This article first appeared in the December 2015 issue of Drovers CattleNetwork.

Growing piles of evidence show we’ve created an unsustainable and less-profitable or unprofitable cow herd in this nation.

Statistics from several states show calf weaning weights, on the average, haven’t gone up in more than 20 years, despite steady selection for bigger weaned calves. The Southwest Standardized Performance Analysis (SPA) database for herds in Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico shows this trend.

Database manager and Texas A&M economist Stan Bevers says the only significant changes in calf weights are traceable to wet and dry years. That is exaggerated by the huge dip in weights in the drought of 2011. Data in the accompanying chart from Southwest SPA, from Kansas farm management records and from North Dakota Cow Herd Appraisal Performance Software shows this flat trend. All this is despite a steadily climbing genetic trend for yearling weights, which isn’t happening under range conditions.

We’ve had record calf prices in recent years, but they have been matched by record cow costs. This trend is shown in the SPA database and in the accompanying graph.

Most heifers need to be fed to get big enough to breed for calving at 2 years of age. Again, this is energy deficiency in nature compared with what the animals have been bred for.

“Feeding to maximize reproductive rate does not result in differential retention between females with high and low feed requirements,” says Andy Roberts, USDA-Agriculture Research Service (ARS), Miles City, Mont. “In contrast, managing cows under reduced feed inputs would more likely result in culling of cows with high feed requirement due to reproductive failure.”

Remember, things haven’t always been the way they are now. Cattle were once developed entirely on grass, or in a few cases with low-quality supplements gleaned from processing facilities.

More milk!

In addition, most modern cows can’t get nearly enough energy in their native environments to produce their genetic capacity for milk. This excessive milk drags them down as it does a dairy cow not getting enough grain.

Research at the USDA-ARS station at El Reno, Okla., just a few years back showed Brangus cows that had genetic potential to produce more than 11 to 15 pounds of milk actually produced less milk because they couldn’t keep up with the demand in that native-range environment. Eleven to 15 pounds was the optimum.

Yet milk EPDs for most of the major breeds have climbed steadily and probably stand well above optimum by this time in many, if not most, environments.

The statistics also tell us weaning rate and rebreeding rate have not improved in 20 years. For a long time, calf mature size kept growing and cow frame size along with it. David Lalman, Oklahoma State University (OSU) animal scientist, says this has finally ceased. But Lalman has been collecting and sharing some haunting data in recent years about the state of cows in America.

By 2012, he had rounded up data from Montana, Arkansas and Oklahoma showing that 100 pounds of additional weight in each cow adds 6 pounds, at most, in her calf. The variation was from 4 to 6 pounds. Based on that, he worked with OSU economist Damona Doye to show that added calf weight, at the time, was worth $5 to $7. It is worth perhaps a little more now but will not be forever. They calculated the cost for carrying that outsized cow at $42. It was a net loss of about $35 per cow unit.

Even if we add in some recent data from an Arkansas study which said there was a 17-pound increase in calf weaning per 100 pounds of cow weight in one herd, at that revised upper range it still wouldn’t pay for the extra cow maintenance.

Lalman adds that a study back in 1988 showed higher milk production brought about higher year-long maintenance costs, perhaps because it demands a higher visceral mass of major nutrient-demanding organs like the rumen, small and large intestines, liver, heart and kidneys.

In addition, higher milk yield does not convert well to calf weight, either, according to the scientific literature. Multiple studies have shown that each added pound of milk essentially produces less pounds of calf growth than the pounds of milk that preceded them. It can be represented as a bell curve, somewhat like added pounds of fertilizer beyond a certain point begin to produce less crop.

More feed required

Neither are cows getting more efficient. Lalman dug up Oklahoma data on the amount of hay produced, and presumably fed, per beef cow. In 1974, it was less than one-half acre. In 2014, it was nearly 2 acres per cow, roughly a fourfold increase. Whereas some of this may be attributable to long-term declining range condition under a majority condition of continuous grazing, it’s likely a bigger part of it derives from the growing demands of our modern big cows.

In the feature story on Wyoming ranchers on page 6 of this issue, researchers in Wyoming showed bigger cows of 1,300 to 1,400 pounds needed  9.5 pounds of forage to wean 1 pound of calf. Smaller cows of 1,000 to 1,100 pounds needed 7.6 pounds of forage to wean 1 pound of calf.

Many people say the average slaughter cow today weighs than 1,400 pound. But remember, cull cows are more often than not thin cows, and if their condition was adjusted up to a body-condition score (BCS) of 5, they would weigh even more.

In 2007, the National Market Cow and Bull Beef Quality Audit showed these facts: An average BCS for 2,800 head of cows was 4.53. Average slaughter weight was 621 pounds, which converts to a live weight of about 1,320 pounds. If that is adjusted up to the standard of BCS of 5, which is still a fairly thin cow, the average weight would have been about 1,370 pounds. Wanna bet it’s as big or bigger today?

Even if this data still is correct, it means roughly half the cows in the country weigh more than 1,400 pounds.

So all this tells us our modern, heavy-milking cows are poor-doing cows that can’t support themselves in most, if not all, natural environments, and that they don’t produce enough additional calf weight for all that extra upkeep they need.

Beefing up

Lalman has data that suggests our cattle are getting heavier muscled, too. He shows real average yearling weight for Angus heifers is now over 850 pounds, and for Angus bulls it is nearing 1,175 pounds. This has been climbing steadily since the 1970s, when yearling heifers weighed a bit over 600 pounds and bulls weighed about 850 pounds.

He displays a chart showing that since 1982 the weight per inch of height has grown significantly. It was just over 15 pounds per inch then and is at about 17.5 pounds now.

U.S. Meat Animal Research Center researchers show the ribeye area for all the major breeds has been shooting up since 1990, with Angus leading the way. This is a move toward heavier muscling.

Lalman says the science is unclear on whether this heavy selection for muscle by itself is negative. He notes more muscle requires a minor increase in energy to maintain and increases mature weights. That’s clear from the data.

The bigger problem is that more muscle generally means less fat, or that fat deposition is dramatically delayed until larger maintenance needs are met. Yet fat is the thing cows need to get through the winter and to keep reproduction a priority. It takes about twice the calories to lay on fat as muscle, so this says cows must be thrifty enough to meet maintenance easily before they can fatten.
Lalman adds that a 1998 Nebraska study showed lower fat levels in a bovine’s body composition is associated with:

·         Older age at puberty

·         Lower conception rate

·         Lower calving rate.

These are major reproductive issues, and almost everyone agrees the most important trait for a cow is consistent, annual production of a live calf.

Which direction?

Lalman has been doing presentations on this topic for several years now, and he has developed an actionable list for producers to consider. Among the things he suggests:

¡  Moderate size, milk and muscle.

¡  Cull open cows.

¡  Resist the temptation to gradually modify the environment.

¡  Keep only early-born heifers.

¡  Keep only early-bred heifers.

¡  Buy or keep bulls out of cows that always calve early.

¡  Purchase bulls out of cows that are managed like yours, or worse; have never missed a calf; and calve early.

Reproduction for long-lived animals such as cattle is the canary in the coal mine — it’s the first thing to go. So it’s a great focal point. The biological programming is when things get tough, reproduction drops because the organism expects to live on and, therefore, reproduction can wait for a better day. When nutrition and health are in great shape, then reproduction can be a priority.

The way you manage and select for or against truly reproductive cattle is the key to making your herd more sound and profitable.