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These Could Be The Best Cows

Back in May, John wrote “What Makes a Really Good Cow” where he talked about judging the cows in your herd by blaming them for how their calves turn out and selling the cows that fail that basic test of performance. That’s a great theory, but how does it work out in practice? John shares what happened when he took his own advice.

They Laughed When I Bought Those Three Pairs

When they came in the ring, I could see they were a really unusual group. The cows each weighed about 650, and their calves were already over half that big. The cows were viewed as ridiculous and would never fit the mainstream market. The calves on the other hand (by my approximation) were pretty good #1-minus types.

The auctioneer looked down from the block and said, “Uh, boys, you’ve got a mixed pen of calves here. I see some steers and some heifers in there.”

“Well boss, those are cow-calf pairs.”

“Oh, my goodness! Well, looky there. Anybody interested in these little pairs? If not, I’m going to split them right now and get on about our business.”

I raised my hand and immediately offered $500 for each pair. There was a ripple of chuckling and a few open laughs from the crowd. Mine was the first and only bid.

I’m not pretending to be any kind of genius, but years spent at the sale barn have helped me to focus on the future. When I see an animal the first thing I think is “What will those cows look like in three or six months? What will those calves look like? What might their future value be? Can I upgrade the calves to a higher-value class? What will the cow’s salvage value be when the calves are weaned? Will she wind up in the butcher pen or can I sell her as a replacement cow?

If you read “What Makes a Really, Really Good Cow?” you already know that I judge our cows based strictly on what kind of calf they produce. And here were three little red cows doing what I think a cows should do: raise good calves.

Here are two of the three pairs. (The red ones are the cows, the black ones are the calves.)

Now, these three little cows are completely unacceptable to the mainstream market as they are only about half the size of a normal cow. No commercial rancher will buy them as they are too small. On the other hand, I see that they are probably good cows as it looks to me like they will be raising calves that are genetically acceptable. Not to sound like a smart aleck, but no one else seemed to see that that day. Our paradigm about what a “good” cow looks like is hard to overcome. That’s why nobody else bid on them.

How Do We Judge Cows?

Personally, I like to boil things down to efficiency: economic and biological efficiency. Here’s what I mean.

Economic efficiency is a measurement of how much money (or how little) it takes to produce a dollar’s worth of calf flesh. This basic measurement involves a calculation of Gross Margin for the cow herd, then dividing by the number of cows you are running. This is critical information that tells us a lot about whether we should continue in the ranching business or not. Unfortunately, it doesn’t tell us anything about which cow is making the money or which cow is costing us money.

Biological efficiency is a bit more helpful in judging value, but terribly labor intensive. In another life I worked at a USDA experiment station, where we measured and weighed feed and animals under various conditions. This was fun for a while, but man, I got tired of gathering data. Plus, doing this kind of work on a working ranch is all but impossible.

What ranchers need is a simple, quick, easy way to judge cows within the herd, one cow against the other. And it would be helpful if we could do that from the seat of a truck or on horseback or even just while walking around studying the grass. I think that tool exists, and it has to do with comparing the weight of a cow and the weight of her calf at weaning. We can convert this into a percentage, and judge individual cows within our herd. Here’s the formula:

So, a 1,000 pound cow that produces a 500 lb calf gets a weaning efficiency of 50%. Many experts propose that a 50% weaning efficiency is a benchmark for determining if a cow is “good” or not.

The truth is, geometry dictates that a cow’s biological efficiency varies depending on how large she is, and this weaning efficiency formula does not account for that. Personally, I’m OK with that degree of inaccuracy. It’s not a perfect tool, but I’ve found it very useful in my business.

Some Thoughts About Cow Size and Weaning Weight Efficiency

A cow generally needs to consume around 2% of her body weight to cover maintenance requirements. Therefore, larger cows require more total pounds of protein and energy than do small cows. This suggests that you should be able to feed (graze) a larger number of smaller cows on the same resource base than you can larger cows.

A small cow that produces the same weight calf as a big cow would seem to be more biologically efficient, and therefore more economically efficient. This suggests we should be selecting small cows that produce big calves rather than big cows that produce big calves.

The smaller cows (just above) must, by definition, have a higher weaning weight percentage. Weaning weight percentage is something we can pretty easily judge just by looking at our cattle. Of course, weighing each individual cow and calf would produce some definitive data, but generally speaking, I’d like to think I could make adequate measurements with my eyeballs alone.

These ideas suggest to me that while weaning weight efficiency may not be perfect, when we are “judging” efficiency within a herd, cows that produce a higher percentage of calf vs. cow weight are likely producing a greater Gross Margin. Smaller cows may not always be more desirable than big cows, but a compelling argument can be made that they are generally more economically and biologically efficient than large cows. At least I find it compelling.

What Happened to the Little Red Cows?

Let’s go back to the little red cows I bought at auction, the ones everyone laughed at. The cows were too small to be “acceptable” in the general market, yet they were producing calves that were genetically acceptable. It seems to me that what we are really talking about is that these little red cows are competing (economically) with larger, more generally acceptable cows. And I believe that weaning weight efficiency is a critical piece of data that tells us which cows win that competition.

Below is a photo showing my three red pairs at weaning time. (The calves are the ones with the yellow nose flaps. For more on them here’s “Silence of the Calves – No Bawl Weaning Saves Stress and Money.”)

I don’t really know how old the calves are, but I would estimate perhaps 10 months. Their mothers are in good flesh and beginning to show evidence of their next calf. Without the benefit of a scale, I would estimate that the cows have gained 50 pounds each during their stay, while their calves have grown to approximately 600 pounds each. So:

I would note here that these cows and calves received absolutely no special treatment. And whether you believe that weaning weight efficiency makes any difference at all, I find myself wishing I had a whole herd of those homely little cows.

Laughing all the way to the bank, here.

Happy Grazing!

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John Marble
John Marble
John Marble grew up on a terribly conventional ranch with a large family where each kid had their own tractor. Surviving that, he now owns a small grazing and marketing operation that focuses on producing value through managed grazing. He oversees a diverse ranching operation, renting and owning cattle and grasslands while managing timber, wildlife habitat and human relationships. His multi-species approach includes meat goats, pointing dogs and barn cats. He has a life-long interest in ecology, trying to understand how plants, animals, soils and humans fit together. John spends his late-night hours working on fiction, writing about worlds much less strange than this one.


  1. Those are some great looking Dexter cows to be at a sale barn. I wish we had that here in Iowa.

    • Thanks Jim, but I didn’t produce them, I just stumbled upon them. They are full-mouth cows, so pretty young, and re-bred to a nice medium frame black bull. I plan to have them preg tested. So, they are available, and there is a highway that runs all the way to Iowa.

      Drop me a line.


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