A comparative analysis is the single, most powerful, farm and ranch management tool available. It's a tool that works especially well as a way to identify where beef farmers or ranchers should focus their management attention to increase profits.

Let's do a step-by-step comparison of one, beef-cow profit center's production facts with that of a set of benchmark herds.1 The production areas where the producer beats the benchmark herds suggest potential strengths in the beef cow herd. Production areas where the producer is beat by the benchmark herds suggest potential weaknesses in his beef cow herd.

The reason benchmark herds aren't used more by ranchers is because ranchers generally lack access to other producers' herd data. The published North Dakota IRM 1994 Database, which we'll refer to as the Northern Plains Benchmark Herds (NPBH), will serve as the benchmark herds in this article.2

Two Northern Plains benchmark summaries are used in the production comparisons described below. The first is the average, along with the high and low values, for each benchmark factor. The second is the average of the low ⅓, middle ⅓ and high ⅓ herds grouped according to their unit cost of producing (UCOP) a hundredweight (cwt.) of calf.

Even producers with herds not located in the Northern Plains should find comparing their herd production to those of the NPBH useful.

Table 1. Summary of Cows Leaving The Herd Since Last Year's Weaning
a. Number of cows that died ______ Head
b. Number of cows sold because of age ______ Head
c. Number of cows sold because of physical defects ______ Head
d. Number of cows sold because of poor fertility or open ______ Head
e. Number of cows sold because of inferior calves ______ Head
f. Number of cow sold for replacement stock ______ Head
g. Number of cows sold for unknown reasons ______ Head
Total Number Culled ______ Head
h. Total females Exposed To The Bull Two Seasons Ago _____ Head
h
i. SPA Adjustment = _____ + _____ + _____ + _____ + ______ = _____ Head
b c e f g i
j. Cows Purchased _____ Head
j
k. Exposed/bred females sold _____ Head
k
l. Net Adjustment to females exposed _____ Head
l=i-j+k
m. SPA Adjusted Females Exposed _____ Head
h-1

Keep in mind two key points when conducting this comparative analysis.

  • Your goal is to use these NPBH to identify your herd's potential production strengths and weaknesses. Once identified, these will serve as a guide to focused management attention.

  • While benchmark comparisons help producers identify weakness, they don't indicate how to reduce the weakness. It's up to the manager to determine that.

The National Integrated Resource Management Standardized Performance Analysis (IRM-SPA) Guidelines suggest that production efficiency should be measured by SPA Adjusted Females Exposed. This national guideline allows producers to adjust females exposed for:

  • why cows were culled,
  • for purchased female animals, and
  • for the sale of breeding females.

Table 1 is designed to help producers determine their SPA Adjusted Females Exposed. While a producer's herd may fall outside the minimum or maximum size of the cow groups represented in Table 1, it isn't critical to this exercise.

Table 2. SPA Adjusted Females Exposed In The Benchmark Herds
36 166 480
Low Average High

Table 2 illustrates the range of herd size among the benchmark herds.

Pregnancy rate is based on the number of females checked pregnant divided by the SPA Adjusted Females Exposed. The equation to use is:

______________ ÷ _____________ × 100 = _________%
No. checked preg. Adjusted SPA Females Preg. PercentM

Calculate your pregnancy percentage and compare your figure to the values in Table 3. Is your pregnancy rate a strength or weakness of your herd?

Table 3. Pregnancy Rate
86% 94% 100%
Low Average High

Calving Rate

Calving rate measures the number of females that had a live calf. Aborts are not included but stillbirths are. Stillbirths are also included in the calf death number. Calving rate is calculated with:

_____________ ÷ ____________ × 100 = ________%
Cows Calving SPA Adj. Females Calving Rate

Calculate your percent calf crop and compare to the values in Table 4.

Table 4. Calving Rate
82% 94% 100%
Low Average High

Percent Calf Death Loss

Percent calf death loss is the one production measure not based on females exposed. Percent calf death loss is based on the number of calves born.

Table 5. Calf Death Loss
0% 3% 11%
Low Average High

The formula is:

______________ ÷ ______________ × 100 = ___________
No. Dead Calves No. Calves Born % Death Loss

Calculate your herd's percent calf death loss and compare it to the benchmark values in Table 5.

Table 6. Percent Calf Crop
76% 92% 100%
Low Average High

Percent Calf Crop

The primary reproductive efficiency measure suggested by the IRM-SPA Guidelines is the number of live calves weaned based, once again, on the SPA Adjusted Females Exposed. The formula is:

_______________ ÷ ____________ × 100 = ____________
Live Calves Weaned SPA Adjusted Females Exposed

Average Weaning Weight

Weaning weight is the most observed production indicator used by the cow-calf sector and is of significant economic importance. But weaning weight statistically explains only 20% of the UCOP variation among the Benchmark Herds.

For example, the weaning weight of the low-cost ⅓ of the herds averaged the highest at 614 lbs. The middle ⅓ averaged 554 lbs., and the high-cost ⅓ averaged 547 lbs. Post your herd's average against those in Tables 7a and 7b.

Table 7a. Average Weaning Weight (Unadjusted)
440 lbs. 571 lbs. 761 lbs.
Low Average High
Table 7b. Average Weaning Weight By Cost Group
614 lbs. 554 lbs. 547 lbs.
Low Cost ⅓ Middle Cost ⅓ High Cost ⅓

Pounds Of Calf Weaned Per Female Exposed

A second critical measure of the production efficiency of a beef cow herd is pounds of calf weaned per female exposed. Our benchmark herds ranged from a low of 353 lbs./cow to a high of 751 lbs./cow with a 528-lb. average (Table 8a).

Table 8a. Pounds Weaned Per Female Exposed
353 lbs. 528 lbs. 751 lbs.
Low Average High
Table 8b. Pounds Weaned Per Female Exposed
569 lbs. 515 lbs. 501 lbs.
Low Cost ⅓ Middle Cost ⅓ High Cost ⅓

Table 8b presents the average pounds weaned for the low ⅓, middle ⅓ and high ⅓ cost groups. Note that pounds weaned per female exposed goes down as UCOP goes up. This suggests that one key to lowering production costs is to increase pounds of live calf weaned per female exposed.

Strength/Weakness Summary

Now that you've completed your comparative production analysis, enter your herd's production values and the average benchmark values. Now, calculate your herd's percent of the benchmark values.

Production items with an index of more than 100 (100%), with the exception of percent calf death loss, are candidates for your herd's potential strengths. Those items with an index less than 100 are prime candidates to be your herd's weaknesses.

Table 9. Summary Of Potential Strengths And Weaknesses For Your Herd
Item Your Value Benchmark Value % Of Bench
1 SPA Adjusted Females Exposed _____ _____ _____
2. Pregnancy Rate _____ _____ _____
3. Calving Rate _____ _____ _____
4. Percent Calf Death Loss _____ _____ _____
5. Percent Calf Crop _____ _____ _____
6. Average Weaning Weight _____ _____ _____
7. Pounds Of Weaned Calf
Produced Per Female Exposed
_____ _____ _____

One Last Caution

There's no hard and fast rule for identifying your herd's strengths and weaknesses. The best approach is to have a perpetual inventory of herd performance records that are compared to contemporary herds. North Dakota's Cow Herd Analysis Performance System (CHAPS) is one such perpetual inventory and contemporary system, and is available in 20+ states.

But short of having your own production records, this article's worksheets may be your best alternative.

Another caution is that you, as the herd manager, must be the final decider of what constitute strengths and weaknesses in your herd. Unique circumstances can make your herd's performance logically differ from the benchmark herds. If so, then ignore the benchmark and use your own judgment.

In most cases, however, benchmark comparisons typically identify some strengths and weaknesses. Armed with this information, the astute beef cow manager can focus his management energy toward capitalizing on his herd's strengths while trying to reduce the weaknesses. When management energies are focused on facts and the analysis of these facts rather than perceptions, profits generally increase.

1It's recommended that the beef farm or ranch business be divided into profit centers. Profit centers for a typical ranch would be a beef-cow profit center, a forage profit center and a pasture profit center. If calves are backgrounded and or retained, you should also have a backgrounding profit center and a retained ownership profit center.

The key is to treat each profit center as a stand-alone business. Any forage fed should be charged to the beef-cow profit center at fair market value. Meanwhile, the forage profit center is credited with the market value of forage produced.

2Harlan Hughes, “IRM-FARMS Databank 1994 Herds,” Department Of Agricultural Economics, North Dakota State University, September 1995, 10 pages.

3Herds with super-large cows (average weights of 1,500+ lbs.) weren't the low-cost herds in the benchmark. I lacked sufficient number of cow herds with average cow weights of 1,500+ lbs. to do a formal study, but generally as cow weight increases above 1,500 lbs., feed costs accelerate, reproductive efficiency drops and dthe cost of producing a cwt. of calf rises. Big cows milk high, eat accordingly, and may well be limited by the environment. More research is needed on the economics of super-large cows.