This article first appeared in the December issue of Drovers Cow/Calf.
The scientific and practical data show we have gone too far selecting for production traits.
As I have traveled the country the past 30 years or so, I’ve seen the state of the average cow in the countryside generally go from mediocre to poor, regardless of the time of year and available forage.
Therefore I’m not surprised by all the recent scientific data showing a great many cattle of today are too big and too milky.
The oversized condition of our nation’s cow herd was confirmed to me by the high number of Choice and Prime carcasses present among record-large fed cattle in the past year. Said another way, these big cattle finally got to a state of physiological maturity that would allow them to lay in high degrees of intramuscular fat. Historically, I could make the argument that hasn’t happened on a large scale since we began upsizing cattle back in the late 1960s and 1970s. Remember that the grading system was lowered a notch in the late 1970s to create a larger number of Choice carcasses and to create a better place for what we now call Select grade.
A research study in Oklahoma a few years back shows most cows now have so much genetic capacity for milk production that it’s actually a negative, weighing down their overall performance.
Researchers at the USDA Agricultural Research Service station near El Reno found in a native-range environment with about 35 inches of annual average rainfall, Brangus cattle seemed to reach optimum milk production with a milk EPD of 5 to 7 pounds. Cattle at the station with high milk-production EPDs actually showed a decline in real milk production. This matches research from other locations across the country.
At higher genetic milk potential, the cows couldn’t supply their own needs for maintenance and milk.
Consider that the average Angus cattle in 2014 had average milk EPDs of about 24 pounds. If we extrapolate from the Brangus data, it suggests in many range environments similar to the good-quality native range on the El Reno station, the average Angus range cow may be genetically programmed to produce at least 17 pounds too much milk — above that optimum level of 5 to 7 pounds.
Further, if we recall the data on udder confirmation —- that big-teated and pendulous udders are genetically linked to higher milk production — it’s pretty easy to drive around the nation and find a lot of thin cows with big udders and teats and then make the assumption they are over-milked.
Further, data from Arkansas, Montana and Oklahoma has shown adding 100 pounds overall weight to a cow will produce, at best, 6 pounds additional calf weight.
On that basis, Oklahoma State University economist Damona Doye and animal scientist Dave Lalman calculated this added calf weight is worth $5 to $7, while the cost per cow for putting it on is $42 — a net loss of about $35 per cow unit.
In addition, three databases in Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas and North Dakota show us real calf weaning weights haven’t gotten any bigger since 1991.
So we’re using cows that can’t get fat or stay fat, and we’re raising calves about the same size as they’ve been for 20 years. Further, fed cattle are getting too big for the slaughter plant and too big for the plate and the wallet of most consumers.
Why aren’t we paying attention to notice these problems?