By Gayle Smith

The US is producing 14 percent more beef with 1.8 million fewer cows. Finding ways to fine tune an efficient cowherd can be challenging for producers; however, an extension beef cattle specialist with Oklahoma State University suggests additional savings may be found by examining ranch records and adjusting selection criteria. 

Dr. David Lalman tells producers at the High Plains Nutrition Conference in Laramie, Wyo. substantial evidence exists indicating the environment is a limiting factor of calf weights at weaning. “But once the calves enter the feed yard, their rate of gain explodes. I think it can be attributed to more aggressive selection of growth over time,” he says. 

With a focus on improving cowherd efficiency, Lalman tells ranchers that individual ranch records are crucial. “It is important to be able to analyze them over time and look for trends. If your weaning weights are not going up, then maybe you need to reconsider the genetics you are using – at least in terms of growth. If your weaning weights are not increasing, then you should be questioning why not. Especially, if your cow costs are not increasing,” he states.

Lalman shares with producers the growing amount of data available from research on cow size and feed efficiency. During the past few decades, English breeds have significantly increased cow size. “The cow weights in the Angus breed exploded for a while, but it looks like it has slowed down,” he says. The Hereford breed still shows a gradual increase, but Red Angus has actually decreased its cow size, he points out. “They have went down in cow size since about the time they introduced their maintenance energy requirement EPD. It is a good indication that if you give producers and progressive breeders a tool that really works, they will use it, which is indicated in their EPD data,” he states.

Lalman suggests moderating cow size could be beneficial to many ranchers. “I don’t think we need tiny cows, but I don’t see any benefit to continuing to increase cow size. I think the appropriate cow size does vary some based on environment, but not a whole lot. I think 1,100, 1,200, and maybe even a 1,300 pound cow weight is about where we need to be,” he suggests.

Sharing data that looked at the relationship between cow rate of gain adjusted to a body condition score five, and calf weaning weight, Lalman explains that none of the data suggests any given ranch participating in the research has shown a strong correlation between the two. ‘What that tells me is there are a lot of other factors impacting calf weaning weight besides cow size,” he explains.

Some data from around the country related to cow size versus weaning weight, shows for every 100 pounds of cow weight, calf weaning weights showed an increase of 6-31 pounds. “We can get closer to justifying bigger cows with 31 pounds of response in calf size, but even at $1.20 of value of added gain, we think it costs $40-$50 to keep an additional 100 pounds of cow weight around. If 31 pounds is only worth a dollar, then it is still not working, economically,” he explains. 

“This is the basis we use to say there will be some big cows that are very efficient and some little cows that are very inefficient, but on a herd average basis, there seems to be no need or point in continuing to select for larger cow size,” Lalman suggests.

Producers who select cattle for milk production may only get an additional pound of gain for every 42-52 pounds of milk the calf receives. It takes 84 pounds of cow feed to make the milk for the additional pound of calf gain. “Based on this data, it should encourage a lot of ranches to stabilize selection for milk, and even moderately reduce genetics for milk production,” he says.

The impact of growth on fine-tuning efficient cattle can be more difficult to quantify. “When you aggressively select for growth, you are increasing appetite. The GI and liver make up less than 10 percent of the cow’s body mass, but they combine to use 40-50 percent of the total energy expended per cow. If you don’t have a mechanism in place to control feed intake, you’re going to see higher feed intake over time,” he states. 

“There is a limit to what your forage can support in relation to maintenance and requirements. What is important is to resist the temptation to gradually modify the environment to suit the cow. We could prop up the cows with 50 percent more feed and modify the environment. We could make those cows produce to their genetic potential, but those inputs are very expensive. Selecting cows to suit the environment you have is a better management strategy,” Lalman says. 

“There are two philosophies out there. More is better all the time. Less is better all the time. But, we don’t need either. We don’t need little, bitty, tiny cows that totally ignore post weaning characteristics. What we can have are moderate, efficient cows that maximize the forage environment, fine-tune the system, and have phenomenal post-weaning cattle,” he states.