Are bigger cows really better?

What’s the ideal look of the perfect cow? How big is she? Today’s blog examines the costs of bigger cows and takes a look at reducing cow herd size to save money.

Amanda Radke

November 30, 2017

5 Min Read
Are bigger cows really better?
Amanda Radke

Every rancher has the picture-perfect image of the “ideal” cow in his/her head, and it’s highly variable depending on the rancher’s goals, environment and ideas of what makes a great, productive female.

For me, the perfect cow is excellent on paper. She’s balanced in her EPDs but consistently weans a calf that outperforms his contemporary group. She’s feminine in her design with a bold rib, long spine, level hip and well-conformed udder and teat placement. She’s big and broody with plenty of muscle, and she’s as sweet as a kitten, too. When she calves, you don’t have to worry about turning your back on her, but she’s protective of the calf and never needs assistance calving, getting that colostrum in or breeding back on time (or even early) each year.

How’s that for a wish list of the ideal cow? Do you own one like her? How would your wish list differ?

I’ve always preferred my cows on the larger side. Of course, “large” is relative. The majority of our herd weighs on average between 1,100 and 1,300 pounds. Large for us would be in the 1,400-1,500 pounds range, and that’s pushing it. Some ranchers maintain cows in the upward range of 1,800-plus pounds, but many are seedstock producers pushing the envelope of top production numbers, or perhaps they have access to cheap, readily available forages, so size of the cow isn’t such a huge deal.

READ: 8 drivers of profitability and how to manage them to make more money

When thinking of the ideal cow, we should also consider the environment, forage availability, stocking rate and number of calves we desire to sell each year.

Kris Ringwall, North Dakota State Extension beef specialist, recently explored this topic in an article titled, “The challenge of cow size.”

In the article, Ringwall writes, “It’s true that calf weight, the product of the cow-calf producer, and carcass weight, the product of the feedlot, drive total dollars. What also is true is that bigger cows producer bigger calves, but the discussion becomes clouded when factoring mature cow size into the discussion."

Ringwall says dollars generated as take-home pay are dependent on the net return above expenses, labor and management. The challenge, he explains is that this equation has three distinct players: the cow, the bull and the calf, all of which have grown in physical size.

Ringwall explains, “The impact on the maternal and paternal animals and progeny is simply larger cattle. Calf growth, at least among those harvested, is a function of time. Bulls are selected to produce progeny that fit market specifications, so mission accomplished. The same is true for the cows, except herds have more cows and they must be maintained year-around.

“The cow is the progenitor and the caregiver for the progeny, which means she carries the bulk of the expenses. As a result, cost control and production efficiency must come from the cow. Heifers (future cows) are a byproduct of a very fine-tuned steer production system. Thus the dilemma: How are the cows replaced and appropriately sized if they are simply the counterpart of fast-growing steers?”

As expenses creep upward, producers should consider the ever-increasing size of the cow. Ringwall’s solution is to find moderately-sized cows that produce steers to meet the current market desires and specifications.

He writes, “Let’s focus on 300 pounds of cow rather than the actual size of the cow. So regardless of the size of a cow, the issue for the day is 300 pounds of cow weight. What does that mean, and how does 300 pounds of additional cow weight impact beef production?”

Ringwall cited research conducted at the Dickinson Research Extension Center, which has focused on two cow herds that differ in mature weight by 300 pounds.

“What’s the impact?” he asks. “For the past three years, the center has been feeding heifers individually to get a handle on the difference between the calves from large-framed cows and smaller-framed cows. The heifers’ daily diets have been the same.”

Here’s what the facility discovered, as summarized by Ringwall:

“Essentially, the heifers have been eating approximately 2.2% of their body weight, so let’s assume these heifers will continue to eat 2.2% of their body weight for their productive lives.

So the extra 300 pounds times 2.2% is 6.6 pounds of feed/day. In a year, 6.6 pounds times 365 days means 2,409 pounds of feed may be consumed to sustain the extra 300 pounds of mature cow weight.

“Let’s review the two cow sizes at the center. Based on total cow weight, a 1,400 pound cow would consume 30.8 pounds a day, or 11,242 pounds per year. In four years, the cow would have consumed 44,968 pounds of feed.

“The 1,100 pound cow would have consumed 24.2 pounds/day, or 8,833 pounds/year. In four years, the cow would have consumed 35,332 pounds of feed, or 9,636 pounds less than the 1,400 pound cow.

“That 9,636 pounds of feed directly relates to the 9,636 pounds of extra feed needed to add 300 pounds of mature weight to a cow. In simple terms, reducing cow size 300 pounds saves enough feed to support one additional cow for four years.

“Let me repeat: If the center has 44,968 pounds of feed, the producer could feed four 1,400 pound cows or five 1,100 pound cows. By lowering cow size 300 pounds, a producer can support an extra cow with roughly the same amount of feed every four years.”

It’s a balancing act between pushing for growth and controlling expenses, and lowering a cow’s mature weight would also lower expenses. Additionally, Ringwall points out that 20% more cows will produce 20% additional calves to sell, which is the real benefit of trying to lower cow size within the herd.

So what’s the best way to achieve this? Perhaps, instead of focusing on retaining heifers that have top weaning and yearling weights, we look at maternal traits. If she’s a moderate package that can milk well, breed back and calve on her own, then she’ll consistently raise a calf that grows while also eating fewer groceries.

It’s certainly something to think about. Consider this as you tabulate the costs of your winter forages and perhaps consider culling those big consumers who may not also be raising your largest calves each year.

The opinions of Amanda Radke are not necessarily those of or Farm Progress.

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