The Right Fit
Matching cows with available resources takes focus and action
By Miranda Reiman
One of the cow’s greatest assets is her ability to go to work in varied environments — that is until you ask her to work in an environment where she’s not well matched.
Dave Lalman, Oklahoma State University animal scientist, says that scenario is probably more common than many cattle producers know unless they’re looking at the bigger picture.
“Our industry has been engaged in a never-ending arms race for growth for 50 years,” he said, during the Intersection of Cattle and Beef webinar series this summer.
The genetic trend for yearling weight for the seven most common beef breeds in the U.S. has been steadily inclining from 1972 to today. Increased carcass weights lower the beef industry’s carbon footprint by producing more beef per cow than 40 years ago, but there is a strong genetic correlation between growth and mature cow size. There is also a strong relationship between growth and feed intake.
“If we don’t implement control measures for mature cow size or feed intake, input costs for the cow-calf enterprise will continue to increase,” Lalman explained. “The industry has assumed that the increase in production outweighs the costs associated with an increase in appetite and cow size.”
With relatively inexpensive land or feed, that’s probably true, but it “is probably not true in a lot of situations,” he said.
Ranchers typically adjust management and inputs to avoid open cows.
“When cows get thin, they change management — and that typically means increased annual feed cost — so that pregnancy rate does not suffer,” Lalman added.
There are two ways to monitor a cow herd’s match to the environment: 1) Cow body condition at weaning and calving; and 2) Annual purchased and harvested feed inputs.
“If feed costs are increasing over time relative to other variable costs, then we’d suggest selection for genetics that require fewer resources,” Lalman said.
Several studies show in commercial herds each additional 100 pounds of mature cow weight produces somewhere between about 6 to 30 additional pounds of calf weaning weight. The additional 100 pounds of cow weight costs about $40 to $50 to maintain annually.
“For example, the difference in annual forage requirement of a 1,400-lb. versus an 1,100-lb. cow is about 2,300 lb.,” he explained.
Feed costs accounts for more than 50% of the variability in profit, while weaning weight drops toward the bottom of the list at 5%, according to Standardized Performance Analysis from Iowa and Illinois.
“There are a lot of producers I’ve worked with, they get really focused on outputs,” said Travis Mulliniks, University of Nebraska animal scientist, during Beef Improvement Federation meetings this summer. “And a lot of times we disregard the production costs. What did it take to wean that 6- or 700-pound calf?”
“So, we’re driving up feed cost for that 5%,” he emphasized.
A study from Nebraska and South Dakota reinforces that. The top 35% most profitable herds in the dataset had a weaning weight 50 pounds less than those in the bottom 20%.
Growth isn’t bad, but it is important to pair it with the right resources so breeding rates don’t fall off or body condition suffers, Mulliniks explained.
The milk expected progeny difference is one place to look. Selection for milk has been on a steep increase for years, Mulliniks pointed out, suggesting producers in some regions put a cap on that.
“Our environment really plays a big role in being able to capture that genetic potential for growth or milk,” Mulliniks said. “Are we selecting for something that our cows will never, ever perform to?”
Several data sets from Alabama Beef Herd Improvement to Superior Livestock Auction records suggest weaning weights in commercial herds have leveled off in some areas of the country.
“It was a surprise to learn that in some regions, the trend for weaning weight has been flat for about 10 years, while it is still increasing in others,” Lalman said.
But looking at national trends just flags areas every producer should look into himself.
“Regional averages may be irrelevant,” Lalman noted. “What matters is the trend over time for your place.”
Many producers don’t know exactly, but Ty Watkins, Vest Ranch near Childress, has made it a point to track, monitor and change cow size on his family’s ranch. He and his wife, Samann Vest-Watkins, run their commercial cow-calf operation on everything from rolling hills with solid grass resources to rough, rocky country with poor water.
“We’re a constant work in progress,” he said.
For nearly a decade, they’ve captured mature cow weights at weaning, and records show they’ve brought a 1,400-lb. average down to 1,258 lbs. — just 8 lbs. shy of their ultimate goal.
“Our goal around here is to have about a 1,250-lb. mama cow with the ability to travel, with enough structure,” Watkins said. “She’s got to have the ability to maintain herself and then provide enough nutrition to wean a calf that’s going to be at minimum 50% of her body weight.”
A 1,400-lb. cow weaning a 650-lb. calf doesn’t fit that equation.
“We were nervous about everything we were working toward,” he admitted. But once they saw weaning weights improve while cow size decreased, they knew they were on the right track.
Range improvements followed.
In the beginning, they typically needed about 40 acres to carry one cow. In a normal, non-drought year, that’s down to 20.
Watkins said they brought the size down both through both breed type — increasing the Angus makeup in their herd — and selecting sires within the breed. They also culled outlier females.
“If they’re not performing to the level of their peers, then they cost the ranch money and we’re making room for something that’s not performing,” he says.
DNA helped them sire-match calves, and carcass records from feeding their calf crop gives them a complete picture of what genetic combinations were the most successful. They cull outliers that don’t make the grade.
“We’re all susceptible to the markets, just like this year,” Watkins added. “But if you have a product that has greater demand, you’ve got something in the market that will help weather these storms,”
It wasn’t an overnight turnaround, but one they could watch because of the data they collect.
“We just kind of eased our way into it,” he explained. “As we were implementing all these new things and we were seeing the benefits, the positive results, it just kept us eager and hungry to continually improve over the years.”
Culling can help, but the fastest way to improvement is through sire selection.
“We used to say finding a low birthweight, higher calving-ease direct bull with high growth was difficult,” Lalman said. “You can find them everywhere now, right? The industry has basically resolved that issue today.”
(story continues below picture)
He suggested that the industry needs to push to do the same with cow size.
“We ought to look at curvebender in terms of cow weight. There aren’t a lot of bulls that are below breed average for mature cow weight and above breed average for growth, but there are some,” he says, noting this would help offset the added cow costs that come with increased performance. “To me, that’s where we ought to be headed in the future.”
The good news is most major breed associations have tools to help.
“We have a lot more information available today to attack these concerns,” he explained “We’re a lot more prepared to deal with these issues today than we were years ago.”
Having roadmap of how and when to use those tools is what takes this from a good idea to an actionable item.
“You have to develop the plan, stay committed to the plan and execute the plan,” Watkins said. “Whenever the team members here on the ranch see progress in the cattle, it just continues to motivate everyone to work to improve year over year.”
Miranda Reiman is a beef industry writer who works from her home office near Cozad, Nebraska.
This story originally appeared in the November 2020 issue of The Cattleman magazine, Texas & Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association’s flagship publication. Join today to start your subscription.