Recently I have been reading articles on heifer selection, herd culling, cow pregnancy rates, female trait selection—things that relate to the economic quality or profitability of your cow herd. A number of the articles included statements with which I agree and are based on good research information. They presented ways to get better conception rates and add “better” genetics to your herd.
However, I didn’t see any content that compared benefit to cost. Everything recommended was going to cost more money. So, the questions are, “Will the added conception pay for the cost? Are the “better” genetics really better when you consider every aspect of the cow herd? And, is there a more effective, lower cost way that was not considered?”
It seems like the price of inputs continues to rise faster than the price of our product. Does it then make any sense to operate a system that is any more dependent on iron and fossil fuel? Or should we be reducing that dependency by developing systems that are much more dependent on sunlight, soil, rainfall and our ingenuity—our God-given ability to think, reason, and be inventive and creative? Can’t we let nature and the cows do more of the work?
The best insurance against bad markets and low prices is to be a low-cost producer. When heifer development costs are kept low, females should be profitable all of their life with a couple of exceptions. The exceptions are the few that are diagnosed pregnant and abort or lose that calf before weaning and a few more that wean very poor calves or die. You should be able to sell the rest profitably at any time in their lives.
People want to tell me that you have to keep a cow for five or six years to make them breakeven. Not true. Either they don’t know how to calculate breakeven, don’t know how to develop heifers at a low cost or don’t know how to market females.
Let’s assume that we have an open cow at weaning time. The value of her lifetime calf production, at any age, plus her salvage value, should more than cover her lifetime costs. If it won’t, you need to change management practices or you should sell the whole herd and lease your land to someone else. You would be more profitable. One other, and oftentimes a much better, alternative is to buy bred replacement cows (not bred heifers) and mate them to high growth, high carcass sires and sell all the offspring.
So now, how do we approach this problem of becoming a low-cost producer with a production system that has little reliance on fossil fuel and iron and an increasing reliance on sunlight, soil, rainfall and our creative abilities? I believe that, in the beginning as described in the first chapter of Genesis, God gave man dominion over the earth. Though not directly stated, I believe He expected us to learn from nature before we began to exercise dominion.
I think that’s important today. We should learn what nature can teach and then use the properties and principles of nature to enhance what naturally occurs.
For millennia, rangelands and grazing animals have performed quite nicely with little help from man. It seems like we should try to ranch in nature’s image as much as possible. We might learn that man has interrupted the natural systems in harmful ways and that we might find means to restore and regenerate and even enhance the natural systems to very high levels of productivity.
I know ranchers who have completely eliminated the use of wormers and insecticides with little and no reduction in performance or production. I know farmers who are using legumes and natural nutrient recycling to provide all their fertility needs. Others are on a course to achieve those goals.
On ranches where replacement heifers are produced, a number of things need to be in place to keep costs low and reproduction rates high:
- Calve in sync with nature and/or feed resources. This can reduce fed feed costs significantly because the cow’s requirements for nutrients are more closely aligned with the quantity and quality of feed available.
- Use minimum input heifer development. Fifty to 55% of expected mature cow weight at breeding is adequate if you are calving in sync with nature. Heifer calves can be carried on their dams for nine to ten months.
Then some good stockpiled grazing, cornstalk grazing or moderate quality hay with minimal supplementation of protein and mineral can get them through the rest of winter. They will have plenty of time on green grass to grow before breeding. In some cases a little protein just before and during the short breeding period will pay off well.
- Use bulls of moderate size and milk production. And those bulls should come from cows that have lived and thrived on low inputs in an environment similar to your environment. Remember that smaller cows produce more pounds per acre than larger cows and are usually more fertile.
Finding a bull producer that subjects cows to a low input environment is the hard part. If the bulls aren’t right, you can’t expect the daughters to be right. I want unpampered bulls that were born in the first cycle of the calving season. Bulls can move you backward or forward. They must be right.
- Use a very short breeding season on yearling heifers (24-30 days). Keep most of the heifer calves. Eliminate the few poor doers and those with structural problems. By the way, if you cull a heifer calf, you should probably cull its mother. Doesn’t a heifer calf stand a pretty good chance of being at least as good as if not better than its mother?
The heifers that get bred in a short period have passed the first test to becoming good cows. They are also in a good position to pass the second test, which is to breed early in their 2-year-old breeding season. The open heifers make good feeders and should be nicely profitable.
- Use a long breeding season on cows. You will find it easier to tend the bulls with the cows than in a bunch of bulls. You will also be able to sell quite a few pregnant cows which will almost always sell for significantly more than open cows. When you leave the bulls in longer, you must have the discipline to sell the late calving cows or you will make a mess of things.
- Sell late calving cows. It may take a few years, but you should get to the point where you sell cows that calve after the first 30 days of the calving season. This is one of the best marketing moves in the cow-calf business; and, if you can’t develop your own market for bred cows, there is a good chance that you would be better off buying replacement cows and terminal crossing.
The late calving cows will make very good replacements for people terminal crossing. Remember, the next time these cows calve, they will be a year older and closer to their mature weight. I have friends who buy late calvers from established commercial breeders. They find that many of them will breed and calve earlier next time around.
- Consider selling cows that are six years and older. I have a good friend who follows all of the above recommendations except his calving seasons may be a little longer. He retains all of his steer calves to run as stockers and says that his steers are a by-product. His main product is a bred cow.
He says they only keep a cow beyond six years of age if his wife really likes them. This does not mean they are pets. His wife is an astute breeder and knows the cattle very well. If a cow is truly outstanding, meaning that she has raised good calves, has a great disposition, has a very good udder and no physical defects, she may get to stay longer.
They do this because cows appreciate until they are four years old, hold their own until they are six and then begin to depreciate. In this way, they are capturing the appreciation of a capital asset. Those buying the cows to terminal cross look at the depreciation as a low cost substitute for heifer development because they will buy pregnant cows and every cow has the possibility to raise a calf.
- Keep the ratio of fed feed to grazed feed as low as possible. Don’t make excuses for your cows. Expect them to work for a living.
- Cull the poor ones every year. Opens, dries, poor disposition, poor calf, needs to be handled or ugly – they all should be culled. Be pretty cautious on what you call ugly. Some of them might surprise you. Remember that you are making cows—cows that will be low input, will get pregnant in tough circumstances, will be structurally sound, will have good dispositions and be trouble free, will calve unassisted and raise a good calf every year.
If your cows can’t successfully breed as yearlings and then rebreed as two year olds, they aren’t adapted to your environment. It is significantly less costly and more profitable to change the cows to fit the environment than to change the environment to fit the cows.
Changes have to start with the right bulls and a short bull exposure of many yearling heifers (most of your heifer calf crop). Remember, you are letting nature find the fertile heifers and you are selling the less fertile cows.
I hope I have shown how these strategies work together to reduce costs, improve marketing, and build a significantly more fertile herd that fits your environment. Once your cows fit these criteria, ranching will be enjoyable and profitable. You will withstand the downturns in the market and the changes in the weather. Just remember that “conventional” ranchers are on the verge of going broke. You can break out and begin to enjoy the cattle business.
Teichert, a consultant on strategic planning for ranches, retired in 2010 as vice president and general manager of AgReserves, Inc. He resides in Orem, Utah. Contact him at [email protected].