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.”

Higher Input Costs

Salt in the wound comes with the fact that the cost of inputs continues to increase. Plus, Lalman says, “I believe the number of inputs we’re using is increasing.” Part of that has to do with the increased performance potential associated with genetic improvement.

Suppose you’ve got a sports car with a 12-cylinder engine and a beater pickup with six cylinders. The fuel efficiency in the car will be worse than the pickup whether you drive it at the legal speed limit or at its maximum speed potential.

When it comes to cows, maintenance energy requirements are the engine. Things like increased milking ability and increased growth rate are associated with higher maintenance energy requirements. The extra genetic potential comes at added cost, whether or not that potential is given the opportunity for expression.

“In the spring of the year, forage TDN may meet or exceed a cow’s maintenance energy requirement,” Lalman explains. “But several months of the year, as forage quality declines, it won’t meet her requirements. The higher the maintenance energy requirement of the cow, the longer the period of time the forage is insufficient to meet her needs.”

Lalman believes added genetic potential is leading some producers to modify their production environments without necessarily realizing it. For instance, he says, “We feed way more hay in Oklahoma than the forage quality suggests we should have to, and for longer periods.” Where 60 days of winter hay-feeding is reasonable based on forage quality, he says producers commonly feed hay for 120-150 days of the winter.

Other common environmental modifications include other supplemental feeding and reduced pasture stocking rates.

“If over time you have to modify the environment in order to maintain the same level of production, the same pounds weaned per cow exposed, then that cow doesn’t fit the environment,” Lalman says. “Some producers let the environment tell them the type of cows they need, while others modify the environment to fit the type of cows they want.”

Lalman says records are the only way to know whether an extra feed bill should be chalked up to a cold snap or declining productivity.

“You have to track your unit cost of production. And you need to know where your herd performance fits relative to other producers in the same area.”

Given the low heritability of fertility, improvement requires genetic selection based on constant challenge or a boost through maternal heterosis. Arguably, both have been lacking on average.

“Increasing fertility means challenging the cows in your herd year after year and culling the ones that don’t breed on time without modifying the environment,” Lalman says. “It’s difficult to find seedstock producers willing to challenge their cows in that manner.”

As for crossbreeding – by any measure – the nation’s cowherd has become more straightbred, over the past decade at least.

Inefficiency spurs contraction

Besides impairing profit potential within operations, Lalman says, “One reason our nation’s cowherd is shrinking is too little cow-calf profit. One reason there’s too little profit is declining productivity relative to increasing inputs and cost.”

Bevers adds that: “Rising input costs can be partially offset by rising production levels in most commodity production.” But, relative to weather constraints in any year, he says the data suggests production in cow-calf herds is being maximized. So, rising input costs relative to maximized production means static-to-declining efficiency.

Bevers believes this is one of three key barriers to cowherd expansion. The other two are competition for resources, including land and labor, and overall profitability relative to the necessary investment.

None of this is an indictment against the genetic improvement made within breeds. But it is a cautionary fact that bears pondering.

“It’s just common sense,” Lalman says. “When you look at the genetic trend for milk in the most popular breeds, on an equivalent basis, milking ability increases about 1 lb./year. We’re doing the same thing in selecting for increased muscle and growth potential. You have to ask yourself how much we need and how much can we afford at cow-calf level?”

Lalman shares this quote from Rick Bourdon, a respected industry geneticist and practical thinker: “To breed for optimum means you have a target in sight beyond which you don’t want to go. If your goal is to maintain an optimum level for any trait, the evidence of your accomplishment is not visible change but the lack of it.”

Lalman adds: “As an industry, we have demonstrated our ability to follow trends and overdo things. It’s getting us away from matching cows to their forage resources.