Do small cows make more money?

Alan Newport, Editor, Beef Producer

August 3, 2016

4 Min Read
Do small cows make more money?
<p>Research shows smaller cows produce more gross income.</p>

For years, indeed decades, the argument over cow size has been bantered about by cattle producers. Now, adding to the debate, research from Wyoming shows smaller cows can produce more beef per acre per ranch, and potentially produce more income.

The research report is available in the journal Rangelands and it shows, in the plainest terms, that 1,000-pound cows on the working university ranch in Wyoming are weaning more pounds of beef than any other category of cows up to 1,400 pounds. Because they can be run at higher stocking rate, this ends up being more total pounds of beef produced per acre and for the whole ranch.

The researchers divided the existing cows into five weight classes and then extrapolated each class to a whole-ranch stocking rate for comparison. The four-year study included the drought year of 2012, the wet year of 2014, and two years of approximately average rainfall.

In an article I wrote for Beef Producer, a sister publication to BEEF, I calculated from the pounds weaned in each scenario what the potential value of the calf crops would be in the drought year, the wet year, and over the four years as an average.I chose a price of $142 from the fall of 2012, which was about the middle of the price range for the years of the study (2011-2014), from a weekly futures price chart.

This is how the gross sales values calculated for the biggest-cow ranch versus the smallest-cow ranch, using the researcher's records for calf production:

The big-cow ranch had a four-year average of $139,024 gross calf income. In the wet year, they brought in $140,018 gross calf income. In a drought year, they brought in $124,325.

The small-cow ranch had a four-year average of $173,753 gross calf income. In a wet year, they produced $204,592 gross calf income. In a drought year, the cows produced  $133,600 in gross calf income.

The management did not change for cow size, so this suggests much higher profit potential for the smaller cows.

A possibility I did not explore was whether or not the smaller calves of the smaller cows would actually fetch a lower or higher price per pound. This seems to be a constant worry for beef producers considering smaller cows.

The best comparison I could make was using the market data segment from Because there wasn't enough data in Wyoming for that time frame, I used Oklahoma City National Stockyards data.

First I chose steers, small and medium-framed, class 1-2, weighing 450-500 pounds, in 2011, which was the only year from the study actually in the database. This gave me a price of $150 per cwt. Since the smallest cows weaned calves with an average 205-day-adjusted weight of about 475 pounds, that seemed reasonable.

Next I chose medium- and large-framed steers, class 1-2, weighing 500-550, in 2011. This gave me a price of $142.95. With the largest cows weaning calves with 565 pounds average 205-day-adjusted weaning weights, that also seemed reasonable.

The hole in my data is there were many more calves over 500 pounds than under in 2011. Nonetheless, these are the prices I have. You can see in this case the value of those slightly smaller calves, even with smaller frames, is actually a little higher.

I would like to see much better data on larger numbers of calves of varying weight classes across many auctions, but I couldn't find it. I did locate a study from western Nebraska and eastern Wyoming that spanned the 1980s and 1990s and it consistently shows equal or better prices for lighter calves.

If you know of the data I'm seeking, please send me an email at [email protected] and tell me where to find it. In the meantime, I hope I've given you something worthwhile to ponder.

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About the Author(s)

Alan Newport

Editor, Beef Producer

Alan Newport is editor of Beef Producer, a national magazine with editorial content specifically targeted at beef production for Farm Progress’s 17 state and regional farm publications. Beef Producer appears as an insert in these magazines for readers with 50 head or more of beef cattle. Newport lives in north-central Oklahoma and travels the U.S. to meet producers and to chase down the latest and best information about the beef industry.

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