When watching the cows trail in to feed each day, most ranchers keep a keen eye for that one cow: the favorite cow. Favorite cows obtain their position for any number of reasons, but how many are selected because it’s known she nets the most return annually for the operation?
Mike Kasten, Millersville, MO, says producers should use records they likely already keep to some degree, in order to determine which cow is actually most deserving of the “favorite” title based on her moneymaking capabilities. What’s more, he’s a believer in using those same records to create more value in an existing operation without adjusting resource use.
Kasten is program director of the Quality Beef by the Numbers Program. It’s a University of Missouri and industry joint project to boost the quantity of Prime- and Choice-grade beef produced in Missouri and neighboring states.
“You can generate more revenue with what you’re already doing by finding those cows that are making the most profit in your operation. I found out my most profitable cow can generate me $2,750 more in her lifetime than the average cow in my herd. If I had a herd of cows like her, I would be a very happy guy — and she was not my favorite cow,” Kasten says.
A real eye-opener
He made this profitable discovery by going through the total performance data he had been keeping on his herd for decades, and tying calf profitability back to each cow. The results, he says, were enlightening and eye-opening.
“The variations in the value of cattle that look alike, are managed alike, and that came from the same pasture where the dams were managed alike, are phenomenal,” he says. To demonstrate his point, he points to records on three calves of the same age, raised in the same management group, weaned the same day and fed in the same feedlot pen.
“All born within two weeks of each other in the same field, these calves’ weaning weights were 572 lbs., 654 lbs. and 574 lbs. When finished, they weighed 1,555 lbs., 1,547 lbs. and 1,100 lbs., respectively, and had average daily gains of 5.07 lbs., 3.94 lbs. and 2.27 lbs.,” Kasten says. “The calves were sold on a quality-based grid, and there was $813 difference from top to bottom within those cattle that I’ve been breeding for years to make uniform.”
What’s more, the poor-performing calf was never sick. By studying the data, Kasten realized this calf’s dam regularly produced such offspring. “As producers, we have to find those cattle on both ends, because there’s a lot of money to be made in there,” he notes.
Obtaining grid information, in addition to records from conception throughout life, is one aspect of the ideal recordkeeping system that Kasten encourages producers to maintain and use in determining individual cow profitability.
“Every animal we produce in this country will at some time be on someone’s plate, unless it dies on your ranch. How do you create value with the same resources? You target genetics for the end product. But if you don’t have carcass data, you don’t know what impact those genetic selections had,” he explains.
As for targeting genetics, Kasten emphasizes the use of artificial insemination (AI), particularly fixed-time AI, as being the most effective and timely way toward breed improvement.
“With fixed-time AI, you can sit down today, schedule a date and time to breed, and get 55%-75% of them bred to the best bulls in the world. What incredible technology that is,” he says.
“Perhaps even more incredible is that four years ago, I was paying $15 for a straw of semen, and today I’m paying $15-$20 for a straw of semen that is way better than what I bought then. There has been practically no inflation on semen cost, but the genetic quality has increased significantly,” he adds.
Kasten says he began AI-ing his cows to carcass bulls that maintained functionality in the 1980s. Those breeding records allowed him to determine the impact that AI had on a cow’s profitability.
“If they were one-generation AI, we ran 14% Prime and 57% high Choice on their calves. If they were two generations, they went 72% Prime, while three generations were at 73% Prime and four generations were 83%. It’s there, and we can use those genetic abilities to capture that value,” he explains.
In addition to creating more market value, knowing which cows are most profitable also allows producers to identify the replacements that will allow them to continue the trend.
“When you select heifers, do you have all the information you need to replace an old cow with an animal that does what you want, that does it all? If you don’t, you’re still going to slowly make progress with good bull selection, but it’s a much faster progression when we have that information on those heifers,” Kasten says of the value of using records, DNA testing and other modern technologies over simply choosing females based on phenotype.
Start with the calves
To producers who don’t keep such records, he suggests beginning with implementation of an ID system that ties the cow to the calf, then recording a birthdate and weaning weight for each calf.
“Everything can build from a cow inventory and tagging system, and a weaning weight record. A wonderful technology to start with after that is fixed-time AI,” he says.
Identifying and managing for animals that create the most return within a given environment continues to grow in importance, Kasten notes. After all, the amount of land is finite, and government doesn’t show any signs of shrinking; thus, the necessity to do more with the same or fewer resources will only increase going forward.
He says technology offers producers a tremendous opportunity to speed the progress. “There’s a lot of money and improvement to be made on cows, and a lot more money that can be made with the same resources,” he adds.
Kasten says he still has a favorite cow. “But it turns out that my most profitable cow wasn’t my favorite cow. Now I know who she is, and I go look and see how she’s doing. I need to produce more of those, and I never would have learned her value to me without records,” he says.
Heather Hamilton-Maude is a freelance writer and rancher based in Caputa, SD.
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