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. Therefore, one needs to explore and understand three critical elements that shape cow size: 1. Do you have any specific geographic limitations or challenges? 2. What are the end-product goals of our beef industry? 3. What is your most profitable size?
Your location 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 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 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 in the 1200- to 1300-pound range tend to offer the most production performance with the least amount of open cows. 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 present their own challenges.
Availability and 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. 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 birthweights tend to be much larger on average.
The next critical element that must be understood is the relationship between mature cow size, feedlot finish weights and fed-cattle profitability. According to Tom Brink of Five Rivers Cattle Feeding group, the largest cattle-feeding company in the world, cattle with a finished carcass weight of approximately 850 pounds have the greatest profitability potential. Steers finishing in that weight range tend to have better feed conversion and a lower cost of gain. Efficient gain is critical, especially in times of high feed prices. As finished carcass weights move up or down from this sweet spot, profit margins shrink due to less efficient gains. Furthermore, research reviewed by Stephen Hammack at Texas A&M University suggests that “…mature weight of cows in moderate body-condition score (BCS = 5) averages the same as that of equivalent frame-score steers with 0.5 inches of back fat.” That means a mature cow in average condition will produce a finished steer near her same weight. A 1200-pound cow will produce a 1,200-pound finished steer, a 1,350-pound cow will produce a 1,350- pound steer and a 1,500-pound cow will produce a 1500-pound finished steer.
To identify which cow size will produce the ideal carcass size established by Five Rivers Feeders, we multiply cow size times the average dressing percentage of fed cattle, which usually runs around 63 percent.
1,200-pound cow X 0.63 = 756-pound carcass
1,350-pound cow X 0.63 = 850-pound carcass
1,500-pound cow X 0.63 = 945-pound carcass
In doing so, we find that the 1,350-pound mature cow produces steer calves that will finish at the most profitable carcass weight. Also, we can assume that a smaller cow size might produce inefficient steers with high costs of gain and a smaller carcass size, and a larger cow may produce overweight carcasses that could suffer severe discounts. As cattlemen, we need to consider all aspects of our business, including beef quality. We cannot claim to be holistic managers without taking end-product qualities into consideration.
We must also examine “producer-specific” variables. For example, do you have a niche market for grass-fed beef where your finished carcass weights don’t need to be as big as industry average? If so, your mature cow size should vary to accommodate your specific needs. Or perhaps you have some low-cost feed or forage that allows you to support a bigger cow and wean more pounds of calf.
Individually, we must use a sharp pencil and determine our sweet spot. Try not to get caught up in the hype that a specific size of cow is the only size that is profitable. Your environment and beef-product needs will set the parameters while your producer-specific goals, advantages or needs will narrow that to your ideal cow size.
Finally, I encourage you to check the weights of your cows and find out exactly where you are — you may be surprised! I travel thousands of miles and study many cow herds, and I can tell you that most cattlemen think they have a nice set of 1,200-pound cows. I have seen a lot of 1,350- to 1,450-pound cows that somehow always seem to weigh 1,200 pounds.