Finding the sweet spot: What is the ideal cow size?

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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!

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, a review of literature 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 1,200 pound cow will produce a 1200 lb. finished steer, a 1,350 pound cow will produce a 1350 lb. steer, and a 1,500 pound cow will produce a 1500 lb. 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%.            

1200 lb. cow X .63 = 756 lb. carcass
1350 lb. cow X .63 = 850 lb. carcass
500 lb. cow X .63 = 945 lb. 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. 

Now that we know environment and profitability should influence the size of our cows, it is time to examine YOUR “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.  These “producer specific” variables are potentially endless and will be factors that only you will know.

Individually, we must use a sharp No. 2 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 cowherds, and I can tell you that most cattlemen think they have a nice set of 1200-pound cows. I have seen a lot of 1,350-1,450 pound cows that somehow always seem to weigh 1,200. 

Just remember – you’ll miss your target 100 percent of the time if you don’t know where to aim. 

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Stephen Hammack    
Texas  |  July, 18, 2013 at 03:58 PM

My research is referred to in this article. I have conducted no research on this or any other topic unless by "research" is meant a review of literature, refereed and not. The often seen statement that steers at 0.5 inch fat weigh the same as genetically equivalent cows in BCS 5 appears to be the most common estimate of a number of people. But it has not, to my knowledge, been unequivocally validated. Even if that relationship is reasonably accurate it is probably for steers not receiving growth promotants, especially more aggressive protocols. The latter can increase slaughter weight at least 100 lb according to published research. At any rate, the more important factor affecting compatibility of a cow with her conditions is milk, not size, i. e., weight, because higher milking cows require both more and higher quality diets. In the last 40-50 years we have increased both size and milk in beef cows. But we have tended to place on size alone any blame when cows don't fit their conditions.

Jared Wareham    
July, 19, 2013 at 09:28 AM

Well, your review of literature made enough of an impact that I have seen it used more than once by industry personnel. I first saw it used in a “break-out session” about linking cow size to feeding and packing needs. Therefore, when putting the article together I thought it was crucial to include a point of reference from that end of the industry and cobbled it from that presentation. The info referenced from your review may be less surgical than an entire piece on the correlations that exist there; however, it is much easier to digest in this form for the average reader. The intent is to “not loose” them in the minutia of fine details, but to simply remind them that genetic selection decisions made at the cow/calf level really do have an effect throughout the beef chain. I do agree with you on the milk factor. I listened to that very presentation at BIF last month. From a practical standpoint, I think it is easier to approach the subject of input efficiency from the mature size part of that equation. Mention cows that milk less to most cattlemen and 95% of what you say next falls on deaf ears. Granted, that doesn’t mean we need to avoid a topic as important – may be a right time, right place issue. I’ll tweak the article and change research to review of literature. Thanks for the feedback.


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