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Weaning Weight: Misconstrued.

By   /  January 20, 2014  /  3 Comments

Is the highest weaning weight you best indicator of profit? Not necessarily!

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Misconstrue:  interpret erroneously

I know you are wondering what I mean by misconstrued weight. Weaning weight is the most used and abused indicator of profitability ever devised! Yes, it is the pay weight for most producers, but does that certify its validity as an indicator of profitability? Then how did it gain such prominence as the supreme arbiter of profit?

Even President Eisenhower was proud of his weaning weights.  This photo from the Eisenhower National Historic Site Museum Exhibit shows him at his farm checking out his stock with West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer.  Photo courtesy of the NPS and the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kansas.

Even President Eisenhower was proud of his weaning weights. This photo from the Eisenhower National Historic Site Museum Exhibit shows him at his farm checking out his stock with West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. Photo courtesy of the NPS and the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kansas.

Partly, for the above reason. Pay weight. A very high percentage of cattlemen in this country sell calves off the cow and this weight, the heavier the better, is important to them, at least in their constricted view. Because this is their largest yearly check much weight (pun intended) is given to this sale.

Before going any further I need to explain there are two conflicting weaning weights to consider. One is the 205-day weight mainly used by seedstock producers for their breed association records and for tracking individual animals and herd progress. The second, and most widely used, is the selling weight at the sale barn which should be called the “coffee shop” weaning weight. This weight has absolutely no standards. At the coffee shop January calves out of 1500-pound cows are compared to May calves from 1000-pound cows. This is far from a fair comparison, but at the coffee shop the biggest calves, and their owner, are automatically conferred the pseudo title of, “most progressive.” There will always be someone trying to lay claim to this erroneous honor, even at a bankrupting cost.

Fairbanks-Morse was an American weighing scale manufacturing company in the late 19th and early 20th century that later diversified into pumps engines, windmills, and more.

Fairbanks-Morse was an American weighing scale manufacturing company in the late 19th and early 20th century that later diversified into pumps engines, windmills, and more.

It has been said that traits easily measured become well used and acquire outsized importance just for the fact they are easily calculable. Fairbanks-Morse made this one easy. It is hard to ignore as it allows swift comparisons that have become deeply ingrained in our cattlemen culture. Once again, does it validate profitability? Nope, just, “braggin rights.”

The usual way to evaluate weaning weight is to reckon the heavier weights as more profitable. Is this certain? Not when there are ranchers NETTING more per head raising 400-pound calves than 600 pounders. Are you wondering how? It is simply the difference in level of inputs and management to raise the calf and the differential in price per pound between a heavy calf and his much-maligned lighter brethren. Our system of pricing calves dictates how we must devise our management strategy. Both biological and economic issues must be in sync for the highest level of profit. Everyone realizes the downward trending calf price as weight goes up, but it is very hard to dislodge the thinking that extra weight is still profitable. Maybe this should be called, “gross”, thinking as the emphasis is on “gross”  profit with no recognition of the cost to get there.  Net profit is not considered.

MarginalValueMath

Figuring the marginal value will tell you if bigger weaning weights are making you more money or not.

Is there any economic value to chasing a moving target that is going down in value as cost to do so is going up? If there were only one price per pound for calves regardless of weight, pursuing heavy weaning weights might be the best strategy. But, this is not the case so you must determine a point where the average, “unpampered”, weaning weight of your calves is at the least cost. This is where net profit will be highest. (Ed Rayburn’s great article on “Figuring the Marginal Value on Calf Weights” even gives you a spreadsheet to figure out what will be most profitable.)

Producers must realize that continuing to fight the downward drifting pricing system with heavier weaning weights is akin to throwing a rock to a drowning man.

SupportOnPasture2

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About the author

Chip Hines was born and raised on a farm and ranch southwest of Burlington, Colorado. After moving to the Kit Carson, Colorado area and working on several large ranches Chip and his wife Judy began leasing land and buying cows in 1968. Unbeknownst to them this was the run-up to the big cattle break in 1974. Their first cattle cycle lesson. Chip has not forgotten! In 1989 he began planned grazing and concentrated even more on his low input philosophy. The years of learning have been published in three books on ranch management, available on his website, http://chiphines.com. Chip now lives in Yuma, Colorado and is still involved in supporting the cattle industry.

3 Comments

  1. Ben Berlinger says:

    Enjoyed your article Chip. I especially appreciated your statement as follows:
    “Once again, does it [weaning weight] validate profitability? Nope, just, “braggin rights”. How true…! Thanks Chip.

  2. Chip Hines says:

    Bill,
    I have a couple questions about your culling practice. What are your cow weights and the percent of calf weaned per mothers weight? Especially the cows you cull? Are your cow weights creeping up? It is admirable to keep weaning weights close to average, but it might not be the best tactic. There are other things that are tightly tied to profit that will show up when changing from production per animal to production per acre. The basis of our business is the land and our production and profit should be based on such. Production per animal can be misleading.

    Chip

  3. Bill Beaman says:

    I was told years ago that the “truth to any debate always lies somewhere in the middle” I believe that most of the cattlemen here in the Midwest section of the US have learned that trying to grow big framed cows to produce heavy weaning weight calves is a recipe for disaster. Big cows mean poor conception and conception rate is the most important record that can be measured on a cattle operation.

    Having said that, I can tell you that we try to maintain a herd of cows running between 4 and 5 frame score that are easy fleshing. We select bulls with that goal in mind. Next spring, when we run the fall born calves through in preparation for weaning and weigh them, we’ll note that out of a 120, ten middle aged cows we’ll have weaning weights 50 pounds or more less then the average. If our records show that it’s the second or third year that these mature cows have done that, then they need to go. That’s where use of weaning weights becomes a tool, not a crutch.

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