5 keys to a profitable beef cow herd

5 keys to a profitable beef cow herd

In my previous two articles, I provided a list of principles, ideas and processes for improving ranch profitability. I concluded last month with the following statement on which I want to expand further.

“Strive for a trouble-free, problem-free cow herd with good reproduction – accomplishing this on your range or pasture with minimal added inputs. How would it be to never have to pull a calf, doctor an animal, or retrieve an animal that broke through the fence? How much less labor, equipment, facilities and tools would you need?

“If a high percentage of your cows got pregnant and then subsequently weaned a good healthy calf – even if they aren’t the biggest in the area – how would that help your marketing? And, if they did that with minimal fed feed inputs, how much more profitable would that be? Perfection is never achieved, but excellence can be.”

You want your herd and your whole ranch to be as profitable as possible. To do that, you must manage the following:

• Production,

• Economics and finance,

• Marketing

• People.

Once the inter-connectedness of these four areas of management is recognized, it becomes apparent that maximums are never the best or the most profitable level of production.

Most of the calves and yearlings raised in the U.S. go through the feedlot and on to traditional slaughter. Cow-calf producers feel some pressure from the feedlot people – who in turn get pressure from packers – to make cattle bigger, faster-growing and better-grading. These are all good objectives to a point.

However, as cow-calf producers, we need to remember that our industry is running about 25% more cows and yearling replacements every year than we are selling calves to the feedlot. Cow-calf producers also keep the cows and replacements all year long, and the sale calves for 6-8 months. Thus, our cows must be efficient and trouble-free.

Avoid the maximums

You will see that my method for getting profitable cow herds doesn’t align very well with buying bulls with the highest EPDs for weaning weight, milk, carcass grade and carcass yield grade. This recipe will work nicely for ranches that intentionally terminal-cross their cows for the purpose of selling or feeding every calf every year, and I estimate that about 30-40% of the cows in the U.S. should be bred this way every year. In this article, however, I want to address the remainder who are producing their own replacements and also should be providing replacement cows to those with terminal-crossing programs.

I don’t mean to diminish the importance of good growth and adequate milk production in our cow herds. However, we must be very careful in defining “good” growth and “adequate” milk. There can be a huge cost associated with too much of either, and there are other factors that are more important.

• If your environment and labor situation better fits terminal-crossing or even running stocker cattle, you should do so. In other words, choose the enterprise that best fits where you are, your abilities and your other responsibilities.

• You want a cow herd that requires very little overhead in equipment, facilities and labor. I used to talk about when “we” were going to start calving. It took me too long to recognize that the cows were supposed to calve, not “we.”

• Strive to replace as much fed feed with grazing as possible. And, for many of you, that is a lot more than you think. I’m always amazed when I visit areas of the U.S. previously unfamiliar to me and hear all the reasons these producers “must” feed cows. I usually don’t have to drive too far to find someone who feeds very little and gets good performance.

• Your cows must fit where you operate, and get by with little help from you, thus needing only good cattle-handling facilities for routine immunizations, pregnancy diagnosis, etc. – no elaborate calving facilities and few (or almost no) barns and buildings. They must also graze most of their feed needs recognizing that minimal and timely supplementation will pay good dividends.

• And finally, reproduction rates – weaned calf crop percentage and pregnancy rate – must be excellent. If a cow, under the conditions described above, won’t rebreed and wean a good calf, she’s a failure; and you don’t want many failures. The cows that do get pregnant and wean a calf every year won’t be high-milking cows and their calves won’t be the biggest in the neighborhood. However, your whole herd or ranch could be weaning more pounds of calf per acre than those with significantly bigger calves.

Cull those non-performers

So, cut overheads, reduce fed feed inputs and cull the right cows. This includes open, dry and wild cows, those that need individual attention, those that wean poor calves, and those with other functional problems, such as poor udders, lameness, etc.

After several years of culling these cows, you won’t have to cull many each year. Even with excellent reproduction, most of the culls will still be open and dry cows. EPDs work, and if we want lots of growth and milk, we can get it. The problem is that it always comes with a cost – it may be in reproduction, herd health, reduced stocking rates or higher levels of fed feed. Excesses in growth, milk, size and muscle can cause real problems.

Select bulls that will produce daughters (your future cows) that are adapted to your environment and management. Maybe a better way to say that is, “Don’t buy bulls whose daughters won’t make good, trouble-free cows in your environment and with your management.”

Burke Teichert, a consultant on strategic planning for ranches, retired in 2010 as vice president and general manager of AgReserves, Inc. He resides in Orem, UT. Contact him at [email protected]

 

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