Management Topics

Feb 24, 2012

Making cattle fit the cowherd and the feeder market

In the Feb. 13, 2012, Western Livestock Journal, Dr. Kris Ringwall had an excellent article in his monthly Beef Talk column titled “Cattle size is different than cow size.” In his article, he expresses that there can be huge differences in cattle size as well as variability in the shape of the body mass. He contends that the “bone, muscle and fat wrapped in a hide… holds all the other assorted organs and essentials. …In other words, large, medium and small types tend to have the same working parts and, for practical considerations, in the same proportions as members of the herds.” He then delved into the practical constraints of managing large and small cattle. I would like to take the remainder of this article to follow up where Kris left off.

Kris is exactly right that differently sized cattle largely have the same working parts in different sized packages. Two items can vary between cattle, one notable and one minor.

First is the milk potential in the cattle. Variance in milk potential within a herd can have a big impact on maintenance requirements. Ferrell and Jenkens (1985) concluded that cattle with moderate growth/milk or high growth/ low milk cattle had about the same low maintenance requirements per pound while low growth/high milk cattle or high growth/high milk cattle had significantly higher maintenance requirements per pound. This is because high milk potential cattle also have more gut and organ mass which requires more maintenance energy whether an animal is lactating or not. Therefore it is very important, especially in a rotational crossbreeding system, to fit milk to the environment.

The second is more of a trivia item for the coffee shop. Maintenance requirements are not calculated by an animal’s actual weight, but by that weight raised to 0.75 power (BW.75) or what is called metabolic body weight (MBW). MBW measures body surface, which is the amount of heat loss an animal will have each day. The way it is calculated, it does not go up linearly, so this ever so slightly favors a larger cow. That is why in nature, white tail deer are smaller in the south (I am talking body weight, not points, for all you Texans) than they are the north. In the south, you have smaller animals with more hide surface per pound to dissipate heat while in cold country, the opposite is true.

Contrary to what many people think, larger cow size does not necessarily mean less efficient. Efficient and inefficient cows come in all sizes. High growth, big cows do tie one’s hands from a marketing perspective as their calves probably need to go to feed straight off the cow. More moderation allows the flexibility to background calves to maximize profitability. The bottom line is efficient cows can come in many different sizes, so it comes down to management and scenarios.

With cow numbers down and the short supply of beef, packers have sent market signals back that they are willing to take bigger carcasses by decreasing discounts up to 999 pounds (lbs.). But let’s put that in perspective. In the last 26 years, the most aggressive breed in selecting for expected progeny differences (EPDs) has increased its average yearling weight EPD by 64 lbs. and milk EPD by 20 lbs., with an equal increase in mature weight, an amazing change. Also, it is my experience that the cattle today simply weigh more at the same frame score. It is simply amazing to me to go to a feed yard and look at what appear to be fairly moderate steers weighing over 1,400 lbs.

The market is also telling us that input costs like grain are at an unprecedented high. This means cattle that can be backgrounded will sell at a premium over those that only have one market avenue. Kris’s article pointed out that with their Dickenson Research Extension Center calves, when they backgrounded half of them for 90 days, they increased the carcass weight by 100 lbs. Do your cattle have enough flexibility in terms of growth potential and frame to make candidates for a backgrounding operation without producing excessive over-weights or do they have to go straight on feed right off the cow? What will happen if we see beef supplies increase and carcass weight allowances decrease?

With so many individual operations each with their own management, environment and markets, different size cattle with different milk potential will work for individual producers. However, my advice is to stay in the middle of the road as much as possible, where your cows will not only be efficient but, also, their calves are desirable in more than one marketing scenario. — Dr. Bob Hough [Dr. Bob Hough has served as the executive vice president of the Red Angus Association of American and more recently as executive vice president of the North American Limousin Foundation from 2009 to early 2011. He is now a consultant, freelance writer and semiretired.]