Do weaning weights pay the bills?

Flat weaning trend emphasizes the importance of reducing cost.

Wes Ishmael

May 7, 2019

6 Min Read
Several different data sets indicate that while the overall genetics of U.S. cattle have increased, weaning weights have remained static. What’s more, weaning weights have plateaued for many years. While there may be several reasons, one explanation may be environmental limitations — the potential for pastures to support milk production and calf growth may be maxed out.Jamie Purfeerst

Banking on increased weaning weight to expand cow-calf revenue appears to have about run its course.

“There’s quite a bit of evidence to suggest the trend for weaning weight is flat in commercial cow-calf operations in some parts of the country,” says Dave Lalman, Extension beef cattle specialist at Oklahoma State University (OSU).

He’s referring to a recently published study he conducted with other researchers, indicating that weaning weights are no longer increasing in the northern half of the country and appear to be on their way to plateauing elsewhere.

“Each operation needs to keep good records and use their own trend over time to make informed decisions about how best to improve ranch profitability” Lalman says. “Weight of calf weaned per cow exposed to breeding the previous year is probably the single most powerful metric to consider, because it combines growth and reproductive efficiency.”

In the recent publication, researchers were only able to look at regional trends in calf weaning weight. However, other data (SPA, FINBIN, CHAPS, KFMA) suggest that weaning rate has been static in commercial herds for 25 years. “Therefore, it is unlikely that our industry has made recent progress in pounds weaned per cow exposed,” Lalman says.

Related:What changes with weaning when you calve in May?

“… Assuming lack of significant progress in calf body weight at weaning, efforts to enhance enterprise profitability should focus on reducing cost of production and capturing value of genetic potential for superior postweaning performance,” according to the study.

Shifting emphasis

“If your operation is one that cannot document improvement over time in output [weaning weight and/or weight weaned per cow exposed] for the past 10 years, then your focus needs to shift more toward controlling cost of production and [/or] capturing postweaning value,” Lalman says.

“This is particularly true if a ranch has aggressively selected herd sires and replacement heifers for weaning weight growth, with little or no evidence of progress over a period of five to 10 years.”

Case in point: He explains Kansas Farm Management Association (KFMA) data indicate, depending on the year, that 60% to 66% of profitability improvement is due to lower cost of production. About 33% to 40% is the result of increased output.

Kevin Herbel, KFMA executive director, and Dustin Pendell, an agricultural economist at Kansas State University (KSU), outline the specifics in differences among high-, medium- and low-profit cow-calf producers in a recent KSU analysis.

“Obviously, if output is not increasing over time, the emphasis needs to shift more toward controlling cost,” Lalman says.

Related:5 strategies to reach the weaning finish line

Drawing from the KFMA analysis, Lalman cites opportunities to reduce the unit cost of production:

  • Match cow herd traits and calving season to the grazing system and forage resources. “This should result in lower winter feed costs, higher stocking rate per unit of land, and lower cost per pound of calf weaned,” Lalman says.

  • Take advantage of established and developing technologies. For instance, use of growth-promoting implants during the suckling phase has declined from about 60% to 30% of larger cow-calf operations.

    “They still work, providing an additional 15 to 20 pounds of weaning weight for a cost of about $1.25,” Lalman says. “With no market discount for calves implanted prior to weaning, and with no downstream negative impacts related to finishing performance or carcass quality, this trend is puzzling.”

  • Develop an intentional plan to improve fertility over time without increasing costs. “Available genetic selection tools are rapidly evolving. Take advantage of them,” Lalman says.

    “Examples include stayability, sustained cow fertility and heifer pregnancy EPDs. Cull cows that fail to produce a weaned calf. Keep only early-born heifers as replacements, and keep only early-bred heifers as replacements. And, perhaps most importantly, identify herd sires with females in their pedigree that have an outstanding fertility record.”

  • Consider a planned crossbreeding program to take advantage of heterosis and breed complementarity in the cow herd. Heterosis improves longevity and fertility compared to a single-breed system. At the same time, producers can intentionally select and use breeds that have the potential to reduce costs and better match cattle to their local environment.

“Resistance to parasites and heat in the South, for example. Also, recent Meat Animal Research Center data identifies breeds that could be used to reduce overall feed intake,” Lalman explains.

“In one of our recent experiments, Hereford-sired black baldy cows consumed about 2 pounds per day less moderate-quality forage. At the same time, those crossbred cows maintained better body condition throughout the winter and early summer. This equates to about 725 pounds per year less forage required.”

Sire selection

As always, it’s easy to create added cost inadvertently.

For instance, Lalman says, “We know there is no need to select for larger cows, and we don’t need to select for tiny cows. We do not need large cows to make acceptable cattle that perform well during the finishing period.”

Fall-calving cows in the OSU research herd weigh 1,100 to 1,200 pounds. The most recent set of steers from them were on feed for 190 days. They paid on 1,464 pounds coming off feed, gained 3.6 pounds per day and converted at 5.6 pounds of feed to a pound of gain. About half of the OSU herd is Angus; the other half is black baldy.

“Also, recent research points out that modest selection pressure to reduce the genetic potential for milk production will likely better match commercial cows to their forage resources and reduce cost of production,” Lalman says. He explains it takes 30 to 60 pounds of milk to get one more pound of weaning weight gain. And it can take 80 to 90 pounds of cow feed (or forage) to get 1 more pound of calf gain.

“One possible explanation for flat weaning weights is that the potential of grazing resources to support more milk production in a commercial beef cow may be maxed out in a lot of situations,” Lalman says.

He points to increasingly accurate selection tools and the plethora of available curve-bending genetics that enable producers to reduce cost and add value at the same time.

“We can make progress on low-cost cows while making progress on postweaning performance and quality. We can improve the reputation and price for the calf, while making cows that are pretty low-cost. We need to understand that we can do both,” Lalman says.

Capturing genetic value

Supposing weaning weight remains stagnant, and costs are already whittled to a nub. There’s added incentive to capture the value of genetic potential for superior postweaning performance, as suggested by the study. Many producers already are, of course.

Arguably, there’s never been more market-based differentiation than there is today. Price differences continue to be cleaved by cattle of the same weight, sex and class, based on everything from making calves eligible for specific breed- and management-based value-added programs to documenting the genetic potential of calves for feedlot and carcass merit. 

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