“To retain or not to retain. That is the question.” With apologies to Shakespeare, that’s been one of the overriding questions for commercial cattlemen  the past several decades. Given the fairly wide dispersion of ages, weights and genetic potential within a calf crop, it is indeed a question and a decision fraught with risk.
Until the recent infusion of technologies like ultrasound and DNA marker  tests, however, it’s been difficult to sort the top end from the bottom. While the eye of the master does indeed fatten the calf, or at least sorts them on arrival, it’s an imperfect approach at best.
In an attempt to more accurately answer that question, research in California looked at around 2,200 calves over a three-year period and calculated returns two ways – selling on the cash market, and retaining ownership through the Harris Ranch Partnership of Quality.
To determine cash value, researchers calculated feeder prices on a single day in 2010. Average carcass quality looked like this: 152 days on feed; average carcass weight 743 lbs.; 85% Choice and 1% Prime; YG 3; backfat 0.62 in.; ribeye area 12.68 sq. in. If the carcass qualified for the Certified Angus Beef premium, that was included as well.
Overall, the data show that retaining ownership through a value-added program returned about $50/head more than selling the calves on the cash market. However, since the feeder calves were valued on a single market day, it’s not a comparison of retained ownership in general.
Nonetheless, according to Alison Van Eenennaam , University of California-Davis (UCD) Extension beef geneticist, the data show that some calves would have returned more to the ranch if they’d been sold as feeders rather than retained through the feedyard and sold on a grid.
That means a rancher can sort calves into marketing groups based on their sires. By using DNA parent tests  and matching that with feedyard and carcass data on the calves, it’s possible to determine which bulls sire calves that are better sold on a grid, and which bulls sire calves that run better across the scales as feeders.
However, Van Eenennaam says, total ranch income is most strongly affected by the total number of calves produced/bull  rather than an individual calf’s value. “An average bull with 19 progeny and a feeder calf value of $866/head contributes about $16,000 (in total ranch income), compared to a highly prolific bull with 40 calves and $34,000 in income, or $0 for the bull with no progeny,” she says. “The sametrend is seen for retained ownership .”
Indeed, the old saw that any calf is better than no calf holds up, even under scientific scrutiny. What’s more, a calf born early in the calving season , as both the markets and common sense dictate, is worth more than a calf born at the end of the calving season. The longer the calving season, the wider the value difference.
In fact, the research showed that calves born in the first 21-day calving period, without sire effects removed, weaned an average of 723 lbs., while calves born in the fourth and last calving period (64 days or more) weaned an average of 676 lbs. The lighter calves might have sold for more dollars/lb., but were still worth less/head. What’s more, Van Eenennaam says earlier-born calves  returned carcasses of greater value.
Adding it all together, the research shows that calves born the first 21 days of the calving season, regardless of how they were sold, returned about 40% of total ranch income, and calves born in the first 42 days accounted for 72%.
That, Van Eenennaam says, “really emphasizes the importance of management practices to increase the proportion of calves born in the first 21-42 days of the calving season.”
In addition, according to Dan Drake, UC-Davis Extension beef specialist in Yreka, the data show that even on the cooperating ranches that had a longer calving season, not many calves are born later. “I would question if (a spread-out breeding and calving season) economically is really a sound thing to do with labor considerations and marketing considerations,” he says.
And finally, while using bulls in a natural-service breeding program has long been the mainstay of commercial cow-calf production, and likely will remain so, the data show that the value of artificial insemination (AI) may be worth considering.
That’s because, when Van Eenennaam and Drake calculated the cost/calf sired natural service, the figure was fairly high. Depending on what you paid for bulls, and on how many calves each bull sired, the range in cost went from about $50/calf to around $136. The average was $92/calf born.
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As discussed in last week’s installment, the data show that not only do the highly prolific bulls sire the most calves, but they sire more early calves than the less prolific bulls. Those, of course, are the calves from which replacement heifers are selected, meaning the highly prolific bulls are determining the genetic direction of your operation. Depending on their EPDs, that may be good; or, maybe not so much.
In Van Eenennaam’s mind, the cost/calf born points out that perhaps doing some estrus synchronization and using AI may be at a tipping point where it makes economic sense for some ranchers.
“In the case of AI, you know which bull is going to be the sire of your calves. There I think EPDs become really important in a commercial ranch setting,” she says. “You hope the natural-service bulls that are the most prolific have the most favorable EPDs, but you don’t really have a say in whether or not that’s the case.”
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