Producing heavy feeders that perform and provide quality carcasses start with cows that are able to produce that type of calf, and still work in the ranching environment, says Ken Olson, South Dakota State University Extension beef specialist.

Addressing the recent Range Beef Cow Symposium in Mitchell, NE, Olson began by talking about feeder cattle. He cited work by Kansas State University’s Justin Waggoner, who is involved in an ongoing feedlot project called ‘Focus on Feedlots.’ The project has amassed 20 years of data from Kansas feedyards varying in size from 10,000-head to 75,000-head capacities.

“There is a steady trend upward over the 20 years for both steers and heifers, and we’re putting on an additional 150-170 lbs. at finishing today. That equates to about 14% larger weights. They do spend about eight more days to get there, but their average daily gains are about 60% faster, and they’re more efficient,” Olson says.

He says this data demonstrates how the industry has maintained steady beef production with a third less cows than in 1974.

“When you put all that information together, and divide the weight of beef slaughtered by the number of cows, we have a very steady trend line over time of increasing the amount of beef produced per cow. There’s about an 18% improvement over that same 20-year period.”

To comprehend how much cow size has increased, Olson provided EPD numbers as one indicator. For the Angus breed, yearling weight, which is considered a reliable indicator of mature weight, has increased 96 lbs. since the early 1970s. In that same time period, Angus steer weights have increased 300 lbs., and heifers are up 239 lbs., on average.

“Another source of information on mature cow size weights comes from actual research data from USDA’s Germplasm Evaluation Program. They conducted a direct, head-to-head comparison of nine sire breeds, all representing the character of those sire breeds when bred to common genetic resource cows and allowed to grow to full genetic maturity, and weighed at five years old as a measure of mature weight,” Olson explains.

The average cow size across all breeds was 1,390 lbs., with less than 100 lbs. separating the heaviest and lightest breeds. Herefords came in heaviest, at 1,419 lbs., followed by Angus at 1,410 lbs., then Red Angus at 1,409 lbs. In the middle were Simmental cows at 1,404 lbs., and the lightest three breeds were Gelbvieh at 1,323 lbs., Limousin at 1,391 lbs. and Charolais at 1,371 lbs.

“It looks upside down when you start putting the breeds with numbers. The British breeds have aggressively chased growth and added a lot of growth potential and size to their breeds. The continental breeds have probably focused on other traits, and while they’ve had growth trending upward, it’s not at nearly as steep a rate,” commented Olson on the findings.