My View From The Country

There Is No Magical Cow Size That Guarantees Profitability

Table of Contents:

Efficiency is a relatively simple thing that just happens to be complicated.

Economic efficiency is related to biological efficiency, but it isn’t a 1:1 relationship. Gross profit and gross margins fluctuate depending on input prices and the prices received for the product. If feed is cheap and prices high, then almost any gain in production can be economically justified. Conversely, when feed is high and prices low, the value of production declines.

Economic efficiency also changes based on whether you take a segment approach or a total systems approach. One of the great debates is how to interpret the failures of the marketplace in assigning value, when evaluating the economics.

There are more than 1,600 feedyards in the U.S. that feed a significant number of cattle, and thousands of smaller feeders. That represents quite a pool of potential buyers for a set of calves. Meanwhile, our local sale barn has probably 10+ potential buyers for a given set of cattle. On smaller sets, cattle still lose their identity as they are commingled, so the feedback mechanism isn’t nearly as perfect as it could be.

It’s getting better every day, and we are seeing larger and larger differences in value across similar weights and condition, but the reality is that the more profitable cattle still are significantly subsidizing the poorer cattle. And with today’s tight supplies and the economics of capacity utilization, this trend will remain in place for the foreseeable future. The exciting thing is that the tools to make good genetic and management decisions are becoming more sophisticated, and we’re better able to measure and assess value.

As is often the case, the simple answers are turning out to not be so simple. Many factors come into play, but in the end we can say a couple of things for certain. There is no magical cow size that will guarantee profitability. In fact, producers in the desert of Arizona and producers in the lush pastures of Iowa will likely have significantly different ideal cow sizes. Even then, the ideal will vary with market conditions and marketing targets. In the end, it will come down to finding the proper balance between avoiding extremes and selecting those animals that defy the genetic antagonisms that exist to improve overall efficiency and profitability.

While it is about finding the optimum, the optimum won’t remain constant, either. Constant incremental improvement across a balance of traits should mean that the “ideal” cow today will be, at best, an average cow down the road. Single-trait selection is, and likely always will be, a tremendous mistake; that doesn’t matter if it’s for mature size, growth, or end carcass merit. What is exciting is that today you can make significant progress in all of these areas simultaneously. 


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Discuss this Blog Entry 12

Dennis Hoyle (not verified)
on Mar 14, 2014

I agree that nothing gaurantees a profit. The data I have seen says that in general small cows have an advantage. Eric Moussel from South Dakota State has some very good research on this subject and there are several studies that indicate that same thing. The beautiful thing about our industry is that I can do it the way I want to and if I am right I get to reap the rewards, and I am reaping the rewards. Just small or large is not the only thing that counts but there is a difference in general. More pounds of calf weaned per acre is an advantage.

John R. Dykers, Jr (not verified)
on Mar 14, 2014

And Dennis Hoyle is quite correct up to weaning. We carried our beef through to the customer and the kitchen. Portion size matters and is different for different customers. Tenderness is the most consistent customer requirement. Young beef is more tender than old.
Great article, Troy Marshall. The variability of environment and markets is the fun and the challenge for each of us to find a profit in what we do and how we do it.

Avatar (not verified)
on Mar 14, 2014

1) There is no inherent advantage in biological efficiency for a wide range of cow weights (the only relevant measure of size).
2) Cows of vastly different size are equally efficient on low-quality forage as long as quantity of forage is adequate, and milk production is equivalent to body size.
3) It is cows of higher milking potential that are penalized on low-quality forage, rather than cows of larger size.
4) We often confuse effects of cow size and milk. They should be considered separately.
5) A factor often overlooked in the cow-calf segment is that lighter calves bring more per pound than heavier. This can definitely affect economics.
5) Because there is so much variation in the production conditions under which beef cows are raised, there is much more variation in what is the optimum, compared to swine, dairy, and poultry. And this will always be so.

Dave Nichols (not verified)
on Mar 17, 2014

You are SPOT on regarding 4). The genetic ability to produce milk effects metabolic efficiency when a cow in not lactating. And it effects metabolic efficiency of their steer calves for their whole life time.

The beef industry has largely ignored this fact and does not understand targeting optimum physiological end points. Dr. C.J. Brown () after weighing every animal in the University of Arkansas Angus herd every 28 days said "the most efficient cow weighs the same as her steer when he grades USDA Choice. I haven't seen any data or have experienced anything in my 60+ years of breeding and raising cattle that would dispute Dr. Browns conclusions

Charlie Kraus (not verified)
on Mar 15, 2014


I was stuck where you are for a long time. A heard of smaller cows simply could not be as thermodynamically efficient as a herd of large cows. That is simple physics.

It finally took working through Chip Hines' "Slantwise Guide To Prosperity" to see the value of smaller cattle in my cow/calf operation. The key lies in putting a realistic dollar value on the value of cattle sold and more importantly on the daily cost of feeding cows and calves based on body weight. Smaller cattle turn dollars into dollars more efficiently than bigger cattle, even if bigger cows turn pounds of forage into pounds of beef more efficiently.

I don't know how or if that translates in a seedstock operation. Economic work by Stan Bevers in Texas, David Lauman in Oklahoma, and others has not found that more size, growth, and milk translate into more profits under actual ranching conditions.

W.E. (not verified)
on Mar 17, 2014

The magic cow size for us is an efficient cow that can wean a good proportion of her weight on grass with no additional feed, rebreed on time, and offer no problems. In our environment, it's much harder for a cow that weighs 1500 lbs. to do that than a cow that weighs 1000 or 1100.

avatar (not verified)
on Mar 22, 2014

Where do you find sires these days to produce 1000 lb cows?

Charlie Kraus (not verified)
on Mar 25, 2014

Dare I say it? I think I shall. It is Pharo Cattle Company.

Todd1013 (not verified)
on Mar 25, 2014

In our experience on our farm the big cows sure do eat a lot more than the small cows. We had some of those 1800# cows that could eat you out of house and home. Whether the cow is 1100# or 1800# she had better bring home and wean a calf that is at least half her weight or more to make any kind of profit. Our 1200# cows can do that very easy but the 1800# cow that can wean a 900# calf in the same amount of time are far and few between. Most of our smaller cows can equal or out due weaning weights of the larger cows so when it comes to cost of feed per cow vs #s of weaned calf the smaller cows due make you more money, as long as the quality of the small cows is good.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Mar 26, 2014

Regardless of weather or not your pastures can support large or small cows would someone not favor a more moderate cow that will allow for more cows on a fixed number of acres?

Take for example 160 acres that will support 1 AU per acre. That's 114 calves produced from 1,400 lb cows or 123 calves from 1,300 lb cows. That's nine extra calves on the same ground.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Mar 28, 2014

" The data indicates that, from a biological efficiency standpoint, input vs output, there is no inherent advantage of one size cow over another."
Mr. Marshall --this is why you are wrong. Let's forget about regurgitating hearsay from some animal scientist that has no real life experience and has adopted some fuzzy math.

The Facts
1. Reducing the annual cost of production is the key to a more profitable operation -- period! --end of story

Since the largest inputs to any cow calf program is Hay -sadly:

1. Input costs for hay/feed are greatly decreased on moderate cows.
2. We can produce more calves on the same amount of acreage by maintaining a herd of moderate framed cattle.
3. The moderate cow has the advantage of having a higher relative intake because she has a larger metabolic weight. This means a smaller cow can have a higher relative intake in pounds of dry matter consumed per 100 pounds of body weight, than a larger cow. This is why a smaller cow commonly has a better body condition under same environment than a larger cow. This increases BCS,health and reproductive rates.
4. She will also have the advantage of earlier maturity, earlier marbling and generally better body condition because once she meets her maintenance needs, the excess feed consumed is used for production such as daily gain and marbling, for reproduction or for work such as grazing.
5. Calves from more moderate framed cows and moderate framed bulls will also have earlier maturity, earlier marbling and generally a better BCS throughout their life.

Selecting for tall, lanky and slab-sided bulls and cows have a lot to do with the problem the average rancher is having in making a profit when the going gets tough. These cattle require a lot more energy for maintenance and in tough times just don't get enough nutrition to perform or reproduce.

Under difficult conditions the cow with the highest relative intake, will have the advantage. Matching the environment to the type of cattle we raise is a very important aspect in the cattle business, but this, normally, goes without saying -- for most experienced cattlemen/women.

So, while biological efficiency may not be the factor, there is potentially more risk of decreased profits associated with cows that aren’t appropriately matched to their environment.

on Mar 29, 2014

In terms of profitability, I would include in the comparisson the weight of the calf at the weaning. If the coefficient between the calf weight at the weaning by the weight of cow is higher than 0.50 we are talking about efficient cows in terms of calf production.

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What's My View From The Country?

As a fulltime rancher, opinion contribur Troy Marshall brings a unique perspective on how consumer and political trends affect livestock production.


Troy Marshall

Troy Marshall is a multi-generational rancher who grew up in Wheatland, WY, and obtained an Equine Science/Animal Science degree from Colorado State University where he competed on both the livestock...

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