Thursday, June 13, 2024

Cow Efficiency

EfficientCowWhen the cattle industry embarked on the performance race 40 plus years ago, two things happened. Weaning weights went up, which was the prime goal. It was assumed (Assume: To take for granted) that since we were selling pounds, more was better. It again was assumed that increased production per cow was good. We were led to believe 400 pound calves were money losers and if we raised bigger calves, profit would follow. This was only a presumption (that which is supposed to be true with no actual proof). The economics of increasing weaning weights was not part of the research. There were direct and indirect costs. This article only deals with the indirect costs that later became known, yet not considered a detrimental factor in production and profit.

Unknowingly, cow size was soon to follow the weaning weight increases. It was gradual and wasn’t recognized as a threat to profit for many years as production per cow was blinding the view. When it was realized the industry was producing the same amount of meat with fewer cows that was signaled as a plus. Again, another assumption. All emphasis remained on production per cow. Production per acre was/is an unknown term in the animal science “book.”

Production per animal separates the animal from the land. Production per acre is where we need to look for profit. Animal scientists concentrating only on individual animal performance classify pastures as just a place to house the animals, not as a partner in production. This led to building big inefficient cows that looked okay from one perspective only. In actuality, production per acre was going down and more significantly, profit per acre was steadily decreasing. Universities professing this led the cattle industry in a 40 year backwards race.

Meanwhile, animal scientists who understand the economics of the cow, properly tie them to the land and what is required for profit. Researchers from Wisconsin (Davis et al., 1983b) have shown that smaller cows can wean more pounds of calf per pound of feed than can larger cows. “The same research group in a different study found that feeding larger cows with a higher energy diet did not sufficiently increase number and total weight of calves weaned to offset the higher level of energy intake. In other words, supplying larger cows more energy did not increase their production efficiency.”

The following quote is from a paper published by Dr. Allen Williams.

“Increasing cow size lowers efficiency in pounds of weaned calf.”

This quote was from information generated by Southeast Integrated Resource Management (IRM) data generated from actual farm reports.

Now to dirty this a little more, milk production needs to be discussed. Increasing a cows’ milk production raised weaning weights. Sounds reasonable, but extra milk is not free. There is an indirect little noticed cost.


 Researchers from the Meat Animal Research Center (MARC) in Nebraska (Ferrell and Jenkins, 1984a, 1984b and 1985) have shown that energy use is less effective, in higher milking cows. “They attribute this to their larger internal organs and faster metabolism, compared with lower milking cows. The lower energy use efficiency of higher milking cows means that they require more energy than do lower milking cows. Therefore a higher milking cow generally has a greater total energy requirement than a lower milking cow of similar size during the lactation and dry periods.” (Ferrell and Jenkins, 1984a; Montano-Bermudez et al., 1990)

“According to the National Research Council’s guidelines for beef cows calving in February and March and weaning in October, heavier milking cows weighing about 1,250 pounds require 34% more energy on average for an entire year compared to 1,100 pound moderately milking cows.”

New Mexico State University research

Maintenance Energy Requirements for cows of high and low milking potential but equal in all other characteristics.

                                             Cow A              Cow B                 Difference      

Body Weight lb                    1,100                 1,100

Milk Potential                       Low                  high

Total lb of TDN/cow/yr       3,726                 4,159                    433

Total lb of forage/cow/yr     6,774                 7,561                    787  

This example shows that a higher milking cow of the same weight requires almost 800 pounds more forage per year.

When production efficiency was estimated as weight of calf weaned per unit of energy intake, lower milking cows were more efficient.

 (In a 100 cow herd 10 more cows could be added for the difference in milk production.  100 X 787=78700 ÷ 6,774 = 11.6 cows.) Authors note.

The ranch carrying capacity must be calculated comparing big cows with smaller cows. Something else to consider is a cows level of milk production. Research indicates the forage increase to support heavier milk production is significant. The same acres of land will always run more small low milking cows than big, heavy milking cows. The significance of this?

There is a very high correlation between the number of cattle sold and profit. This is cow economics 101. The ranch has to be considered as a whole instead of looking at parts. Big cow proponents cannot see past high gross income per cow. Her profit is an illusion. More small moderately milking cows than big heavy milking cows can be run on the same allotted acres. It is a well know fact that smaller cows wean a higher percent of their body weight as weaning weight. Anyone who has sat in a sale barn knows that smaller calves bring more per pound than big calves. The take home from this is to sell more small calves at a higher price per pound, at a lower cost per pound of production. Size does matter.

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Chip Hines
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, Chip now lives in Yuma, Colorado and is still involved in supporting the cattle industry.


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