Ideal Cow Size

Still on cow size. It’s a big deal when speaking of profitability and sustainability. It is also a highly debated topic.

I always find it interesting that sometimes when I’m thinking of a certain topic that I want to do a post on and share information about, information starts just landing in my lap that reinforces information or brings up points that I had not yet thought to address with the topic.

Such a thing happened in the last few days, deciding I was going to have to break cow size posts into a bunch of posts, a series sort of thing. This article was posted in one of the FB groups I frequent, or maybe it was on a friend’s timeline–sorry, can’t remember where I got it, but had the presence of mind to save it!

So, detour over to the article (it will open in a new tab): On Target: Finding the Ideal Mature Cow Size

Before I start breaking down information, pointing out and discussing certain points, I wanted to share a meme that I found on Pinterest a few months ago, reposted in a group, and had some discussion on.

Cattle in America began increasing in size in the 50s, it was also when cattle started being fed mass amounts of grain in feedlots.

Cattle in America began increasing in size in the 50s, it was also when cattle started being fed mass amounts of grain in feedlots. I’ll get to some thoughts on that in another post. This meme–in my opinion–is wrong, it seems to be thinking 50’s cattle were bad; maybe we need to go back to them (or farther) and start over!

The discussion was something to the effect of me commenting what a really nice cow it actually was, and one of my (I’m privileged to say) friends that I have a great deal of respect for saying that it depended on the environment and that the cow wouldn’t work in every environment.

We’re friends, but we still have some points of contention. We are adults and sometimes either have adult-like discussions on points; or we simply agree to disagree. Now I’m not arguing that there are environments that this cow is not suited to, but our discussion led to legs and longer-legged cattle being able to walk farther distances, etc. That is something I don’t exactly agree with.

It’s like saying that my sister that is 5’8″ (long legs) can more easily walk farther distances than I can with my shorter legs and being 5’1-3/4″ (short enough that the 3/4″ is important!). I think my sister even had that thought at one time, when she decided she would race me across the parking lot at the grocery store. Her comment was something to the effect of: “You’re fast!” Which was along the lines of, “I never would have thought those short legs could beat my gazelle-like legs!”

While I will totally point out the dichotomy of male and female and the physical abilities differing (I’ve been trying to get this point across to Jeramie for years now), I will never concede that one body type is more able to cover ground or distances because of their leg length! Now, I do concede that skinny girls do better handling the heat–normally, there are exceptions. Angus cattle, sorry, just do not handle heat well; but Mashona do great. Both black cattle. Mashona is a bit skinnier, but still beef-looking.

When I was a fat girl, I handled the cold better. Now I’m more along the lines of a skinny girl, I’m more heat tolerant–I get colder easier. I blame it on lack of insulation, compliments of a great character-building exercise known as irrigating.

On to the article and some of the information it brings to mind.

“Paul Beck’s team at the University of Arkansas evaluated the role of mature size on two groups of cows that weighed on average 1,020 pounds (lb.) and 1,258 lb., at variable stocking rates locally. Across the Plains to the northwest, Derek Scasta led efforts at the University of Wyoming to examine five groups varying in average weight 100 lb. from 1,000 lb. to 1,400 lb. on semi-arid rangelands.”

Wish they could have done the “varying in average weight 100 lb. from 1,000 lb. to 1,400 lb.” for both groups, but hey, at least they did something!

“Such differences limit our ability to directly compare results, but they reinforce the importance of environmental context to cow size. “

Maybe a side-by-side, direct comparison, but as long as the cattle are kept in similar body scores, there can be comparisons made.

“With respect to stocking rate anywhere, we have to consider…mature cow size in weight — not frame, because requirements are based on mass, not height…”

This brings up that important point that I mentioned in the last post, frame score is height, but requirements are based on mass. (As I stated in What the Heck Is A Moderate Frame Cow: Just as a 1,000-pound cow differs from a 1,400-pound cow, a 46” cow at 1,200 pounds is a lot different condition than a 52” 1,200 lb.) It will be another post, but there are also genetic attributes for efficiency that make some cattle more efficient–better able to utilize feed, or require less feed–than other cattle of the same frame and weight (i.e. easy fleshing, easy keeping cattle).

“That was not a key focus of the Arkansas work, but the Wyoming group suggested planning the herd’s genetic potential around the possibility of sustained drought from global climate change.”

Interesting that the Wyoming group would think of doing this, while the Arkansas wouldn’t. Presumably, “planning the herd’s genetic potential around…sustained drought…” would mean that the cattle would be bred to be able to hold condition on less feed and still be fertile and productive. Isn’t that something that everyone should be breeding for? Would love some insight because apparently I’m not understanding what people are trying to achieve with their herds.

“…superior beef marbling, and any other economically important traits…”

And this is again where many are led astray. I’ll repeat it: If you are not retaining ownership to the rail, there is no economic benefit to the cow/calf operator from carcass traits (“superior beef marbling”).

“In these trials, the Angus-based herds were evaluated in October for weaning efficiency based on pounds of calf weaned divided by mature cow weight.”

I sure hope they used 205-day weights as weaning weights! Not fair if the calves from one herd were born in February, another in March, and another in April! They do not say when calving dates were. Presumably the calving seasons for both locations were spring? I wish they would have given more information on this! Surely they did everything within their power to make the results as comparable as possible…

“In both herds, the smallest cows had the greatest weaning efficiency; that is, they weaned more pounds of calf per unit of mature weight, which was no surprise having been reported in other studies.”

And there it is–again. I’m beginning to feel like a broken record. The smaller cows are more efficient. The smaller cows are more efficient. The smaller cows are more efficient.

What does that mean? It means that they produce more weaned pounds on a fixed resource (land). It means that the return on land which (even if inherited or no cash is paid for the land itself) is not free. There are even costs associated with land ownership–think property taxes, fencing, irrigation (which is really, really expensive), etc. It ultimately means that smaller cows are going to make more profit than larger cows.

“The different stocking rates evaluated in Arkansas showed increased weaning efficiency per acre as stocking rate increased…That may point to short-term opportunities that don’t need to wait for genetic change…”

Kudos and raise a glass to toast what Allan SavoryJim Gerrish, Johann Zietsman, and Jim Elizondo, among others, “discovered” and have been teaching for years (some of them decades).

I need to make a resource page with links, but I don’t want to get too sidetracked from this post, so I’ll put it here at the moment: Thank you Living Web Farms for posting the seminar Sustainable Ranching on YouTube!!! Totally recommend watching the whole series, multiple times. Should be required watching for anyone that owns more than two cows.

“…We know there are genetics that stand out for efficiency and allow ranchers to select bulls with smaller mature size…”

And there is that easy fleshing, easy keeper thing that I have already started making notes on my spiral notebook (old school) to write a post (or two…).

And to finish the above sentence:

“…and exceptional pre- and postweaning growth.”

How inclusive is that “and?” It’s not making a list, not breeding for both smaller mature weights and exceptional pre- and postweaning growth? Would be more like genetics for smaller mature weights. Genetics for expectional pre- and postweaning growth. Am I the only one reading it that way or that tore it down that way? Or is he saying there are smaller mature weights with exceptional pre- and postweaning growth?

“More and more bulls are also being tested for metabolic efficiency, where residual feed intake evaluates their ability to consume less forage than contemporaries with comparable performance.”

Cows are also tested. Sheesh. The Cow Is the Most Important! This gets into that other post I’m planning…differences in efficiency of cattle that are the same frame and weight; and another post I have started about why the cow is the most important part of the operation.

“There is no universal ideal. Wyoming data suggest smaller cows are more efficient in restricted-resource environments. Arkansas data agreed in part, but the greater efficiency in smaller cows there provided no profit advantage over large cows because greater forage resources were available.”

And this is where the author lost me. “…No profit advantage over large cows because greater forage resources were available.” Can someone explain this to me like I’m a 3 year old? This is how I would see it: Greater forage resources, run more cows. If the smaller cows are more efficient, run more smaller cows. How is that not more profitable?

One of my favorite sayings of Kit Pharo is his example of 50,000 pounds of 400-weight calves being worth more than 50,000 pounds of 500-weight calves.

He is simply pointing out that the pounds are the same. 50,000 is 50,000. The reason the 400-weights are worth more is because they sell for more per pound. The price difference is known as the “spread”; the price per pound decreases as weight increases. What this means is that for the cost of putting on every extra pound on a calf through creep feed or other methods–to include concentrated feed to the cow to increase/improve her milk production–the return on that investment actually decreases, the more weight that is added. (That was a really long sentence, may require re-reading).

Here’s a different way to look at it–which I am totally against concentrated feed, except for bottle calves… So I’m going to pick on the creep feeders, because it demonstrates the point oh so well. Creep feed cost: $11.49 (pulled from Murdoch’s website by searching creep feed). That $11.49 will get 50 pounds of feed.

According to this publication from Virginia Cooperative Extension, conversion rates of creep feed–how many pounds of feed it takes to put on a pound of gain–rates range from 4:1 to 18:1. That is, 4 to 18 pounds of creep feed to put on one pound of gain. Because the range is very drastic, we’ll go with the median, 11 pounds of creep feed to put on one pound of gain. And because I try to be as objective as possible, I’ll even do the match for different conversion rates.

If one pound of gain is accomplished for every 11 pounds of grain, then a 50 pound bag is going to result in 4.5 pounds of gain (50 pound bad, divided by 11 pounds = 4.5 pounds of gain). So 4.5 pounds of gain costs $11.49. Meaning $11.49, divided by 4.5 pounds = each pound of gain costs $2.55.

Now, in addition to the cost of the feed, other costs have to be accounted for. The cost to get the feed from the dealer/store to the farm, the barn to the creep feeder, bag disposal (if any); then the capital costs involved, such as the creep feeder itself. I’m not going to try and nail those down right now; $2.55/per pound of gain demonstrates my point just fine.

Here is the data I’m going to use for my example: 500-545 lbs $215.00-227.50; 565-595 lbs $198.00-210.25. (It is from a market report from the livestock auction in Sterling, Colorado on October 7, 2015 (whole report can be found here).

For our assumptions, let’s say steers would normally wean off at 545 lb, but with creep feed will wean at 595. That’s 50 pounds added by the creep feed, assuming all other things remain constant. The spread generally operates that smaller calves bring more per pound, so assume that 545 lb calves sell for $215.00 cwt ($2.15 lb.); 595 lb calves sell for $210.25 cwt ($2.1025 lb.).

Note: $2.15 – $2.1025 = $0.0475 lb. or $4.75 cwt lost just for having the heavier calf.

The 545 lb calf will bring in a gross income of 545 x $2.15 = $1,171.75

The 595 lb calf will bring in a gross income of 595 x $2.10 = $1,250.99

The difference is $1,250.99 – $1,171.75 = $79.24.

That means the extra 50 pounds on the bigger calf brought in an addition $79.24 of income.

But the 50 lb. added by the creep feed cost $2.55 lb. to put on = $127.50

$79.24 additional income minus $127.50 to add 50 pounds = -48.26  (yes, that is a big red number with a negative sign in front of it). Remember that is just the loss on the extra feed to put on the extra 50 pounds, it does not include the associated costs like transportation, the time to feed, the capital costs for the feeder,etc. That’s on a per calf basis, too. So if you have 10 calves, total loss would be $480.26; 100 calves would be $4,802.60.

Rather than do all the calculations of different conversion rates, let’s just figure out what the conversion rate would be just to breakeven on the cost of feed:

Additional income of $79.24, divided by 50 additional pounds gained by the creep feed = $1.5848 rounds off to $1.58 per pound. So to breakeven just on the feed costs, the feed can only cost $1.56/pound per pound of gain.

$11.49 divided by 50 = $0.2298, rounds off to $0.23/pound feed cost.

$1.59 breakeven feed cost, divided by $0.23/pound feed cost = 6.91 pounds of feed. Meaning that if a calf requires more than 6.91 pounds of creep feed to gain an additional pound, over and above what it would have gained without the creep feed, it is costing more to put the pound on than what the income will bring just to pay for the feed.

And again, that is on a per calf basis. If you have 10 calves and any one of them requires more than 6.91 pounds of creep feed to put on a pound that they wouldn’t have put on otherwise, it can easily ruin any profit or advantage the other 9 calves would gain. Profit is easy to suck up.

With conversion rates between 4:1 and 18:1, that means that calves have to convert at the top of the scale just to cover the cost of the creep feed itself!

So it’s a slight detour off cow size over to weaning weights. But because the weaning weight of the calf determines the income for the cow, and the size of the cow determines how much her cost is per year…it all runs together, all must be considered. And the costs to run the cow and any other inputs used to get a weaned calf sold all added together, subtracted from the gross income equal the profit generated that year by THAT COW…the calf really doesn’t get the credit.

Disclosure: I realize that most people are not going to be buying creep feed by the 50-pound bag from Murdoch’s, and so the cost of the feed itself can be considerably less. However, the point is to realize the costs involved in inputs and the real return–or possibility of a return OR LOSS. Especially with bulk feeds, etc. there are normally greater transport costs involved (because it either takes a bigger, specialized vehicle, or the feed dealer delivers (and even if they say that’s free, it’s not, someone has to pay for it and the feed dealer is not going to be that someone). Also with bulk then there are storage and spoilage costs to be calculated in.

Over 2,600 words, I better wrap this post up. Would love to hear thoughts, comments, experiences, etc.


5 thoughts on “Ideal Cow Size

  1. Ashley C

    Very good read! I’ve tried a little in the past to talk numbers and efficiency with my family but haven’t had much luck (especially on the farming side of things). I look forward to reading more of your posts!

    I only have one comment pertaining to this statement: “I’ll repeat it: If you are not retaining ownership to the rail, there is no economic benefit to the cow/calf operator from carcass traits (“superior beef marbling”).”
    I disagree with this, very slightly, in that I think it can be beneficial. Let’s put it this way if your calves time and time again grade out “USDA Choice” or whatever other grade (the point here is consistency) it can be a good marketing point for future buyers to be informed of. It can show genetic consistency when it comes to marbling. Does it directly pertain to cow size/efficiency? No, not really. Does it directly pertain to the market value at weaning time? I believe it can, although it is likely a small factor. It could help guarantee a return calf-buyer if they continue to like what they see from weaning to finishing. I’m sure it also depends how you are marketing your weaned calves as well…sale barn, internet auction, private treaty, etc…and how well you get to know your buyer(s) and how your calves finished out. Just my 2 cents 😉
    I do agree that there are more important traits to breed for though. Unless you’re going for some niche market of course (I’m thinking breeds like Piedmontese, etc).
    I’d like to read your input on this!
    Thanks 🙂

    1. randi Post author

      I see where your idea is going; and it makes sense. The problem I see is that most commercial breeders change bulls every 2 years or so (which I don’t exactly agree with, but that’s another post that’s coming up). So, in reality, the consistency of the genetics is not going to be there because they are changing bulls. Now, there are the producers that always go to the same bull producers, and a person would think the genetics are going to remain consistent from the same producers.

      Even if there were consistency, though, the premium paid for a carcass bull is never going to pencil out, I don’t believe. The premium paid will never be paid off, it will always be trying to catch up. That would be because the first few years that it takes the buyers to figure out that the calves are worth a premium, they are not going to pay a premium. We’ll say two years; so two years premium thrown away. How much premium is going to be paid for a calf for carcass traits?

      To me, paying a premium for carcass traits, when cattle are not held all the way to the rail is a waste of money. Money that could be put elsewhere with a greater degree of effectiveness and improvement. What if it were put into a little better mineral to increase pregnancy rates? Fencing that would allow better utilization of forage? Those sort of improvements will pay off much faster and turn a profit a lot sooner.

      1. Ashley C

        That makes absolute sense! For whatever reason, I hadn’t thought about the bull side of things! As silly as that may sound. I guess my dad typically hangs on to most of his bulls for more than 2 years and does typically go to the same breeder(s) and/or uses similar AI bulls. I agree, you are still not guaranteed that the calves each different bull will produce will be comparable. But hey there only a couple guarantees in life, and it doesn’t have to do with material things 😉 Thank you for taking the time to give me another point of view on this, I greatly appreciate it 🙂 I have come to agree that yet again, that money is spent better elsewhere where a bigger and better difference can be made. Thanks again!!

  2. Curtis Ohlde

    Some good points. One thing to realize with current markets though is 5 cwt calves are closer to $150 and bringing more than 4 cwt calves. As a goal I suggest getting weaned calves to 500 pounds. Creep depends on resources and grass quality. The cost have to be evaluated and right feed chosen. Feed conversion is good on lite weight calves but the key if selling as feeders, not to put condition on calves as buyers will dock. They want green calves that will gain.

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