John Simons ranches with his family near Enning, S.D., where they’ve focused on reducing variability in their Angus-based cowherd for the last 20 years.
“If your calves all look the same, they’re just a pretty package,” he says. “And pretty sells.”
Sticking with one breed and bloodline for several years lets Simons produce calves that not only have the same phenotype but also perform similarly in the feedlot and on the rail.
“They might not all be brothers, but they’ll be related,” he says, noting the family only switches bulls when they start retaining heifers and need to infuse a divergent bloodline.
Salebarn studies routinely prove uniformity in weight and cattle type mean premiums at auction, but the rancher really noticed the difference when he began working closely with Haverhals Feedlot near Hudson, S.D., a decade ago. Simons has retained partial ownership on steer and heifer calves ever since.
“This has been an eye-opening experience for me,” he says.
A recent analysis spanning nine years and 67,000 calves fed in the Iowa Tri-County Steer Carcass Futurity shows finished cattle in the same pen differ in average value by nearly $700 from top to bottom.
“Variations within a feedlot pen make management and marketing a great challenge, especially when selling on a carcass merit basis,” says the technical bulletin published by Certified Angus Beef LLC.
In the study, receiving weight varied by 401 pounds (lb.), and the gap in finished weight widened to 546 lb.
“The more uniform a group, the more likely that a feeder will pass some premium back to the producer,” says Kelly Bruns, South Dakota State University animal scientist. “It saves them time and pen space, because they may not have to sort these groups.”
Breaking the data into the most uniform quarter compared to least shows a much tighter set of cattle. The top group sold within a 25-day window and had a 388-lb. average difference in finished weight. That’s compared to the most variable 25%, which sold during a 56-day period and had a 750-lb. average span in harvest weight.
Cattle with similar performance potential allow feeders to make blanket decisions about feeding and implant strategies, Bruns says.
“As they try to capture value on a carcass-based pricing system, being more uniform is certainly a benefit,” he says.
As feeders try to hit a “sweet spot” on many grids, the fewer outliers, the better.