cattle. Such a policy would lead sooner or later to a diminution of breeder activities and to their eventual disappearance. The ideal is to have a regular supply of store cattle throughout the year; it would then be possible to feed several batches of steers a year on the same premises, which can substantially reduce overhead costs. Where a rather long feeding period is envisaged, however (a year or more), regularity in the supply of store cattle is far less important.

In this central African country the problem is how to avoid overgrazing, which precludes any improvement of the cattle industry. These Ankole cows start their productive life at about four years of age, and barely produce one calf every two years. A specialized fattening industry in areas of the country where better pastures exist would provide at least part of the solution.

To have a good mother is not enough in a harsh environment. This calf, born to a local zebu cow and sired by a Hereford bull, has a 25 in 100 probability of dying before 12 months of age.

A second prerequisite is the availability of suitable feeds at low prices. It is generally accepted that feed alone may account for up to 70–80 percent of total inputs in intensive feedlots. Any significant decrease in the price of feed has a direct effect in decreasing the cost of meat production. The quality of feed has to be such as to allow a maximum voluntary intake, and to have the minimum permissible fibre content to avoid metabolic disorders caused by rumen misfunctions. This minimum is 8–10 percent, equivalent to 15–18 percent of roughage in the dry matter. A third prerequisite is to have a differential price for high quality beef compared with standard quality; that is, there must be a quality-payment system operating in the country. A well-managed feedlot must produce high quality beef, and under normal circumstances steers passing through a feedlot should not only put on weight but also produce carcasses of a higher grade. This has to be taken into account when studying the economic feasibility of a feedlot operation. Unfortunately, quality-based payment systems for beef are nonexistent in many developing countries.

It is also necessary to have animals suitable for feeding and finishing. As mentioned before, the efficiency of animals as converters of feed into red meat is a key factor in determining the profit of any feedlot operation. As feed conversion rates decrease rapidly with age, it is also important to have animals of an age suitable for the type of beef production selected. The stage of development of store cattle and their potential for growth have also to be considered; this is where experienced buyers are irreplaceable. Last, but not least, the animals must be healthy; mortality rates and morbidity in the feedlots have to be kept as low as possible.

Structural and organizational problems

Due to the strong interdependency between the growing-finishing and the breeding-rearing sectors, it is of primary importance to establish good working channels between the two. It would be necessary for governments, if not the feedlots themselves, to contribute to the organization of store cattle producers' associations; it would be much easier to contract for the regular supply of feeder cattle with these associations than with a multitude of small producers. It could also prove advantageous to have the producers financially involved in the feedlot phase; improving the quality of their feeder cattle would then be to their own direct advantage.

Liasion with the processing industries would also have to be organized. It may be worth while to integrate feedlot slaughtering with ageing, cutting and packaging operations; some feedlots are integrated with warehousing and distribution, principally in the United States.

Feed supply needs careful study. Where feedlots are based on agro-industrial by-products, it would be an advantage to have the feedlot sector incorporated in the plant, or established as an associate society. In any case, the cost of by-products increases rapidly with transport costs, and it is strongly recommended that feedlots be built in the immediate vicinity of the plant. When applicable, the drying of the raw material allows much more flexibility in the use of by-products, particularly from the point of view of transport costs, handling facilities and storage life. The drying and pelleting of sugarbeet pulp is a good example of this development. Integration of the feedmixing industry with the feedlot industry is now a common pattern.

It is time to transfer these Boran zebus to a feedlot where they could easily put on an extra 100 kg liveweight, instead of losing some 50 kg on drying natural pastures.

There are other reasons in favour of siting feedlots near the source of by-products. Store cattle can be transported on the hoof to feedlots with negligible losses, when trekking is well organized, while in many instances it would be virtually impossible to truck feedstuffs to the extensive breeding areas. Also, agro-industries are usually located nearer the major consuming centres than the traditional breeding areas, and so losses which occur during the transport of finished cattle are decreased.

It is recognized that large feedlots are a definite advantage (Hopkin, 1958; King, 1962). For instance, to employ full time a competent manager and a resident veterinarian, both essential to the success of a feedlot enterprise, it is estimated that 10 000 to 30 000 cattle have to be fattened each year. Costs of feed-mixing and transport facilities do not increase proportionally with the capacity of the feedlot. However, it must be noted that large units have their own problems of manure disposal, disease risk, and so on.

For social and political reasons governments may prefer projects that offer more employment opportunities and of course this would affect both the size of feedlots and their degree of mechanization. Also, where the farming system produces crop residues which constitute the bulk of the feeding ration, small on-the-farm feeding units may be favoured because it would not be physically or economically feasible to transport crop residues. In this situation some kind of grouping of the small producers may prove an advantage, especially for ensuring better and cheaper supplies of concentrate feed, for providing a regular supply of store cattle if cattle are not bred on the farms, and for grouping the finished animals. Production contracts can be entered into between producers and abattoirs, as well as between producers and a feed-mixing company, which can also provide technical aid. A credit system would be of considerable assistance in the implementation phase.

Local breeds can produce good carcasses when animals are well fed, as can be seen from this carcass of a young Azawak steer at the Niamey slaughterhouse.


In many developing countries a rapid expansion of beef production can only be achieved through the implementation, on a significant scale, of intensive growing and finishing schemes. Economic circumstances are now much more favourable (if the present increase in prices for cereals and oilseed cakes is a temporary phenomenon) for the development of this type of production. Recent trials conducted in the developing countries themselves have opened the way to the adoption of new techniques.

Feedlots will not only increase meat production but also make it much more efficient. They will also produce a better quality meat, all through the year.

A well-planned feedlot industry must act as a catalyst to the overall development of the beef industry. of which it is only a part. In other words, feedlot projects have to be carefully integrated into the rest of the industry for a maximum return at the national level.

There are several important prerequisites which have to be fulfilled before implementing any feedlot project, and each project will call for detailed technical and economic feasibility studies. Technical knowledge and good management will be decisive factors in determining the success of the feedlot industry.


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