"Most cow-calf producers have been so absorbed in trying to increase the growth and size of their cattle that they have completely overlooked the concept of efficiency," says Kit Pharo, a commercial cow-calf and seedstock producer from Cheyenne Wells, Colo. "They forget that efficiency is more important to ranch profit than growth."

As producers continue to focus on growth, some antagonisms come into play such as birth weight, cow maintenance and fertility.

"Output in the minds of many cow-calf producers is the same as average weaning weight. Even though numerous Standardized Performance Analyses indicate virtually no relationship between average calf weaning weight and return on investment," says Ron Bolze, director of progeny testing for carcass merit for the Certified Angus Beef program.

A summery of IRM-SPA data representing 300,000 cows from 388 herds in 15 states published by the Texas Agricultural Extension Service indicates production traits are not highly related to net income. According to the report, authored by extension economist James McGrann and others at Texas A&M University, herds weaning 400-, 500-, or 600-pound calves had the same likelihood of having a positive return on assets. However, weaning weights tended to be the highest in herds with the highest per cow cost and the lowest incomes. Meanwhile, net income increased in all herd size groups as cow cost decreased. Such data suggests that efforts to maximize outputs without regard to inputs are misdirected. Producers should develop strategies to lower costs through increased efficiency.

Road map to efficiency

"The most efficient cows," says Mr. Pharo, "are those that wean calves that weigh over 50 percent of their own weight, calve on time every year and do this with very little or no supplemental feed."

With that in mind Pharo Cattle Co. began recording weaning weights and cow weights and produced an index to measure cow efficiency (see side bar). At the same time, a decision was made to reduce feed and feed expenses.

"Every year we are steadily putting more pressure on cows trying to make the inefficient cows fall out of the program," explains Mr. Pharo.

Later a decision was made to lower the conception weight goal from 98 percent conception to 90 percent.

"Anyone can feed to achieve a 98 percent conception rate, but it is not cost effective. We wanted to put enough pressure on these cows, by increasing stocking rate and reducing supplemental feed, that no more than 90 percent of them get bred. That sounds ridiculous to some people, but if you are going to improve the general cowherd, some cows need to fall out. In our case we wanted 10 percent of the cows to fall out every year and be replaced by possibly better cows."

When Mr. Pharo began trying to identify the most efficient cow 13 years ago, he admits that he wasn’t sure what type of cow would rise to the top. But after 13 years of indexing efficiency and disciplined culling, Mr. Pharo says he now knows what kind of cows are the most efficient and profitable.

"We have discovered that there are certain boundaries that we must stay within to stay on target. For example we can only select for so much growth without negatively affecting birth weight and cow size."

Optimum performance at Pharo Cattle Company comes from cows with moderate size. Perhaps more important is easy fleshing ability - cows must maintain body condition even on limited feed resources. Volume and capacity are also important for cows to efficiently convert low quality forages into milk and beef. Phenotypically, cows also must possess natural thickness and be structurally sound including their feet, legs, teeth, eyes, udder and hair coat.

"We have discovered that our most efficient cows are those that weight 1,000 to 1,150 pounds with a frame score between 4 and 5.5."

Feed efficiency

It may sound easy, but selecting for efficiency prior to weaning is only half the battle. Feedlot performance of individual cattle in a herd is often inversely related to their preweaning performance. Both pre- and post-weaning performance of offspring and input costs need to be considered when making genetic decisions.

There are a number of antagonisms between traits that producers must balance. It’s a challenge to push rapid growth while maintaining moderate mature cow size, low birth weight and acceptable carcass quality. On the other hand the beef industry is just beginning to recognize the potential for superior genetics. Interest in measuring feedlot performance and carcass merit on an individual animal basis and tracing this information back to sires and dams has been increasing in recent years.

"Until we get a better handle on individual feed conversion, it’s pretty tough to improve feed efficiency a tremendous amount. The biggest challenge is to move from measuring that on a pen basis to an individual basis," says Tim Stanton, extension feedlot specialist at Colorado State University. "That’s an expensive jump because you have to feed the animals individually. We are going to have to make some significant investments to try and sort some of that information out."

Identifying profit makers

Seedstock producer Dave Gust, who owns and operates Circle A Angus in central Missouri, understands the importance of measuring efficiency and identifying the bulls that supply the most profitable balance of economically important traits. Circle A Angus ranch and 33 other Angus breeders established the Angus Sire Alliance, a sire progeny-testing program for multiple traits and profit.

"Some bulls are simply more profitable as herd sires than others," says Mr. Gust. "We can prove which one sires progeny that are worth more."

Alliance participants from across the United States nominate 20 bulls for the test each year. Expected progeny differences are calculated for a vast array of economically important traits from birth to slaughter. William Herring, beef extension geneticist at the University of Missouri, assigns each trait an economic weight that defines the contribution of each trait toward profitability. Sire differences in profit per progeny then are estimated and indexed based on the total relative economic value of each trait EPD. A bull with a $30 index value would potentially produce calves that return $10 more profit per head than a sire with a $20 index value.

"It’s a multiple trait index so all of the traits are in there. You want a bull that does everything well across the board," says Mr. Gust. "If you are selecting for a single trait, you’re going to get all of the bad things that come along with the good. This, however, gives us the opportunity to identify bulls that are good at everything, not just great at one."

In addition to developing profitability EPDs, Circle A and the Angus Sire Alliance are making strides with feed conversion efficiency EPDs.

"We got to the point where we could prove all the other numbers," says Mr. Gust, "but people kept asking, ‘How does the bull convert?’"

A facility was built at Circle A’s Huntsville, Mo., farm to accommodate 96 head of steers. The facility is equipped with a Calan Broadbent Feeding System, which allows only the steer with the corresponding neck medallion containing a magnetic chip to feed at that bunk. Steers are fed twice a day with a computerized feed cart that measures each steer’s ration into the bunk. Once a week uneaten feed is vacuumed and weighed to accurately measure feed intake.

"Though it’s possible, a single feed conversion EPD is not calculated because having a good feed conversion ratio does not mean an animal has adequate growth," says Dr. Herring. "We calculate a dry matter intake EPD so that we are accounting seperately for how much they eat and how much they grow."

If the bulls in the Angus Sire Alliance progeny test provide a snapshot of the average genetic profile that exists within one breed, it is evident that wide differences exist in profit potential and production efficiency. Producers should take a comprehensive approach to genetic selection to maintain efficiency in all stages of production rather than blindly pursuing single trait improvements.