Raising the right size cattle
for better feed efficiency and profitability
OPTIMUM COW SIZE IMPORTANT FOR EFFICIENCY
by: Heather Smith Thomas
Over the past several decades the average cow on many ranches has increased in frame size, and in recent years some stockmen are realizing that their cattle have become too large to be efficient. Efforts are being made by a growing number of stockmen to get back to a more moderate frame size, and cows that are more profitable—easier to maintain and able to thrive on what the farm or ranch produces, feed-wise. Some seedstock producers, including Kit Pharo (Cheyenne Wells, Colorado) are trying to help commercial cattleman meet more realistic target goals for cow size. Pharo has been developing some very efficient beef-producing bloodlines in the several breeds and composites he offers.
“Many people believe optimum cow size changes from ranch to ranch and from one environment to another. There may be a few cases where this is true – but very few,” says Pharo.
Ranchers often forget that their operation is a business and that the purpose of most businesses is to make a profit. “It doesn't really matter how big your cattle are, or how fast they can grow, or how pretty they are, or what their breeding is – if they are not profitable,” he says.
“I believe that most of a rancher's profit (or loss) is made (or lost) within his own fences. In other words, the rancher has more control of his profitability than he may think. Cow size and type, which has a huge impact on ranch profitability, is one thing a rancher has full control of,” explains Pharo.
“When we consider cow efficiency, a smaller cow will always have an advantage over a bigger cow. Smaller cows can do more for less. If your ranch can support 100 head of 1400-pound cows, it will support 120 head of 1100-pound cows – on the exact same inputs. That's 20 percent more cows producing 20 percent more calves – and I guarantee those 120 smaller cows will always produce more total pounds of beef than the 100 larger cows. On top of that, the calves out of the smaller cows (because they have smaller individual weights) will be worth more per pound.”
Some people will say that if they get 40 inches of rain they can use a bigger cow than the rancher who lives in the desert. Pharo's response to that is: “Not really. I could run big cows here, too, but just not very many of them. Ranchers in a more favorable environment could run small cows in their lush pasture—and run more of them. As far as I'm concerned, your environment doesn't really make a difference on this point,” he says.
“I agree that a cow has to be adapted to her environment. My cows might not work as well in a different environment and someone else's cows might not work in my environment just because they are not adapted to it. But the size of my cows should work anywhere in the world. It doesn't matter where you live, the smaller cow will always be more efficient,” he says.
The feed requirements for the larger cow are not compensated for cost-wise by the additional size of her calf, compared to the smaller cow. “A cow eats about 2.5 to 3 percent of her own weight in feed every day,” says Pharo. The larger animal will have a larger feed requirement. Yet she cannot wean off enough extra pounds of calf to justify that extra feed cost.
“A 2 frame cow that weighs 1000 pounds can easily wean off 50 percent of her own body weight. In contrast, it is much harder for a 1200 pound cow to wean off 50 percent of her own weight, and a 1400 pound cow will never be able to wean off 50 percent of her own weight and stay in the herd,” he says. Some of the smaller cows will actually come close to weaning off 60 percent of their own body weight. Pharo has had some 1 frame cows weighing 950 to 1000 pounds that could consistently wean off 58 to 60 percent of their own weight and stay in the herd for many years. But when he has 4 or 5 frame cows that wean off much more than 50 percent of their own weight, this means they are putting too much of themselves into milk production. They will eventually fail to breed back—and won't stay in the herd.
“In any cowherd, the smaller cows are weaning off a higher percentage of their body weight than the bigger cows. Yet if you just start selecting for cows that will wean 60 percent of their weight, you are inadvertently selecting for so much milk that you reduce fertility,” he explains. Large frame, high milking cows, can't survive in Pharo's program because he doesn't give them any extra feed. His cows are required to graze short native range year round. When you don't feed cows, you will quickly weed out the cows that can't maintain themselves and breed back while raising a calf.
Some cows, especially crossbreds, may be able to produce extra milk and still stay in the herd, but others can't. “My dad, in his era, selected for extra milk and growth, and he had some good crossbred cows that milked really well. They would last several years, and produce the biggest calves every year. Their daughters, however, were so fat at weaning that if you kept them as replacement heifers they didn't milk very well,” he says. The fat displaces mammary tissue and heifers that are too fat when the udder is developing never do milk as well as they would have, otherwise.
“The daughters of those heavy milking cows would produce the dinkiest calf in the herd, but if you kept those dinky heifer calves, they would grow up to be high producing cows just like their grandmas. My point is that if milk is one of your primary selection factors, you don't have much you can depend on, year after year, through the generations,” says Pharo. That high milking ability will tend to skip a generation just because a too-fat heifer won't milk as well as her mama. Using cow size as a target in the efficiency equation, rather than milking ability, is more reliable.
“Early on we were selecting for more and more growth and performance. This increased the size or our cows, while decreasing our net profits. Eventually we took a good hard looked at our good old grandma cows—cows that had done everything right for 10 to 16 years without missing a calf. These were our most efficient and profitable cows. Their pedigrees and EPDs were not all that impressive, but they were making us money. Those good old grandma cows were considerably smaller than our other cows,” he explains.
“If we are in this business to make a profit, we need to concentrate on producing the most for the least. I am referring to total ranch production, not individual weaning weights. Smaller cows will always produce more total pounds than large ones, with the same inputs. Many people continue to miss that point. While they are busy increasing individual weaning weights, they are producing less total pounds and/or increasing their feed expenses. I'm talking about total pounds of calf produced on your farm or ranch, and they are talking about individual weaning weights,” says Pharo. A lot of ranchers miss the point because they feel they need to increase production per cow, with bigger and bigger calves.
“If smaller cows can produce more total pounds that are worth more per pound on the exact same inputs – then smaller cows are obviously much closer to optimum than bigger cows. So, how small can we go? Is there a point at which smaller cows cease to be more profitable than bigger cows?” he asks. The answer is yes—there comes a point at which you cross a line and have trouble marketing your calves.
”Since nearly all cow-calf producers are in the commodity business, the product they produce must fit within the current parameters of the commodity beef industry. If their product is too big or too small, it will be discounted. Therefore, we can only reduce cow size to the point that our calves still fit the parameters of the existing corn-based commodity beef industry,” he says.
Some people pose the question that if a 2 is more efficient than a frame 3 or 4, why not go clear down to a number 1? “The 1 frame cows ARE better, in efficiency, but if I breed a 1 frame cow to a 1 frame bull, I can't market the calves. We can still run the 2 and 3 frame cattle through traditional marketing system sale barns, feedlots, packing plants, etc. They still fit. Iowa State University's John Lawrence says that the most efficient cows that make the most money on the ranch will produce steers that are the most profitable in the feedlot. They may not have the highest rate of gain but they gain the most for the least cost,” says Pharo.
“We know our size and type of calves will work in the current corn-based beef industry. In the past 10 years, Pharo Cattle Company has sold well over 4000 bulls. The calves sired by 95 percent of those bulls were marketed through traditional marketing channels. The remaining 5 percent were used in grass-fed beef operations,” he says. “A lot of people don't understand what a 2 or 3 frame is. This is a 1000 or 1100 pound cow. These are not miniature cows; they are precisely what all of our ranches used to have a few years ago,” he says.
He also points out that frame size and body condition score are two different things, and that you can't dictate frame score just by how much a cow weighs. You might have two cows that both weigh 1200 pounds but be totally different frame score because one is carrying 100 to 200 pounds more body weight than the average cow in her frame size. A thin 1200 pound cow will be a larger frame score than a fat 1200 pound cow, for example. “Some people have 6 frame cows that don't weigh as much as my 3 frame cows. That 6 frame cow, at that weight, however, is not pretty, and she's probably open,” he says.
The optimum cow size at Pharo Cattle Company is a 2 to 4 frame cow that weighs 1000 to 1200 pounds in a 5 to 6 body condition score. Cows that are bigger than this are not efficient or profitable enough to pay their way on his ranch, according to Pharo. Cows that are smaller than this, even though they are extremely efficient, may produce calves that are too small to work well in our existing feedlot system.
“The best system might be to have a herd of extremely efficient 1 and 2 frame cows that are mated to 4 to 6 frame terminal sires. This may produce the ideal end product, but you cannot keep the daughters out of this mating,” he explains. “It is impossible to produce 3 or 4 frame cows with 5 and 6 frame bulls,” he says. Many ranchers think their cows weigh about 1100 pounds, until they sell some, and realize those cows were bigger than they thought. Yet they keep buying 5 and 6 frame bulls, and wondering why they now have 1400 pound cows. The 5 and 6 frame bulls are out of 1400 to 1800 pound cows, so their daughters are always too big.
“When you go from a 6 frame to a 3 frame you are reducing the height by only 6 inches, but you have a completely different type of animal. Our 3 frame cows tend to be much thicker and easier fleshing than 6 frame cows, as well as much more efficient,” he says. He gets frustrated because when he talks about a 2 or 3 frame cow a lot of people think he's talking about a dwarf or miniature animal, but in reality a 2 frame cow is a 1000-1050 pound cow that works very well in any environment. Most of Pharo's 3 frame cows weigh 1100 pounds. He has some thick, easy-fleshing 3 frame bulls that weigh over a ton.
“The current beef production model was built on cheap grain and cheap fuel. Times have changed! Cheap grain and cheap fuel are things of the past. Therefore, I believe the parameters for the commodity beef industry will soon be changing. As we move away from our current corn-based system to a grass-based system, optimum cow size will be reduced even more,” says Pharo. He feels we are at a tipping point for the industry. If costs of energy keep going up, the price of grain will probably keep going up also.
“If calf prices come down 20 percent from what they are now, and they will, most people will not have enough income to cover their expenses. Things will have to change, to keep the next generation in this business. Prices of cattle have been so good the past 10 years that most producers have grown complacent. They mistakenly believe we will never see another drop in cattle prices.” If fuel keeps going up, what we think is optimum cow size now may actually be too big, a few years from now. When prices drop, the picture will dramatically change, and stockmen will have to seriously look at trying to raise cattle that can thrive on a minimum of harvested feeds.