Do Your Cows Match Your Resources?
By : Benjamin Williamson, Instructor of Animal Science, Penn State Extension
Cattlemen typically like to boast about how good their cattle are. We like to admire how they look, how they grow, how they milk, and any other way that we can. One way that we typically take pride in our work is that annual time of year when cow calf producers market their calves, selling a heavy calf that brings the top end of the market. I find within this sector, sometimes we focus a great deal on revenue, which is extremely important, but profit is created by spreading margins between revenue and expenses. In the livestock industry, feed costs are the greatest expense that we face. Typically, feed will account for approximately 70% of our annual expenses resulting in producers counting pennies to keep this input under control. Successful cow calf producers have been more profitable with absence of expense. In a recent survey showed that the most profitable cow calf operations had $141 less expenses in feed cost than those of low profitability. For the cow calf sector, much of this feed cost is usually associated with pasture or more specifically, land.
With this in mind, we want to maximize the amount of beef that we can produce per unit of feed so it’s only natural to wean bigger, denser calves. However, as we select for more growth we find ourselves keeping bigger cows that require more feed. As we look at cow size, we have seen mature weights and production continue to increase. Breed association genetic trends for growth, size, and milk production have generally seen a steady incline. This is further proven in that carcass weights have increased at a rate of about 6 pounds per year. To illustrate the increased need for feed, cows will eat about 2.3% of their body weight in dry matter. This makes the difference in feed consumed at almost 10 pounds between a 1,000 pound cow and a 1,400 pound cow per day, or 3,650 lbs per year. You will now ask yourself if this is a bad thing, especially if she weans a bigger calf that returns more. Well, that will depend on the environment. If you have a carrying capacity of 100, 1,000 lb cows, then you can hold about 71, 1,400 lb cows in the same pasture. If we assume that the cows have the same biological efficiency and that 90% of the cows wean a calf (1,000 lb cows wean a 500 lb calf and the 1,400 lb cow wean a 643 lb calf), the lighter cows will wean about 4,500 lbs more on the same land mass. Additionally, we would expect the lighter calves to bring a little more per pound increasing return.
To refocus, we have seen genetic potential for growth increase in addition to other performance measures such as milk. While milk production accounts for about 60% of the gain of a calf to weaning, it also takes a great deal of energy to produce. As a rule of thumb, an increase of 10% in milk production will require an additional 4% to 5% in maintenance requirements. As we look at all of this increased performance, we generally have two options to accommodate these increase feed needs to take advantage of the genetic potential. We can either decrease stocking rates so that cows can be more selective of higher quality forages or haul feed to the cows. In either situation, we have increased our operating cost. Additionally, if we don’t have an environment that meets their nutritional requirements, we can see performance go backwards adding insult to injury.
A recent presentation by Dr. David Lalman of Oklahoma State University showed the average weight of weaned calves marketed over the last several decades by region. The Midwest has maintained the same weaning weights for nearly two decades, while the southeast has continued to increase. This would suggest that in some regions, we have already reached or exceeded the genetic potential for pre-weaning performance the environment will allow. As we continue to exceed this threshold, we will likely see decreased carrying capacities and potentially decreased reproductive performance which in turn could limit margins for cow calf operations.
Feedlot operators do require calves that have more growth and terminal emphasis, and we need to meet the demand for increased beef production. All of this information brings the age old question, what is the right size cow? This answer is as controversial and straight forward as which is the best brand of truck. The result is a variation of this answer based on environment, resources, market place, and goals. Balanced trait selection is crucial, and we tend to forget to keep that in mind as we push for more. Sometimes we get more benefit from moderation. Your situation may be more profitable to create a terminal breeding program, or find a balance that fits your available resources. For more information, please consult your extension educator for additional resources and insight on how to implement practices that best suit your operation and goals.