Increases in Cattle Size and How It Affects Cow/Calf Profitability

Calves sell by the pound. More pounds at weaning means more income. Higher income, the more the business can grow. Sound logic, right? Maybe in some other business, but not in cattle. I mean, it does make sense…sort of.

A 600-pound calf will sell for more than a 400- or 500-pound calf, right? Let’s just say yes, simply because of being more pounds to sell. Let’s say each bring $1 per pound ($100/cwt), so a 400-, 500-, 600-pound would bring $400, $500, and $600 respectively. There are times this isn’t true, but just go with it for this example.

Larger weaning weights sounded great. Bigger is better, especially when you sell by the pound and therefore have more pounds to sell. So starting in the 50’s, producers started selecting which bulls to breed based on weaning weights. They continued to chase the pipe dream, envisioning the larger calves and larger checks. Oh! The things they could do with all that extra money!

Funny thing was, calves were weaning off larger and larger. The checks were getting bigger and bigger. The producer was struggling more and more. What was wrong? He was making bigger calves, selling more pounds, but there was less and less money left at the end; many years saw that dreaded red color with the double line underneath.

The problem lies, foremost, in the lack of attention to cow size and the maintenance requirements of a larger animal and the repercussions of that. Breeding for larger weaning weights was fine–not counting creep feed and other inputs. The problem, however, began when producers started keeping the heifers with larger weaning weights, and therefore ended up with larger mature weights. Just this single factor made them playing a game they couldn’t win.

My favorite of our commercial cows, "12." Weighed 1,610 pounds; was over 62" at the tail. Ate a ridiculous amount to stay in condition and raise a calf. Liquidated our commercial--large--cows in 2012.

My favorite of our commercial cows, “12.” Weighed 1,610 pounds; was over 62″ at the tail. Ate a ridiculous amount to stay in condition and raise a calf. Liquidated our commercial–large–cows in 2012.

Cow size has increased to such a degree in the US that it is impossible for the average cow to be profitable. There is no way. She requires too much expense to simply maintain herself, let alone the extra required to raise a calf.

Larger calves are necessary for the larger amount of cash at the end of the year. Many producers need the larger income just to pay the bills at the end of the year. This leads to yet even more inputs, creep feeding calves, holding them longer, calving earlier. It’s a vicious cycle. More and more money poured in to get calves bigger, more and more money going out to pay for those inputs. Meanwhile, cows getting bigger (or even just being big) requiring too much expense.

All of this because someone determined that larger weaning weights were better and should be the end-all, be-all. Turns out weaning weights are just some number, incomplete information at best, completely misleading and irrelevant at worst. One thing is for sure, larger weaning weights lead to larger cows and larger cows aren’t profitable.

Lack of profitability is the kiss of death for any business.

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