The Cattleman’s Corner: Selecting Cattle to Fit Economics

black angus cattle on ranch

By Austin Snedden
Contributor, Valley Ag Voice

For the last 50 years in the cattle industry, various traits have been emphasized and de-emphasized, but the focus on growth has been rather consistent.  Expected progeny differences (EPDs), though not very accurate, have placed emphasis on yearling weight (YW) and carcass weight, and higher is always better. Have we gone too far and surpassed efficiency and end product value?

There are multiple indicators that might point towards beef cattle producers wanting to look towards moderating their herd to match environment and the market.  The first and most important indicator would be cow costs rising.  In most of California, in decent years with correct stocking rates we hope to not have to feed much, but in short grass years and at certain times of the year, we must supplement.  In our operation, the fall is the nutritional low point of the annual forage year.  The cows that drop in body condition score (BCS) are often the ones we focus on in gauging when and how much to feed. Not all larger framed cows are higher maintenance, but in general, larger framed cows are going to look a little more challenged during the nutritional low points.   If we are catering our supplement program to the (BCS) of our worst converting cows, we are no doubt wasting supplement and money on the cows who are genetically more suited.   Hypothetically, we would cull all the inferior conditioned cows, but economically and practically that is easier said than done.  Often the time that these cows stand out as inferior cows, they are either heavy with calf or nursing a calf, neither of which is a practical or economical time to cull.  What we can do, is make genetic decisions in our bull purchases, and in choosing replacement heifers that may be more moderate framed and easy fleshing, and the mature cows that exhibit that harder fleshing body type will eventually leave through attrition.    

After reading this, I am sure many readers are asking, “What if I am not willing to give up the growth performance in my calves?”  In the coffee shop or the cattlemen’s meeting, bragging rights are based how much your calves weighed when you weaned or sold them.  These bragging rights about yield are fine, but yield does not measure the input costs to create that yield. Margin is what is important to the pocketbook. “How many pounds of calf weaned per cow exposed” is getting closer to a functional measurement of productivity.  Assume that coffee shop Bragger A says he weaned his calves at 600 pounds. Bragger B says he weaned his calves at 700 pounds, and Bragger C says he weaned his calves at 800 pounds.  At first glance Mr. C sounds like the most progressive producer.  Let’s assume A, B, and C all had 10 cows exposed. What if producer A had 9 calves, B had 7 calves, and C had 6 calves?  Now, who is the more progressive breeder? Producer A weaned 5,400 pounds of calves, B weaned 4,900 pounds, and C weaned 4,800 pounds.  Fertility is a greater function of profitability than weaning performance. Growth performance should be pursued, but not at the cost of fertility.

A growing trend in the dairy industry is to breed heifers and lower milk production cows to beef breeds, particularly Angus.  This is creating more competition for beef breeders.  These animals grade well and have large carcass weights.  So, where is a beef producers’ niche? Lower cost of production must be our competitive advantage.  The majority of these dairy cross cattle are on feed their whole life, and that comes with a high price tag.  The dairy industry is creating quality beef cattle; couple that with current USA trade policy that has made our market the most attractive place for cheaper foreign cattle and beef. We need to know what our strengths are, and really hone in on them. Our way too staying competitive is to select for the cattle and genetics that can do more with less inputs.

Larger carcass size is not always better, and we may be getting close to a point where we see some downward pressure on shrinking carcass sizes.   There are rumblings in the culinary and food service fields that steaks are getting too large for serving sizes and plates.  Most agree that an optimal steak is cut thicker rather than thinner, but we are getting to the point that ribeye sizes are so large that an inch and a half thick ribeye steak may weigh 30-40oz. So, retailers and restaurants are cutting them thinner to make a more practical serving size, and the eating experience is diminished with a thinner steak.   This illustration with the ribeye cut is also true with other cuts where consumers are finding the overall dimensions of the steaks cut to a thickness they desire, but the service industry and retail consumer find them larger than they are willing to serve or buy.  Unfortunately, the industry selection for ever bigger cattle has created many cattle that won’t finish to a point that they will grade well until they are into that larger carcass, larger steak category.

The solution to these challenges will require seed stock producers and cow/calf producers to focus on an animal’s growth curve. How do we make a low maintenance cow, a heavy marketable calf, and a feeder animal that will perform and finish?  We need to focus on growth rate and the growth curve of cattle.   If two yearling heifers each weigh 900 pounds at yearling, it would appear that their growth performance is equal.  In reality, those two heifers could be re-weighed as 6-year-old cows, and one could weigh 1,200 pounds while another could weigh 1,600 pounds.  Given they raise a similar calf, the 1,200-pound cow is superior.  She showed the growth to rapidly get to a marketable weight, yet her growth curve began to flatten out in order for her to not require more calories as a cow.  These cattle that have an endpoint to frame growth generally can finish on feed more rapidly than larger framed cattle.  Choose bulls that exhibit plenty of growth, and if you have the chance or time to look at the mothers and sires of the bulls you are interested in, make sure they are not too large to fit your resources. A bull with plenty of growth out of an enormous sire and dam does not exhibit a positive growth curve; it only exhibits more inputs.  If we focus on choosing bulls and heifers with that optimum growth curve, we will end up with cattle that work for us on the range, perform in the feedlot, and provide a quality eating experience for the consumer.