Cow Size and Profitability

By Kit Pharo

For most of the last three decades, Pharo Cattle Company pretty much stood alone in promoting the benefits of smaller cows.   Among the high-input, big-cow, status quo seedstock producers, we were the butt of many jokes.   That did not bother us, though, because we knew we were right.   Over the years, more and more commercial producers came to understand what we were talking about.   They discovered cow size has a tremendous effect on stocking rate – and that stocking rate affects profitability more than anything else.   Consequently, we went from selling six bulls at our very first bull sale in 1991 to selling over 800 bulls per year.

In recent years… a few university personnel have sought to prove what we have always known to be true.   These men and women are trailblazers and pioneers.   They are going against the status quo to disprove many of the things universities have been wrongly promoting for the last 40 years.   They know cow-calf producers will go broke if they continue to select for the same traits they have always selected for.   With calves only worth half what they were worth just three years ago, this has never been more true.

I am going to share some bullet points from a recent study done by Derek Scasta (University of Wyoming), David Lalman (Oklahoma State University) and Leticia Henderson (Oregon State University).

  • The livestock industry tends to select for cattle that do not perform to their maximum potential in limited-resource environments.
  • Selection for increased calf growth has been steady since the 1970s according to most breeds’ genetic trend data.   Similarly, milk EPDs in most breeds have consistently increased since the 1990s.
  • As milk production and growth potential increase, nutrient intake requirements go up.   Weaning weights should also increase.   However, if the genetic expression for milk and growth is limited by the environment, this benefit will not be realized.   Currently, no evidence exists to indicate increases in weaning weights in commercial cow/calf operations in New Mexico, Texas, or Oklahoma.
  • Because grazed forage remains the least expensive source of nutrients to maintain the cowherd, one needs to match cow size and milk production to forage resources to optimize forage utilization and reproductive efficiency.
  • 1,400-pound cows need 8.8 more pounds of forage per day and 1,848 more pounds of forage for the 210-day grazing season than 1,000-pound cows.   Subsequently, the stocking rate would need to be prorated as cows get larger.
  • The total pounds weaned ranges from 50,000 pounds for 1,000 pound cows to 35,500 pound for 1,400-pound cows.   Larger cows offer no advantage in total pounds weaned.
  • Because smaller cows require less forage, more individual cows can be placed on the same pasture and more total pounds of weaning weight can be produced.

According to the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, Nebraska, the average Angus, Red Angus and Hereford cow in America weighs over 1,400 pounds.   Status quo seedstock producers have successfully out-Simmentalled the Simmentals.   Unfortunately, in their attempt to wean bigger and bigger calves, their pounds and profit per acre have been decreasing.   Remember, it doesn’t matter how big your cattle are if they’re not profitable.


Quote Worth Re-Quoting –

“It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.”   ~ Mark Twain

2 responses to “Cow Size and Profitability

  1. I remember a similar concept taught in 1980 by Professor Robert E McDowell in his “Livestock Production in Warm Climates” class at Cornell University. His class focused on areas in the tropics where grazing resources were limited by poor soil, grass with low nutrient content and/or dry climates. He said smaller cows produce better in these adverse conditions. American or European sized cows would be unproductive. In some places, they might not even be able to graze enough acres to stay alive. I later worked with farmers in Southern Sudan (dry climate) and in Borneo (low quality grass). Professor McDowell’s class helped me better understand why those farmers had small framed cattle.

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