The cow-calf rancher knows heifer calves are his future. He tries to keep good replacement females that will be productive, profitable cows. In the last few decades, however, some producers say so much emphasis has been put on production that the most important aspect has been forgotten: profitability.
There's a vast difference between the type of cow that can give you the most production - raising the biggest, fastest growing calf (more pounds to sell) and the cow that provides the most profit.
Colorado rancher Kit Pharo says he's discovered his most efficient and profitable cows have a frame score of 4.5-5.5, and a mature weight of 1,000-1,150 lbs.
Pharo, who raises Angus, Red Angus and composites using these two breeds mixed with Tarentaise, says, "Results of a recent survey by Cattle-Fax confirm our belief that bigger cows equal bigger feed bills."
According to this survey, cows weighing 1,000 lbs. had an annual cost of $297. Cows weighing 1,000-1,100 lbs. had an annual cost of $311. Bigger cows that weighed 1,200 lbs. had annual costs of $332.
"Our cows must survive on the resources produced by our ranch with very little supplemental feed," Pharo says. "We want a cow that can support the ranch instead of being supported by the ranch."
Pharo says he wants small cows that wean large calves. "Last year our cows averaged 1,065 lbs., while weaning calves with a 205-day adjusted weight of 590 lbs."
An Economic Viewpoint Pharo says today's philosophy in developing replacement heifers is getting ranchers in trouble.
"Last fall, I read an article advising that since heifer calves are the future of your operation, you should develop them to their fullest potential. Your goal should be to keep that heifer in the cow herd once you've invested money in her."
The gist of the article, Pharo says, was that success of a program revolves around nutritional development and meeting nutritional needs of the heifer. He disagrees.
"As a rancher, my goal is to make a profit, not to keep that heifer in the herd," Pharo says. "If I provide enough feed and supplements, I can keep nearly every heifer and cow in the herd, but I can't afford that much feed; neither can any rancher."
Academically, the industry knows how to meet the nutritional needs of cattle and that it's possible to achieve pregnancy rates close to 100%, Pharo says. But, he believes academics often fail to consider the associated costs.
"Often, we get so committed to a certain breed, color or type of cow that we're willing to do whatever it takes to keep those cows in production and in the herd," says Pharo.
Cows are not created equal. Some have higher maintenance requirements than others. "You can't afford to feed your entire cow herd enough to keep hard-keepers in production," says Pharo.
He's convinced a producer is overfeeding if his herd's pregnancy rate is close to 100%. To be profitable, producers need cows that fit their environment, instead of artificially changing the environment to fit the cows, he says.
On his ranch he lets environment sort out the good cows - those that can reproduce and wean good calves with a minimum of input costs. He doesn't cut open, late or dry cows any slack.
Pharo admits that he was at one time also impressed by a bull calf with a weaning weight of 700-900 lbs. "But now I realize it's often a result of nutrition, not genetics. Cattle of this type won't be cost effective or profitable for commercial producers," he says.
Finding Efficient Genetics Pharo says the seedstock producer-bull supplier plays a crucial role in a producer's business. "He's producing the genetics that affect your cow herd for many years to come. You can't afford to purchase a bull that moves your herd in the wrong direction."
Finding the right seedstock producer is more important than finding the right breed. "The right seedstock producer is someone that raises cattle the way you do. He plays by the same rules that you have to play by," says Pharo.
Chip Hines, another Colorado rancher, says he's learned that lesson, too.
"For years, I culled hard on udders, prolapses and cancer eyes, but I made little progress. It finally dawned on me these problems were still being passed on by my seedstock producers. Until they start culling for the same traits, I'll never be able to make any real progress."
The traits a bull passes on to his daughters are important, particularly if you plan to keep replacements. The rancher needs a bull that was produced by the right kind of cow. Individual weights, indexes and EPDs are important, but they don't show the whole picture.
EPDs often don't indicate fertility, feet and leg soundness, udder conformation, fleshing ability, longevity, disposition, mothering ability or other important traits that determine whether or not a cow will stay in the herd and be profitable.
Gerald Stokka, Extension veterinarian at Kansas State University, says that when purchasing a bull, it's essential to actually view his mother. "The daughters of the bull you purchase will look very similar to the bull's mother," he says.
Stokka suggests that ranchers ask these questions when looking at the mother of a herd bull prospect:
* How many calves has she had?
* Has she ever been open?
* What type of udder structure does she have?
* What's her disposition?
* What's her body condition under range conditions?
It's always wise to look at the cow and the cow herd that produced the bull you are interested in, Stokka suggests. And, look for breeders who are concerned about these important economic traits, he adds.
Critical Culling Dylan and Colleen Biggs raise Angus and composite seedstock near Coronation, Alberta. They began asking themselves similar questions about their herd. In the mid 1980s they became interested in holistic management, and as part of that program took a closer look at their cow herd's profitability.
Dylan says cattlemen traditionally have looked at weaning weights (bigger is better) and price received as the two most important aspects of cattle raising.
"But weaning weight actually should be a long way down the list. Stocking rate, pasture management, cost of production and percent of calves weaned are a lot more important," he says.
They don't pamper their young bulls nor their replacement heifers; they're roughed through winter on a minimum of feed, striving for genetics that can get as much gain on the cheapest feed. This tactic sorts out the heifers and identifies the ones that can contribute the most to the genetics of the bulls they raise - bulls that will sire fertile and feed-efficient females.
The main criteria for all of their breeding stock is what Dylan calls "forage doability" - cattle that are able to perform on grass under harsh conditions. And when raising young bulls for sale, this is the first thing they're selected on. Cattle that are feed efficient go through a thorough physical and breeding soundness evaluation and rated for physical traits on a 1-5 scale.
Dylan explains the scoring system: 1 is best, 2 and 3 acceptable, 4 is questionable and 5 is a cull. The bulls are scored on structure of feet and legs, capacity, muscling, secondary masculine characteristics, levelness of top, cleanness of prepuce and navel (no loose sheaths), shape and condition of penis, evaluation of left and right testicle, epididymal development and seminal vesicles, and scrotal circumference.
"If a bull rates a high score on all these evaluations, then he's semen checked," he says.
Because Dylan raises maternal cattle, he also provides bull buyers with information on the bull's mother. This information is "relative to her structural soundness and fertility, her age and weight at weaning of her calf, average nursing ratio, etc," he says. "We list the average birthweight of her calves, average calving interval in days, and udder score."
Cows are all scored (1 to 5) on attachment and levelness of udder, teat length and size. One is perfect and 5 is a cull. "If a cow has less than a 3 on udder, her bull doesn't make it to the sale," he says.
Cows are also scored on their feet. There can be no poor leg conformation or her calf won't be selected. "The feet and legs have to be balanced to grow properly," says Dylan.
"The seedstock producer has to be able to combine practical management that selects for traits wanted with the ability and skill to select for structural and soundness traits, and this takes some visual evaluation," he says. It's a combined technique that has helped the Biggs raise more efficient and profitable cattle.