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How Big is Big Enough

We got a lot of comments on our last article about cow size and profit. Here, Kit Pharo weighs in.

According to the USDA Research Center in Clay Center, Nebraska, the average Angus, Red Angus and Hereford cow weighs over 1,400 pounds. Mainstream seedstock producers have successfully out-Simmentalled the Simmentals. Unfortunately, in their attempt to wean bigger and bigger calves, their pounds and profit per acre have been decreasing. It doesn’t matter how big your cattle are if they’re not profitable.

Cow size has increased dramatically over the last 40 years. Since big cows eat substantially more than small cows, this has forced ranches to destock and increase supplemental feeding. With the cost of land and feed as high as they are, it is quickly becoming less and less profitable to own those big, high- maintenance cows.

Since smaller cows are able to wean a higher percentage of their own weight, they will always produce more total pounds and more total profit than big cows – on the same acres. To add insult to injury, there is evidence that smaller cows will actually wean bigger calves than big cows in a real-world, unpampered environment.

Your ranch can only support so much growth, milk and size. Once you go beyond that level, you will have to provide expensive supplementation to meet the needs of your big, high-maintenance cows. Without supplementation, your weaning weights and conception rates will suffer.

It shouldn’t surprise you that most of the bulls being sold today were produced by high-maintenance, 5 to 7-frame cows that weigh 1400 to 1800 pounds. These cows must be pampered to stay in production. What size and type of cows will these bulls produce? Like begets like! If you are concerned about profit, then thick, easy-fleshing, low-maintenance, 3 to 4-frame cows that weigh 1100 to 1250 pounds are plenty big enough.



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Kit Pharo
Kit Pharo
is an industry leader in developing bulls on forage, and is internationally known as a successful rancher and businessman. In the mid 80s, Kit started out by leasing grassland and buying cows. In the beginning, he strived to build a herd that would wean bigger calves, but quickly learned that increasing weaning weights did not increase profit. Kit then changed his management approach to be profit-driven instead of production-driven, and carried-out management practices to reduce and eliminate expenses. At the same time Kit implemented ways to increase beef production per acre – compared to beef production per calf. Over the last 25 years, Kit has grown his ranch into a very profitable family corporation. From the first production sale of 7 bulls in 1990, Pharo Cattle Company now produces and markets over 800 forage-developed bulls every year. Kit Pharo advocates several no-nonsense ways to put profitability back into ranching and publishes a quarterly newsletter that is sent out to over 20,000 people.


  1. Agree with most of this but two points worth considering.

    Frame 5 cows are fine if you live in an area where you can grow and conserve high quality forage. Basically just keep reducing frame size until everything breeds back and holds condition in relation to your environment. Then keep that frame size – no need to get smaller.

    Whether you finish/fatten your calves or whether you sell weaned stock you need to provide somewhere near what the feeders or processors want. My red line is the size of my finished heifers. If they do not reach 260 kg (570 lbs) deadweight by 28 months then they are no good to my feeder customers or to the processors – due to the cost per head of processing compared meat yield per carcasse. You could direct market your heifers and go smaller but that is more work.

    I basically need the smallest cows possible to produce the above. Certainly no bigger.

  2. And…the more cows you have, the more bulls you will need to buy…Sorry, Kit, I couldn’t resist.

    Another thing on the size issue is that bigger cows tend to have bigger calves, and have more trouble calving, so fewer weaned calves. This was also demonstrated in the information that Dr. Allen Williams collected.

    No. Cows IRM Projected % Calf Crop a. No. Calves Weaned Cow Mature Weight IRM Projected Calf WWTa WWt/Cow Exposed b. $/CWT
    c. Total Value

    100 87 87 1000 510 444 $102 $45,257
    91 85 77 1100 530 448 $101 $41,218
    84 84 71 1200 580 490 $99 $40,768
    76 80 61 1300 600 482 $97 $35,502
    71 79 56 1400 610 481 $95 $32,452
    67 77 52 1500 610 473 $95 $30,134

    a. Based on Southeastern IRM data (Integrated Resources Management).
    b. Average weaning weight divided by no. of cows exposed for breeding.
    c. Based on Southeast avg sale barn value (Dec. 2003)

    Also, bigger cows have more problems breeding–maybe it’s through maintaining enough energy, as Kit mentioned, and/or maybe it’s because strength does not increase in direct proportion to the size of an animal. A cow that weighs 1800 lbs is not twice as strong as a cow that weighs 900 lbs, yet she must carry twice the extra baggage over rough terrain. That means bigger cattle will have higher cull rates due to injury.

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