Here at the Dickinson Research and Extension Center, the old question kept coming back: “Would the extra calves really pencil out if the center stocked 1,100-pound cows instead of 1,400-pound cows?” And then more questions: “Would those small cows actually carry the load? Could they be competitive with mainstream beef production?” Our experience and data say “Yes” to all these questions. More and more, taking 300 pounds off the size of a mature cow makes sense.
Since the mid-1990s, the Dickinson Research Extension Center has been gathering data to contribute to the small cow/big cow discussion. We started breeding larger heifers with Aberdeen/Lowline bulls, and moving towards smaller cattle for calving ease.
The one-half blood Aberdeen steer calves grew, fed out well and had acceptable harvest weights of around 1,250 pounds. The heifer mates remained at the ranch, grew up and moved into the production herd. Eventually, the center’s Aberdeen-influenced herd grew and the cattle were incorporated into the center’s herd.
At the request of the center’s range department to utilize a cow that matured closer to 1,000 pounds, the Aberdeen-influenced females were placed in the production herds grazing primarily the range research pastures. For simplicity sake, the Aberdeen-influenced herd was called the “Range” herd. The majority of the center’s cattle remained as the “Beef” herd.
Based on individual animal performance, the cattle in the “Range” herd did not outperform cattle in the “Beef” herd. However, things changed when stocking rate calculations were done.
We assumed, based on stocking rates, that up to 30 percent more calves, all slightly smaller, were coming out of the “Range” pastures. (Keep in mind, the 30 percent will vary, depending on actual cow weights, but for simplicity, I am going to say 30 percent.) The “Beef” calves weighed almost 640 pounds when adjusted to 205 days of age. The “Range” calves were at 535 pounds when adjusted to the same age.
So, ponder this cow math: 100 “Beef” calves should weigh in at 64,000 pounds (100 calves times 640), while the same size pasture with similar grazing opportunities, if stocked with our smaller “Range” cows and calves, would bring in 130 calves for a total of 69,550 pounds (130 calves times 535).
The difference: 5,550 extra marketable pounds in favor of the “Range” herd.
Now, these figures are based on 100 “Beef” calves and then adjusted to account for the number of “Range” calves, but regardless of what herd size is picked, the 30 percent more cow-calf pairs allotted to pastures when mature cow size drops 300 pounds is always there. Cow math using smaller cows increased the number of cow-calf pairs to achieve the same stocking rate.
Let’s get back to the original questions: Would the extra calves really pencil out if the center stocked 1,100-pound cows instead of 1,400-pound cows? Would those small cows actually carry the load? Could they be competitive with mainstream beef production?
The answer, when we looked at what was happening with our smaller cows, surprises me.
Dry conditions forced the center to reduce cow numbers, but 29 of the older F1 Aberdeen-influenced cows are still around, grazing the range pastures. In preparation for a workshop on cow efficiency, we identified 10 of those cows that had produced a steer calf in 2015 and the steer was harvested with carcass data.
This group of 10 cows had averaged 1,120 pounds across several weaning years and weaned an average of 511 pounds of actual calf weight. As a percent of body weight, the 10 cows weaned 45.6 percent of their body weight. And looking at the last harvested set of steers, these same cows produced harvested beef on the rail that averaged 891 pounds.
Let me repeat that: 891 pounds on the rail as hot carcass weight. You know what? That is 80 percent of maternal cow weight on the rail. Not bad!
And what was the question again? Would those small cows actually carry the load? Could they be competitive with mainstream beef production? Without a question, the benefits of cows that average 1,100 pounds of mature weight are real. It’s time to get serious.
May you find all your ear tags.