Cow size debate

Mixed messages as we race pell-mell for better genetics

The question is not whether we must match the cows to the environment and the calves to the marketplace, but rather where that sweet spot exists from an industry standpoint.

Genetic tools and prediction accuracy are growing at a phenomenal rate, but these improvements haven’t necessarily made it easier to select the cattle and the genetics we want to move our herds forward.

I read a recent article in the Western Farmer-Stockman, which quoted David Lalman, Oklahoma State University beef cattle specialist, "Assuming milk, muscle and growth in a ranching operation have kept up with industry trends, more than likely your forage alone cannot support more milk, faster growth and higher weaning weights." 

There is a lot to ponder there. Lalman cautioned that many producers have already created more genetic potential than their environment is capable of producing. We have all heard these disturbing trends being discussed; we are feeding a ton and a half more hay per cow today than we were 50 years ago, and weaning weights have only increased marginally. 

And, of course, we have those advocating 3-4 frame, no milk, no growth cattle, and you have packers issuing edicts to their buyers not to purchase any cattle with any hint of those genetics. The question is not whether we must match the cows to the environment and the calves to the marketplace, but rather where that sweet spot exists from an industry standpoint. 

There isn’t any one single optimum and even if there was, genetic improvement would change that optimum in very short order.  

Not only is the target ever moving, ever evolving, but we must marry the sophistication of the genetic selection tools with equally sophisticated and dynamic economic analysis tools to determine what truly is the best combination of traits to maximize profits. All the while understanding that each operation will have a different outcome depending on their resources (feed, land, labor) and marketing plans. 

What we can be sure of is that the two extremes of the equation are wrong, frame score 3 and 4 cattle are not going to be the most profitable except in perhaps the toughest of environments, and even then a producer will have to rely on the marketplace not being able to differentiate the price discount those cattle should earn further up the chain. Nor are the extreme production cattle going to be the most profitable, except in unlimited feed environments. 

Of course, the optimum combination of traits will vary for each operation, but we have to move to more sophisticated and realistic economic analysis.

We love using measures like weaning 50% of the body weight but, unfortunately, maintenance costs are not linear. Maintenance costs and mature size are not 1:1, rather raised to the .7 power. So the ratio is not reflective or accurate.

But because it takes advantage of the old ratio rule, it favors little cows with no growth, so that camp will quote that percentage extensively. The big cow guys will talk net dollars and total pounds produced per cow, but those two factors are just as inaccurate as there are increased costs associated with bigger cows.

The appropriate level of milk varies, depending on a whole host of factors: growth level in calves, feed availability, feed costs, marketing strategies, projected end points, and the list goes on.

Broad generalizations and faulty economics used to justify the extremes are not productive and do not move us closer to profitability. In fact, they probably move us in the wrong direction. Simplistic, one-sided answers to a complex system with many interactions and unintended consequences are easy to market, but they are problematic for a host of reasons.

TAGS: Genetics
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