All the principles of sustainable grazing management can be summarized in one rather strange statement: your cattle should appear not to have legs! Their short legs should be hidden in tall grass. Both animal genetics and pasture management contribute to this philosophy. In this article, I’ll start with cattle selection and care protocols. In Part 2, I will cover forage considerations.
Genetics: Breed for small, stocky cattle with short legs.
For optimum grass efficiency, you should be breeding for a small-framed animal. Your specific farm environment will naturally sort out your ideal mature animal weight. You will end up culling animals that are too big because they will be poor performers. Over time a dominant genetic type will emerge, bloodlines that your farm has selected specially for performance in your exact microclimate and under your management program. However, efficiency always increases as mature weight decreases. If a 1,000-pound cow and a 1,400-pound cow both eat “X” amount of grass in one day, the big cow will use a larger portion of that grass just to keep herself alive. The small cow will be able to fulfill her maintenance energy equirements with less of that grass, so she can put a larger amount of it into milk, body condition and gestation. Small cattle are capable of weaning a larger percentage of their body weight than large cows for this reason. Commodity cattle producers are often too preoccupied with calf weaning weight to focus on what percentage of cow weight their mama cows are weaning. Of course this is bound to happen in an industry where calves are sold by the pound. However, you can carry more cattle on the same amount of land if they are smaller. Would you rather have one six-weight calf to sell or two four-weights? The small cow strategy pays off! You’ll also appreciate it during calving season, because you’ll have far fewer incidences of dystocia when breeding to a small bull. This past summer, I bred my Red Angus herd to a frame-size-2 Belted Galloway bull weighing around 1,100 pounds.
The cattle you select for and breed must also be of correct conformation and type for grazing, in addition to being small. A slab-sided, late-maturing, tight-gutted, spindly-legged animal has no place in a grassfed operation. This genetic type has been developed for speedy grain-finishing in feedlots. Leave them there! Grain cattle often have pinched, restricted heart girth areas (right behind the front legs) and flat sides that hardly stick out at all. Choose females with huge round ribcages, which protrude significantly when you look at the animal from front or back. There needs to be room inside them for a lot of grass and a calf. You should look for stocky cattle with short legs and not overly thick bones. The show cattle industry has been selecting for big bones, which is totally counterintuitive for meat production. A large volume of bone decreases carcass dressing percentage. If it’s sold by live or hanging weight, the buyer gets stuck paying for a bunch of useless bone. Short legs and finer bones are indicators of grass efficiency, because there’s less body weight that will require extra precious grass just to stay alive. Breed the stilts out from under them. Aim for cattle that resemble tanker semi trucks: a huge volume of gut “tank” space to hold grass, short “wheels” to get around on, and a wide, stocky frame.
Management: Breed and manage for cattle you don’t have to see all the time.
Of course, you can’t see your animals’ legs if you don’t see your animals at all! Beef cattle are not like dairy cows, which require constant labor inputs. You shouldn’t have to be working with them more than once per day at most. In some situations, you can check your herd every few days, or even go months without seeing them (in the case of Western ranches). Choose the management protocols YOU want to implement on your farm, and breed for cattle that fit into them. If an animal makes you step outside your routine daily workload, cull it! For example, you can decide “I don’t want to check my calving females at night.” Then go to bed. In the morning, your herd should be happily grazing and new calves should be sucking. If anything has gone wrong, cull the animal in question. (Of course, provide prompt veterinary care to alleviate suffering and keep the animal(s) alive until you can sell them. But don’t give them a chance to do it again!) A veterinarian once told me, “the best medicine is trailer-mycin, it cures everything!”
So now you have a bunch of short-legged grass-type cattle. In my next article, I’ll discuss how to hide those tiny cow legs in lush, plentiful grass through proper forage recovery and allocation.
If discussing the whys and ways of smaller cattle is going to make someone hesitate to cull a big cow then, yes, you’re absolutely right we need not bother hash over this topic. I believe that small cows are ultimately more profitable than bigger, and that alone is enough to know and make decisions. But I’m curious about almost everything cow related and thought it could be interesting to bounce my idea off other people.
My own cows are “a good size” by that I mean 1,000-1,100 lbs at BCS 5 or so. I have a bunch of reasons that I like them that size – or even smaller – since I don’t sell into the commodity market. For example, last June it rained every single day of the month. Even my “small cows” tore up some sections of my pasture because the ground just got so, so soft. I hate to even imagine the damage a herd of large cattle would have done.
So while my cattle are the right size, I have a number of other traits I want to “fix”. I’d accept a trade for a slightly bigger cow if she had really great conformation (and then I’d breed her to a small bull). Of course, the solution for downsizing and fixing structural problems is the right bull and cull.
I don’t think we need to get bogged down in the actual explanation of why the smaller cow may be more efficient. Here is information from the National Research Council on dry matter intake (DMI) for different size cows, with varying levels of milk production. It does take into account that large cows have a little more efficiency, but it still does not make up for their lower percent of calf weaning weight. Weaning weight percent of cows weight definitely goes down for larger weights. The only way to judge this is by 205 day weight, not sale barn weight.
1983 research from Wisconsin has shown that smaller cows can wean more pounds of calf per pond of feed than larger cows. Researchers from the Meat Animal Research Center in Nebraska (MARC) have shown that energy use is less effective in higher milking cows. Size and milk ability is detrimental. Overall, the smaller, low milk production cow is the most efficient.
Glad everyone is enjoying this article! Jakob, a six-weight calf is one that weighs somewhere between 600-699 pounds. A four-weight then is 400-499 lbs. People use those terms often to describe a group of calves, such as a pen at the auction.
Thnx Meg. Pretty simple, I like it.
Meg wrote –
I have seen this in print many times from many sources. I don’t doubt that it is true that smaller cattle are generally more profitable for beef producers to raise. But I wonder whether the given reason is actually why the small cow outperforms the big when it comes to profit.
In the above quote we are to assume that the 1000 and 1,400 lb cows both ingest the same amount of grass. In a free feeding situation I doubt this would be the case. I imagine the 1,400 lb cow would eat a lot more more than a 1,000 pounder. The important thing then would be, what is her internal efficiency, not ultimately how big she is. If she’s an easy keeper she might only need a little over 2% of her weight per day. If she’s hard she could need 3%. That difference adds up to a lot of feed over the years and I am under the impression that as a general principle the larger an animal gets the lower its basal metabolic requirements.
Are we quite certain that small cows wean higher percentages of their own body weights because their maintenance requirements are lower? Are we sure their maintenance needs are lower on a percent basis?
I ask because I have an alternative hypothesis that could explain why they do. Digestion of fibrous plant material takes a long time. Bigger digestive tracts allow for the hemi-cellulose, cellulose, etc to spend enough time “in transit” for the microbes to work their magic and release bound nutrients. Ruminants are extra efficient (compared with hind-gut fermenters) in part because they chew everything a number of extra times. So while the foregut fermentation is an advantage for animals in the sheep, goat, cow size range, as one gets larger and larger the transit time becomes too long, and old fiber that has spent too long in the gut blocks things up and impedes further ingestion of fresh food. I look to nature for my examples here – wild ruminants tend to top out at about 2,000 pounds – bull buffalo, giraffe (they eat concentrated food), larger gaur. Wild animals have different physiques than our domestic cattle because they have different selective pressures applied to them. Perhaps our 1,000 pound cow is about the right size to optimize rumen function, withdrawing the maximum amount of nutrients possible without overloading herself with old fiber that reduces her ultimate digestive efficiency.
Hind-gut animals go way bigger – rhinos and elephants (and numerous now extinct species). The one-way flow of food in these mega animals means they can achieve a larger mature size and the plants they eat don’t spend way too long going through. The fibrous stuff is fully extracted and then defecated soon thereafter.
Again, I agree with your conclusions in this article. I just wonder whether we graziers are engaged in some groupthink when it comes to our rationale for “why” small cattle are better.
Great article. Right on about cow size! And type! You are describing the type of cows that survived in the natural world. Than along came man.
Although the tall slab sided cattle do well in the feedlot, any cattleman raising them to satisfy the feedlot is only subsidizing the feedlot at his expense.
As you say, more small cows are profitable. I also like what you say about survivability. Cows can do all you say. “If one can do it, they all should.” It just takes the right attitude and culling.
Keep the thoughts flowing, Meg.
For cattle illiterate people such as me, could you please define what you mean when you say six weight, four weight? Otherwise, thanks for a great article.
Interesting perspective and nice visual analogy.
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