Smaller cows, more profit

Smaller cows win, and that includes their calves in the feedlot

A North Dakota study shows smaller cows can produce more ranch profit, even when feedlot closeouts are applied to their steer calves.

Researchers at North Dakota State University took the data from the university’s own two cow herds, one averaging 1,050 pounds and the other averaging 1,450 pounds, and blended in cowherd data from Minnesota farm management records (FINBIN). This allowed them to compare data for a 100-cow, traditionally managed spring-calving herd with that of a May-calving, 120-head herd of smaller-framed cows. The same land mass would run either herd.

They needed the FINBIN data because all the university's cows, large and small, are now managed in a later-calving system with longer grazing into the winter timeframe.

I just published a synopsis of this research project on the Beef Producer website and you can read the annual report from NDSU.

The chart I've provided here gives a quick look at the numbers from the study. You'll see the first two columns are labeled FLOT for feedlot and include data from the half of steers that went to the feedlot each year. The labels (SF) are the smaller versus the larger (LF) steers. In the FLOT segment, these steers came out of the cow-calf program early and went straight to the feedlot.

The right two columns are labeled GRAZ and cover the grazing period for the steers kept on the farm to graze through the winter. Again, they are separated by large-frame and small-frame steers.

The gist of the story is this: Smaller cows were about $65 per head cheaper to keep and produced steer calves with total carcass value about $250 lower, and had a net return per steer of $74 less. However, because the steers and their dams were cheaper to feed and especially because they produced more tons of quality fed beef, they produced more profit.

NDSU beef specialist Kris Ringwall notes the smaller-framed cows produced about a 10% increase in revenue versus the larger-framed cows, based on steer calf performance all the way through the feedlot.

The smaller-framed cows' total finished-steer net return was $4,517 greater, when extrapolated to a herd of 120 cows averaging frame score 3.8 and weighing about 1,050 pounds, versus a herd of 100 cows averaging frame 5.5 and weighing about 1,450 pounds.

Herd figures showed smaller-framed cows earned $49,308 ($821.81 on 60 steers), while larger-framed cows earned $44,791 ($895.82 on 50 steers).

Grazing costs and returns were not immediately evident in the charts, but could be figured from the grazing chart in the Beef Producer article or from the annual report. Grazing average daily gain was 2.34 pounds for large-framed steers and 2.13 pounds for small-framed steers. Cost to put on each pound of gain was 60.78 cents for large-framed steers and 55.67 cents for small-framed steers. Therefore we could assume it cost $1.42 per day to graze the large steers and $1.19 per day to graze the small steers.

You can plug in your own reasonable price to weigh against the cost, but if they were both worth $1.50 per pound, the added 2.34 pounds on the larger steers would be worth $3.51 and the added 2.13 pounds on the smaller steers would be worth $3.20. In that case, the daily profit per steer would be:

  • Large steer profit = $2.09 per head per day
  • Small steer profit = $2.01 per head per day

In looking at this project and data, it's very important to note the major cost-saving differences in cow management and not focus solely on cow frame score.

There exist three primary management differences between the two herds as they appear in the research project. Ringwall identifies these as major cost-cutting practices:

1. Later calving date decreases labor and cow feed costs.
2. Lower overhead with an intensified, multiple-crop rotation that includes cover crops, harvesting some crops and grazing the majority of the acreages by cows, calves and yearlings. Grazing lasts much longer into the fall.
3. Reduce cow frame score to decrease inputs and increase ranch output.

Ringwall says the later calving date discounts the idea of selling these smaller calves at a fall weaning and makes carrying them through a winter grazing program even more important.

Alan Newport is editor of BEEF Vet and Beef Producer, sister publications to BEEF.

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