A hot button topic for many producers is how big is too big and how small is too small? The 1,200-pound cow seems to be the universal measuring stick, yet it may be impractical or impossible for your specific operation to achieve this threshold for mature cow size. Therefore, one needs to explore and understand three critical elements that shape cow size. They are as follows:
- Do you have any specific geographic limitations or challenges?
- What are the end product goals of our beef industry?
- What is YOUR most profitable size?
The location of your cowherd within the 48 contiguous states will undoubtedly shape the size and productivity of the cows you manage, because differences in types and quality of forages can add or subtract several hundred pounds of mature cow size. The common forage for most of us in the Missouri region and throughout the Midwest is Tall Fescue. This hardy, cool season grass has the ability to produce ample amounts of tonnage in the spring and fall seasons. But, its quality falls fast with the heat of summer. And, let’s not forget about the toxicity challenges it presents to the cattle that consume it.
For those of us that depend on Tall Fescue for financial survival, it is easy to see that a 1,500-pound+ cow has a hard time being profitable. Cows that range in the 1,200 – 1,300-pound range tend to offer the most production performance with the least amount of open cows or fallout due to adverse reactions to the toxins produced by the fungus that cohabitates with the forage. Fescue isn’t the only forage that presents a challenge to cattle managers. The Bahia grasses of south central Arkansas and parts of Florida, the native prairie grasses that only grow five to six months of the year, and the high desert forages of Idaho through Northern California all take astute cattlemen to utilize the best of what they have to offer.
Availability/cost of forages and prolonged periods of hot or cold weather will also contribute significantly to honing in on your “sweet spot.” The extreme heat of the southern states and tropical climate in Florida present a serious management issue for producers in those areas. Cow size tends to be smaller as a result.
Meanwhile, cowmen in the northern states endure long hard winters with subzero temperatures for extended periods of time. As a result of the cold weather and high quality forages, cow size and birth weights tend to be much larger on average. Let’s not forget about the challenges cows face at high altitudes in the mountain ranges of Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, etc. It takes a special cow to live in the thin air and walk on rocks!
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