Look at the genetic trend for performance traits in commonly used beef breeds and the steep, positive slope of improvement is staggering. But if you compare that to the pounds on the ground, and the ability of commercial cows to breed, calve, and wean a calf and then breed back, the lack of progress is just as shocking.

“People don’t want to hear it, but I can find no credible evidence suggesting the average weaning weight per calf has increased in this country for the last 10 years,” says Stan Bevers, Texas AgriLife Extension agricultural economist.

In fact, according to Southwest Standardized Performance Analysis (SPA), three key measures of cow productivity are declining.

Bevers recently ran Southwest SPA numbers to get averages for the period of 1991 to 1999 and 2005-2009 (Table 1). From the first period to the most recent, average weaning weights declined 36 lbs., average calving rate declined 1.3%, and average pounds weaned per cow exposed – a product of the other two measures – declined 25 lbs.

Incidentally, according to that same data, the average profit/cow in 2010 was a negative $47.76/head, with an average total annual cow cost of $588/head.

“We always talk to producers about matching their cows to their feed resources,” says David Lalman, Oklahoma State University Exten-sion beef cattle specialist. “My concern is that from a phenotypic standpoint, commercial cows don’t appear to be getting any more efficient.”

Lalman is quick to point out that genetic improvement within breeds, however, has provided extraordinary commercial progress in some areas. These include significant declines in calf dystocia and a dramatic increase in carcass marbling.

But, Lalman emphasizes, “From a commercial cow-calf standpoint, cow productivity hasn’t improved.”