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The Right Cow

Cattle are considered to be well attuned to our modern beef industry and we only need to breed the right bull to a cow for profit. Included in this theory is adding all the necessary inputs recommended by every magazine you pick up. This has been the typical system for 40 years, but it doesn’t consider the thousands of years of natural selection that got cattle to where they are now. 

This selection did not include our modern concepts, such as large birth weights, big weaning weights, heavy milking, body size not in keeping with environment, skeletal structure by show ring judges, and other illogical traits. Cattle, like any other wild animal, had only two purposes, and that was to reproduce and survive. That is all. These two, with natural culling, would ensure the species persistence for millenniums. This was dependant on animals with certain mutations that would allow them to survive with changing environments. Those unable to change fell out, ending their line of descent.

Time also brought an end to lines of cattle with defects that interfered with day to day survival such as fertility, calving, travel, poor udders, prolapse, lack of parasite and disease resistance, and anything else that was detrimental for the species.

CattleFitWithLandThese traits were deleted by strict natural culling. Some by not breeding, others by death. This continued until man stepped in and decided which animals were best in his judgment. You know the rest of the story. We are now at a point when producers must reapply the lessons of nature and bring back or increase these desirable traits.

By doing so we can greatly lessen the amount of labor and care for cattle along with many of the inputs we so liberally dispense. Inputs that are not needed. Inputs that decrease survivability of cattle. Inputs that are expensive. Inputs that weaken disease and parasite resistance. We have been our own worst enemies, and it is time to make amends.

Only by our strict culling and selection of bulls from someone that is breeding for the same  natural traits will we make progress towards efficient cattle (Efficiency: The ratio of work obtained to the energy expended). Wild animals are considered to be efficient in their world. They can live and survive within their environment, with no supplement or care. They may not breed and have young every year, and may die during drought or long winters, but they have few genetic drawbacks as they have been eliminated. 

Cattle in the wild lived on what the land produced. No other inputs. No need for labor. This model, with a little tweak here and a little tweak there, when needed, can be used to vastly improve our cow herds today.

CowsCalveInPens?There are ranchers calving heifers in the pasture with their cow herd. There are ranchers calving heifers miles from home with very little death loss, and actually much less than those calving in pens. And, there is no comparison in levels of sickness in the calves. Heifers calving naturally have great mothering instincts. Barn heifers don’t. This is a man caused problem, like so many others. We must learn to not interfere with nature’s way.

In our desire to improve weaning weights, we removed cows from what would be their natural calving time and put them into a costly artificial environment. This destroyed their efficiency. By later calving, cows are back in their element which will greatly diminish costs, labor and sickness.

Most cows, with very little hay and supplement, calving in late spring or early summer, can produce a 400 pound calf. This is a naturally efficient weight with very little expense, and is a desirable weight for selling a calf off the cow. How could it be better? Minimal expense and a high price per pound increase NET profit.

Sure, you could calve in February, feed a lot of hay and supplement and sell a much bigger calf, but when you deduct all those costs, plus more death loss and sickness, while taking less per pound at the sale barn for the larger calf, then it is doubtful you will net any more than the small calf. Why go to all the trouble, expense and labor of doing it for nothing?

Seedstock producers and many commercial men consider their big calves to be efficient production from efficient cows. Not hardly. They are the product of FEED and INPUTS. If these cows can produce a 400 pound calf on their own, how much more expense do they incur putting on an additional150 pounds? How much profit will it generate?

On a local sale report (2010), 400 pound steer calves were $1.33, while 550 pound calves were $1.18. The light calves dollared out at $532 and the big calves at $649, which is $117 more. The extra expense of hay and supplement for winter calving, increased death loss and poor doing calves from sickness could easily amount to well over $100 dollars per head.

What I am getting at is that it is nearly impossible to improve the efficiency of a cow living in a near natural environment raising a 400 pound calf. This brings up the problem of how many cattlemen can go this route? First they will say I’m crazy. Then they’ll say it might work in Eastern Colorado, but not where I live. Then there may be some that understand, but won’t be able to handle the abuse of their coffee shop friends. 


Chip Hines Book "How Did We Get It So Wrong?"Editors Note: This article was originally a chapter in Chip Hines’ book “How Did We Get It So Wrong?”  Learn more about the book, and other books by Chip, at his website.

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Chip Hines
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.