With $7-plus corn and an increase in virtually all other input costs, feedyard owner-operator Scott Keeling knows he can’t drop his guard. With breakevens swelling, his rations include supplements that increase rate of gain and feed efficiency at the same time cattle are finishing faster and yielding more high quality beef than ever in history.

And in an era when volatile cattle prices can close market opportunities in a matter of minutes, Keeling demands products with a zero withdrawal period.

He owns Keeling Cattle Feeders, a 17,000-head capacity feedyard outside Hereford, TX, in the heart of the largest cattle feeding area in the world. He’s owned the yard since the mid-1980s. One product he’s added to his various rations the past two years is the beta-1 agonist Optaflexx® (ractopamine hydrochloride) from Elanco Animal Health.

When used according to label, Optaflexx provides increased rate of gain and improved feed efficiency during the last 28-42 days on feed. This enables energy from feed to improve muscle development and total red meat yield. And it has minimal effect on marbling – and tenderness – the eating quality that’s demanded by beef-loving consumers.

“I don’t want to have any limitations in my marketing,” Keeling says, when describing his various reasons for using Optaflexx in his feeding program. “We sell a lot of cattle ‘in the meat’ on different grids. We also sell a lot of cattle in the cash market.

“Sometimes you don’t have any control over your market. As hard as it can be to get cattle sold, the marketing time line the other beta-2 agonist has can be a problem. I don’t want to have my back against the wall. I like the zero day withdrawal provided by Optaflexx.”

A beta-agonist is among the tools recommended by Mark Miller, a consulting nutritionist from Elk City, OK. He works with numerous feedyards in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. He sees firsthand the impact that high input costs are having on fed-cattle closeouts.

“As inputs get higher and higher, anything that improves feed efficiency becomes more pronounced. With cost of gain everywhere from 90¢ to $1.20/lb. (and approaching $1.30), even if you can only improve feed efficiency by 0.1 lb., there can be a big savings.”

For example, if a steer consumes a $300/ton (dry matter) ration while on feed about 150 days, a 0.1 lb. savings will improve the cost of gain by 1.5¢/ lb., Miller says. That jumps to 1.75¢ if the ration is $350/ton. That’s an easy $7-$8/head in savings. And the profit potential for fed cattle on a beta-agonist program also climbs with a higher dosage of the beta-1 agonist.

Optaflexx is recommended to be fed at doses of 200 or 300 mg/head/day. At the 200-mg dose, steers typically see a 15-lb. increase in live weight gain and a 13.5-lb. increase in carcass gain. At the higher 300-mg dose, gain is increased even more –live weight gain by 22.5 lbs., and carcass gain by 20.3 lbs.

Miller says that when increased from 200 mg to 300 mg, Optaflexx noticeably increases feed efficiency. “The higher dosage has shown to be more beneficial in improving feed conversion,” he says. “That’s been pretty well adopted in the majority of clients I work with.”

Corn pushing its way to $10/bu.?

That powerful price has been discussed more than once during the drought conditions that have hammered the Midwest, much like the dry weather seen on the Southern Plains in 2011. Drought was projected in at least 26 states, including many in the Corn Belt. In mid-July, USDA projected corn yield decreases of 20 bu./acre, down to about 146 bu./acre. That all means continued pressure on feed costs and even more emphasis on improved feed efficiency.

Miller says that using Optaflexx can certainly improve a set of cattle’s margin. “You have to use it to compete,” he stresses.

Keeling added Optaflexx to his feeding program after he and his nutritionist decided it was a product that they needed in their rations.

Despite high feeder cattle costs, Keeling strives to keep his pens full. About 60% of the cattle are company owned. That’s a big feed bill. Feed grains, distillers grains and supplements must be used efficiently.

“Our yard feeds a lot of heifers, so we have many rations,” Keeling says. “Before we began using Optaflexx, we had five rations. Now we have at least seven. I’m impressed with the data behind it.”

Cattle receive it for different time periods, depending on their weight and/or plan for marketing. “We see a large benefit to heifers. I noticed early on that the cattle just pop,” Keeling says. “The rib covered, the flank dropped and the brisket filled. I watched it over and over. I knew it was from that product.”

Keeling says he and his crew are comfortable with using the Optaflexx  technology, even with the challenges of feeding additional rations. “It’s easy to work with. Good management practices make it an easy product to use, easier than I had first envisioned.”

There are some challenges when using one beta-agonist over another. For example, the beta-2 agonist's three-day withdrawal period discourages some feeders like Keeling, as well as packers seeking just the right carcass in their branded programs. “More safeguards have to be in place for the beta-2 agonist,” Miller says, adding that if a feedyard isn’t selling cattle on a carcass basis, “it can’t afford to use the beta-2 agonist.”

John Scanga, an Elanco technical consultant, says beta-agonists are still a relatively new technology that can markedly impact the profitability of finishing cattle. He adds that when profit margins are tight, “the use of technologies such as feed additives and implants should not be overlooked.

“Feed additives are compounds fed to feedlot cattle for reasons other than supplying nutrients,” Scanga says. “These compounds increase the rate of gain and feed efficiency of beef cattle, decreasing the cost of production and improving the profit potential of feedlot producers.”

For more on the benefits of using beta-agonists, click here.