The cow-calf business is a long-term investment that often has poor returns. "Calf prices last fall hardly covered expenses for maintaining a cow, and there certainly was little or nothing left for profit," says John Comerford, associate professor of animal science in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.

To overcome some of these economic shortfalls, look for "free money," suggests Comerford, explaining certain management practices can have positive returns with little or no additional cost

* Graze cattle longer. Any time a cow is fed stored or purchased feed, there is a cost involved. Even hay costs money to grow, harvest, store and feed. When cows harvest feed through grazing, production costs often go down.

"New pasture management programs work very well to increase the grazing days available on a farm," Comerford says. "These include using portable fences, selecting a combination of forage varieties to extend the amount and quality of standing forage available through the year, and pasture rotation systems that suit the farm and the manager."

* Use good bulls. "The purchase of a bull is your most important investment," Comerford says. "A wealth of performance information is available on just about any breed of bull. Use it to select a bull that will meet your needs."

When shopping for a bull, ask for the bull's performance record (birthweight, weaning weight, etc.) as well as his expected progeny differences (EPDs) for traits of most value in your market.

"If the breeder cannot provide this information, find someone who can," Comerford says. "Our field studies show that the difference in genetic value of bulls on the same farm can be as much as $5,000 over the life of the bull in a 30-cow herd."

* Use crossbreeding. Heterosis, or hybrid vigor, results when cattle breeds are crossed. It's expressed in almost every performance trait except most carcass traits.

"For example, weaning weights can be increased by about 10 percent just by using an Angus bull on Hereford cows," Comerford points out. "But just because a bull or cow is one breed or another does not mean the cross will be magic. Use sound genetic selection to determine the best bull for a crossbreeding system that fits your market.

"Also, the breeding program should be consistent," he advises. "Using one breed this year and another breed each of the next four years results in a mongrel herd that has lost uniformity and the advantage of heterosis."

* Castrate male calves at birth. "Physically, it's easier on the calf than doing it at a later date, and it also is easy to catch the calf and do other things like eartag it at the same time," Comerford explains.

"Castrating with a knife will result in 100 percent success, is faster to accomplish, and is easier on a young calf." Comparing the value of similar weaned steer and bull calves at a feeder calf sale, he estimated knife castration at birth would have paid at the rate of $3,000 per hour for the labor to do it.

* Use growth-promoting implants. Using growth-promoting implants in beef calves starting at birth returns about $8 for each $1 invested, says Comerford. He cautions producers selling freezer beef who don't use implants because their customers object to them. "Be sure your customers are paying you enough premium for not using them."

* Feed the right feed at the right time. Underfeeding and overfeeding are both costly. Common mistakes include overfeeding protein and underfeeding minerals and energy.

"Know what the cows need at any particular time, and meet their needs with feed that will do the job at the lowest cost," Comerford says. "Work with a professional who can help direct a feeding program that will be cost-effective." l

For more information contact John Comerford at 814/863-3661 or Eston Martz at 814/863-3587 office #221; ecm3@psu.edu