My preference at the cow-calf level is to keep the cow as small as I can without incurring discounts for feeder animals due to feedlot acceptability factors or undersized carcasses.
I've revealed my preference in earlier articles for small- to moderate-sized cows with moderate milk production. I'm sure some would disagree with those preferences, and others would wonder why, so let me outline my rationale and clarify my choices.
Packers have indicated via price discounts in the marketplace that they prefer a large carcass. They've also indicated that they're willing to accept a fair amount of variation in carcass size in order to satisfy a variety of customer demands. And, it seems logical that a larger carcass can provide processors with a higher yield of meat and saleable offal per hour of labor and plant operating time.
Meanwhile, particularly in times of excess pen space, commercial cattle feeders prefer larger-framed, heavier animals because they have a tendency to grow faster and be fed longer. Of course, most owners of the feedlot cattle would be quite happy if the cattle just grew – and converted – well, even if they quit at a smaller endpoint.
In this respect, calves from smaller cows can be quite efficient and even make high slaughter weights, especially if they are run as yearlings on grass. And, this can be enhanced with the use of implants and ionophores as yearlings on grass and in the feedlot, making the small cow even more efficient.
My preference at the cow-calf level is to keep the cow as small as I can without incurring discounts for feeder animals due to feedlot acceptability factors or undersized carcasses. I think that cows weighing 1,050 to 1,150 lbs in a body condition score 5 can do that. However, I'm aware of cows with frame scores of five and less that weigh more than 1,200 lbs.
I like those small (hip height) cows that weigh up, being of the strong opinion (though not absolutely sure) that they tend to be more efficient in the following ways:
- I can run more small cows on the same acreage.
- Such cows will wean a higher percentage of their body weight than larger-framed cows in the same condition. However, we need to recognize that, when we observe this to be true in our individual herds, the common bull battery will tend to make the small cows wean a higher percentage of body weight than the larger cows. Independent of that effect, I still think smaller cows wean a higher percentage of their body weight.
- My weaned calf crop and pregnancy percentages will be higher with such cows. I have heard from many good cowmen that, as their average cow size increased, their pregnancy rates fell – sometimes dramatically. This might have as much to do with milk as with size.
- The combined effect is that we will wean more total pounds of calf per acre. If the calves are smaller than calves from larger cows, they will sell for more per pound. Economically speaking, return per acre is much more important than return per cow.
In addition, the smaller cows will perform better when times are tough; for instance, when drought, pests or other quirks of Mother Nature reduce the amount and quality of feed available. Meanwhile, in challenging market times, lower calf prices make expensive supplementation programs tougher to justify. I'm convinced that the nutritional needs of smaller cows can more easily be met during such times, allowing a cattle operation to more efficiently weather such challenges.
In addition, a quality, small- or moderate-sized crossbred cow can be terminally mated to a bull that emphasizes feedlot performance, carcass yield and grade in the offspring. Meanwhile, those producing the cows can retain and breed a high percentage of their heifers to produce an excess of cows. Those excess cows then can be sold to producers seeking to simplify operations or to create a market advantage by utilizing terminal crossing.
This double advantage comes in combining the simplicity of the terminal operation with the complementarity of mating a sire breed for growth and carcass with a highly efficient, crossbred cow. I think most small producers would benefit by buying replacement cows from a single source, using a terminal sire and selling all the calves.
Larger producers might find it difficult to find replacement cows from one or two sources that are designed to fit their environment. Thus, they’re better suited to producing replacement cows for smaller producers. Very large producers could do both.
Now, let’s address why don’t I want a lot of milk from this cow?
- First of all, more milk requires more feed, and that will reduce my stocking rate.
- The conversion of feed to milk to calf gain is a very poor conversion. We all know that milk is essential to a calf’s early development – that is, its immune system and growth. However, the calf has the capability to drink water and eat grass at a very early age, thus changing from being totally dependent on milk to being capable of existing on grass.
I don’t know what is optimal, but I'm convinced that most of our herds have too much genetic potential for milk. The bottom-line result is lower stocking rates; and lower pregnancy rates – or higher supplementation costs – when conditions are tough.
To meet my goals of low-input cows – that is, low labor and low machinery costs, as well as minimal hay feeding and strategic supplementation to just take off the rough edges of the natural environment – I like small- to moderate-framed cows. That means a cow that is definitely less than a frame score 6, and without high milk production.
My calculations show that herds producing small- to moderate-sized replacement cows could replace their own cows and provide sufficient cows for terminal crossing. I believe that about one-third of the calves produced in the U.S. could be from terminal matings. If enough ranchers could work together to make that happen, I think we would then be most profitable as an industry and as individual producers.