Bigger calves aren’t always better

LANIGAN, Sask. — Chip Hines says bigger cattle aren’t better for increasing the financial bottom line.

“That’s something that people do not understand. Our whole focus has been on pounds and performance, but that’s not the one that tells the story,” the author and retired Colorado rancher said during the Western Beef Development Centre’s 19th annual field day at the Termuende Research Ranch near Lanigan.

“The smaller weight calf raised very stringently without a lot of extra cost, and if you add his numbers up and compare that to the big calf, the numbers will outperform the large animals every time financially,” he said.

Hines said smaller calves and mothers are the most efficient because they’re working closer to where cattle evolved to over thousands of years.

Hines said he realized in the late 1970s that focusing on weaning weight’s cost of artificial inputs was the wrong approach.

“I began following the weight/price slide in 1979 when I realized 500 pound calves were only bringing $10 a head more than 400 pounders,” he said.

“It was then that I concluded the push for higher weaning weights for a profitability increase was only an assumption. The assumption being that since we sold pounds, more pounds would be profitable. This sent the industry on a race for high performance animals.”

Influenced by Allan Savory’s book, Holistic Resource Management, his philosophy eventually coalesced into using nature as a guide to achieve management efficiency by combining marketing, genetics and grazing.

“Slantwise logic, that’s what I call my work,” the octogenarian said.

“I tend to look for things that someone else has not looked at or see it in a different view than anyone else to bring out some things that we need to be thinking about that kind of gets swept under the rug.”

Hines said producers want the highest possible return for every pound of forage a cow eats.

“Raise as much forage as you can and then make every bite count,” he said. “That’s something we haven’t been doing.”

He said natural selection defined cattle with a skeletal structure for travel and calving, disease and parasite resistance, a robust rumen and a size determined by their environment.

“Let the natural environment determine the size of the animal,” he said. “It’s not the big cow that’s the most efficient, which is something that is finally coming back to the front.”

He said research has shown that smaller cows can wean more pounds of calf per pound of feed than larger cows, which is significant in light of efficiency and the total amount of energy expended.

Producing larger cattle requires milk, which requires more energy than smaller animals.

A University of Nebraska study fed 494 calves out of low, medium and high milk production cows. The calves were all fed to a common endpoint of marbling. It found that high and medium milk groups required 11 percent more energy than the low milk group.

“We can’t survive with inefficient cows. We have to make the most of every bite that they eat,” said Hines.

Another study has shown that adding 100 lb. of cow weight will produce, at best, six lb. additional calf weight. This added calf weight is worth $5 to $7, while the cost to put it on is $42, which is a net loss of $35 per cow unit.

“(Producers/researchers) were so involved in gross profit that net profit was not recognized and this is something that we need to learn to do is to look at the whole picture,” he said.

Duane Thompson of Kelliher, Sask., who also uses the holistic management approach for his ranch, said he understands that ranchers want the bragging rights for high priced or big weaning weights at the sale barn.

However, he said producers should be aware that too many artificial inputs are making a less efficient animal by changing its natural advantages.

“The cow is the most amazing factory there is,” he said.

“She can take feed products that she has no competitors for, stuff that nothing else can eat, and she can turn it into maintenance and a calf.”

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