Searching for glittering granules of gold along a mountain stream means panning many, many gallons of water and silt. And searching for glowing gold nuggets in a hillside mine can mean picking through tons of soil and rock.

This search for gold somehow describes the quest of many in the cattle business for the truth about the alleged ineffi-ciency of the so-called elephant cow. We have panned and picked our way through reams of literature and scores of experiences over many years, rejoicing over each nugget found but always feeling discouraged about the elusiveness of the mother lode.

Part of the problem is that we have not always looked for the right stuff in the right places. Like forty-niners in a saloon, we have not always been able to distinguish between "whiskey talk" and straight talk.
We have allowed ourselves to think that elephant cows exist only in big breeds when, in reality, there are elephant cows in every breed.

We have allowed ourselves to think that only tall cows are big cows when in reality big is more a measure of pounds than inches. We have allowed ourselves a "cows-is-cows" mindset, overlooking the reality that cows vary in biological efficiency within breeds and between breeds based on such factors as milk production and growth potential.

We are indebted to the many animal scientists who have created innumerable nuggets of truth. But panning and picking for these nuggets has been a slow, inefficient process for rank and file cattlemen. Now, however, the process has become easier.

I became aware of a computer program called Cowculator about two years ago. The program was developed at Oklahoma State University's Animal Science Department by extension specialists David Lalman and Don Gill. And only now have I become adept enough at using the program to strike what appears to be the mother lode for which I have been searching.

Dr. Lalman and Dr. Gill used myriads of factors and values assembled by the National Research Council, their own university's studies and those of other institutions in developing the Cowculator program. The information includes the nutritional requirements of cows based on their breeds and breed combinations, stage of pregnancy and lactation and on their weights. This information was coupled with the nutritional values and cost of forages, feedstuffs and feed supplements to create analyses that reveal annual maintenance cost.

The purpose of this column is only to give you some background on what is coming. It will take three columns to cover my findings. To date, I have screened all of the 33 breeds on which the Cowculator program provides values. And, I have carried two breeds through the entire analysis, one of an average-milk breed and one of a high-milk breed.

Next month's column will show the maintenance cost of the two breeds that have been completely analyzed. Costs will be shown for these breeds according to their body weights in 100-pound increments from 1,000 pounds to 1,400 pounds. This analysis uses real-world input from a Southern Plains cow-calf operation and works through five different production periods to create an annual cost composite.

My next column will extend maintenance costs to per-cow net profits based on management variables. In the course of reading these columns you may gain a new understanding of the term elephant cow.

It is impossible to undertake a project like this without being reminded of the old computer rule: Garbage in, garbage out. In this regard, special thanks are due to Dr. Lalman, OSU extension nutritionist for his invaluable input and guidance. I have only provided the patience and time required to feed required variables into the Cowculator program and tabulate the results.

To contact Fred Knop, write Drovers or send e-mail to: