Ranchers who run 100-499 head of mama cows are on the endangered species list, says the Standardized Performance Analysis (SPA) data. This data suggests there's very little a cattle producer with this number of cattle can do to make his operation as efficient as one with 500 head or more. Those with fewer than 100 head, as a rule, don't depend entirely on the cattle for their livelihoods.

I refuse to accept the fact that a family operation such as mine can't be profitable. The economists who developed SPA did a great job; they've helped me considerably. They continue to believe, however, that all cows are created equal and that average for the herd is where I need to be.

Their mindset could be due to the fact they've never seen much individual data on cattle. I believe it's irresponsible on my part if I don't know whether or not each cow on my place is paying her way.

No doubt, these economists are sincere and have looked at more total data than I ever will. But perhaps they need to consider other possibilities such as genetics and genetic management.

For instance, SPA data indicates a home for a beef cow averages around $3,500/head. The data also says the average cost of production from breeding of the cow to weaning is about $350.

These average-based numbers make it difficult to determine whether a particular investment or management change will return more than it costs, much less indicate the profit potential in a cowherd of any size.

As an example, consider this real-life scenario. A ranch raises and retains a group of 60 females as replacements (purebred females mated back to purebred bulls of the same breed, so there's no heterosis involved). They run in the same pasture from when they are selected until they wean their first calves.

Table 1. Steer weaning weights and revenue
Average weaning weight (lbs.) ($/cwt.) Gross revenue ($)
Heaviest 25% (7 head) 716.29 $97 $694.80
Middle 50% (14 head) 610 $99 $603.90
Lightest 25% (7 head) 522 $104 $542.88

This group of replacements produces 28 steer calves sired by bulls with expected progeny differences for weaning weight of +27, +27 and +29. Thus, the effect these sires should have on variation in the weaning weight of the calves should be negligible.

These steers are weighed individually at the ranch and matched to their dams. On average, these 28 steer calves weaned at 614.57 lbs., but the heaviest 25% weaned an extra 100 lbs. more. Meanwhile, the lightest 25% weaned almost 100 lbs. less than average (Table 1).

Using Oklahoma City Market prices of July 13, 2001, the week these calves were weaned, the heaviest 25% returned $151.92. That's 22% more per head than the lightest 25%. Meanwhile, the middle 50% returned $61 (9%) per head more than the lightest 25%.

Now, take it a step further. The dams of these calves were also weighed individually at the same time as their calves. The two heaviest cows weaned calves in the lightest 25%, while the two lightest cows weaned calves in the heaviest 25% (see Table 2 on page 30). Keep in mind, the heaviest calves cost less to produce because their dams were lighter and their maintenance requirements were lower.

Of course, the tale of these heavy and light dams raises a couple of key questions:

  • Were the lighter cows that weaned a higher percentage of their mature weight in condition to rebreed? Both the lighter cows, and the heaviest, rebred within the 60 days given them.

  • Were these lighter cows large enough to also produce heavy yearling weight cattle? The 957-lb. cow produced a calf with a 1,145-lb. yearling weight, and the cow weighing 935 lbs. produced a calf that weighed 1,000 lbs. at yearling time.

Table 2.
Dam's mature weight (lbs.) Calf weaning weight (lbs.) Calf yearling weight (lbs.) % body weight (lbs.) weaned
935 (lightest) 685 1,000 73%
975 (next lightest) 782 1,145 80%
1,230 (heaviest) 512 shipped at weaning 42%
1,200 (next heaviest) 574 924 48%

Meanwhile, the heaviest cow (1,230 lbs.) produced a calf that didn't make the weight threshold to qualify for the ranch's retained ownership feeding program. And, the 1,200-lb. cow produced a calf that weighed 900 lbs. as a yearling.

So, do the added dollars made possible by this information surpass the cost of the time and tools needed to collect the information? How can we afford not to own a set of scales when we sell by the pound?

Along with a scale, eartags, pencil and paper (or computers) are the only other tools you need to obtain the information described above. If the scale is beneath the working chute, it takes very little time to weigh both the cows and calves when vaccinating. As for matching calves to their mamas, calves can be tagged at branding, then the tags matched and cross-referenced to the dam's eartag any time before weaning.

This is just one example that illustrates that operations of 100-499 cows are a long way from being endangered if we use genetics and data to guide us in producing more pounds for less. It won't always be the lighter cows with the heavier calves, but we can aim in that direction if we know the individual production of each cow.

Ship those costly cows that don't wean at least 50% of their mature body weight every 365 days. Every herd has profitable and efficient cows; it's just a matter of finding them.

The Bradley 3 Ranch, Memphis, TX, has produced “Ranch-Raised Angus Bulls for Ranchers” since 1956. In 1986, the Bradley family opened a beef processing facility and now markets its own branded products under the B3R Country Meats label. The program includes producers in 17 states and retailers in 18 states. Minnie Lou runs the ranching operations, while daughter Mary Lou runs the beef business. For more information, call 806/888-1062, visit www.bradley3ranch.com or e-mail bradley3@srcaccess.net.