Moderation is good in all things, cows included

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The modern cow is a moderate-sized critter capable of outperforming its grandmothers in all the ways that count.

“There is no doubt we have cattle with tremendous capacity for post-weaning growth and carcass weight,” said beef cattle specialist David Lalman of Oklahoma State University.

The question is whether those cows are costing too much to maintain in relation to the value of their calves.

“We are still in the middle of a never-ending arms race for growth in the cattle business. What we need to do is question whether that is a good thing for the long term,” he said at the recent National Cattlemen’s Beef Association convention in Nashville.

Since 1960, finished steer weights have increased at a rate of 9.4 pounds per year and carcass weights increased 5.7 lb. per year.

Genetic improvement, better feed and management, as well as technology, such as implants or beta agonists, have made noticeable differences.

However, making carcasses bigger may not have paid as well as previously thought.

“From what we can tell, that probably may not have covered the costs of the cows,” he said.

Cattle are also capable of producing better beef. Last year in the United States, 80 percent of the graded carcasses were Choice or higher. However, as they added more fat, red meat yield per carcass lessened.

On-farm weaning rates and weights have improved little.

Weaning rates are still around 80-85 percent. This is the number of cows that weaned a calf relative to the number of cows that were exposed to a bull the previous year.

“There really has not been any change in that metric over the last 25 years,” Lalman said.

Weaning weights on most commercial operations in 2015 also remained about the same at 500 to 600 lb.

However, weaning weight statistics were higher among the seven most-widely used breeds of Angus, Charolais, Gelbvieh, Hereford, Limousin, Red Angus and Simmental.

Angus cattle have increased weaning weight to around 600 to 650 lb. Data from the other purebred breed associations shows similar weaning weights, said Lalman.

“You can assume most seed stock operations might be a little better managed,” he said.

If a commercial operation has above industry averages for weaning weights, it may be related to feeding more throughout the winter or a high level health program.

Profitability has also been examined. A study from the University of Kansas looked at profitability from 90 commercial cow herds from 2010-15.

There was a US$415 per head difference between the top third and the bottom third of operations.

Those in the higher profitability category tended to have more production with more surviving calves, higher weaning weights, better calf prices and cull cow income. The rest of their profitability was linked to keeping costs under control.

Modern cows are probably more efficient but it still costs money to maintain that higher level of productivity.

Milk production has increased. Among the seven most popular breeds, Herefords substantially increased milk production because breeders selected for it. Other breeds are relatively stable in milk production.

“Every 10 percent increase in milk yield is associated with about five percent increase in maintenance energy requirements,” Lalman said.

More milk translates into more calf weight but a recent study at Oklahoma State University found cows needed an extra 50 lb. of a high energy diet to get one more lb. of calf weaning weight.

Cows out on forage are limited because they can only eat so much and then don’t produce more milk.

“What you got is a factory that is more expensive to maintain but producing no more widgets.

“There is an increasing risk of that going on in the cow-calf sector today,” he said.

One way to calculate milk production is to use a tool from the American Angus Association. It can be found at

Consider mature cow weights.

In the last 16 years, steer carcass weights have increased 100 lb. and cow carcass weights are up 60 lb.

Research found for every additional 100 lb. of live cow weight, there is an extra four to 15 lb. of calf weaning weight. However, that additional 100 lb. of cow costs $40 a year more in maintenance costs.

The calf price for those few extra pounds is not going to support the cost of a bigger cow, said Lalman.

Therefore, improved efficiency without pushing up costs and increasing energy requirements is an advantage. He recommends focusing on moderate-sized cows that maintain their condition in their environment.

“We can have high quality carcasses and efficient, low cost, high fertility cows,” he said.

To develop a more fertile, productive herd commercial producers should consider several factors:

  • Select cows with moderate milk production and muscle growth.
  • Cull open cows.
  • Keep only early-born heifers.
  • Keep only early-bred heifers.
  • Buy or keep bulls out of cows that always calve early.
  • Find a seed stock provider who applies the same above principles.

Fertility is not highly heritable but a sustained cow fertility expected progeny difference (EPD) is coming. This evaluates the value of the sire based on his daughters’ ability to stay in the herd over a period of time.

“The longer the bulls’ daughters stay in the herd, the higher the EPD value is,” he said.

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