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Industry trends toward heavy cattle contribute to high feed, operating costs

Oklahoma City, Okla. –“Profit-motivated commercial operations must be more cost-efficient to maintain or improve profit margins,” said David Lalman, associate professor of animal science at Oklahoma State University.

“Grazed forage remains the least expensive source of nutrients to maintain a beef cow herd,” he continued. “Therefore, a long-term stated goal of ranchers and academicians has been to match cow size and milk production potential to forage resources in order to optimize forage utilization and reproductive efficiency.”

However, with producers leaning towards higher producing animals, the nutrient demands are exceeding what can be met with forage. 

“Producers are modifying the environment to fit the type of cows they like instead of working hard to make sure they have cattle that fit their forage resources,” said Lalman. 

At the 2013 Beef Improvement Federation Symposium held June 12–15 in Oklahoma City, Okla., Lalman educated the audience on matching cattle to resources available. 

Industry trends

Lalman likened trends in the cattle industry to a swinging pendulum, constantly traveling between extremes. In the 1950s, producers bred for shorter, thicker cattle but, when the pendulum swung towards the other extreme in the 1970-80s, the industry began seeing immensely larger framed cattle. 

Lalman claimed that the industry is still seeing these extremes.

“Are cattle changing? Of course they are, but not in frame size, in weight,” he said.  

“In 1982, a 48 inch heifer weighed 720 pounds,” he continued. “In 2011, a 48 inch heifer weighed 841 pounds, increasing the overall weight per inch of height in yearling Angus heifers.”

“Continued selection for growth and capacity may be a contributing factor to the high cost of keeping a beef cow in today’s expensive production environment,” Lalman elaborated. 

As growth increases, there is a positive correlation in feed intake and gut capacity, which results in greater internal organ mass relative to live body weight. The increase in organ mass increases nutrient demand because the gastrointestinal tract and liver also increase in size. These organs account for 40 to 50 percent of the total energy expended in a beef cow. 

“Moreover, from a commercial cow/calf perspective, continued selection for cattle with extreme appetite and a larger digestive tract may expose an enterprise depending primarily on grazed forage to more risk,” he added.

Growth selection

“Selection for increased weaning and yearling growth has been steady since 1990, according to most breeds’ genetic trend data,” he said. “Effectively, if this data is indicative of what is going on in the industry, there have not been dramatic improvements in weaning weights or weaning rates.”

However, increased weight of the dam is proven to increase the weight of the calf. For every 100 pounds of increased mature cow weight, the calf is expected to weigh an additional six pounds at weaning.

“Every 100 pounds of additional cow weight costs about $42 in added maintenance cost,” stated Lalman. “Producers need 50 pounds of additional calf weight to pay for it, and we’re a long way from that.”

Milk EPDs

Across breeds the milk Expected Progeny Difference (EPD) has seen varied changes.

“Similarly, milk EPDs in some breeds have consistently increased, while other breeds’ genetic trend is negative or static,” he stated. “Most breeds with negative or static genetic trend had a relatively high capacity for milk yield when they entered the U.S. beef industry.”

Lalman also told producers to examine the economic impact of high producing animals whose requirements exceed that of the forage available. 

“Average cost per additional pound of calf weight gain from additional milk averaged $1.13,” he explained. “The value of additional weight in U.S. medium and large framed number one feeder cattle at Oklahoma National Stockyards on May 22 averaged 85 cents.” 

“Obviously, there are many factors that will have dramatic impacts on this cost of added gain calculation,” he continued. “However, this simple calculation shows that there may be a limit to the amount of money that should be invested into generating calf weight through additional pounds of milk production.”

 Improving the ‘match’

“Improving the match of cow and forage type without increasing inputs requires long term commitment,” Lalman said. “It only makes sense in a commercial operation to select for moderate frame, moderate milk and moderate muscle in the cow herd.”

“Producers have to be able to resist the temptation to gradually modify the environment and be willing to challenge those cows with the environment,” he advised. “Have the cattle show producers which animals fit in the operation.”

Lalman said that open cows should be culled and to keep only early-born and early-bred heifers. He also added that bulls out of cows that always calve early should be bought or kept. 

“Purchase bulls out of cows that are managed like yours are or better,” he emphasized. “Their dams should have never missed a calf or calve early.” 

Kelsey Tramp is the assistant editor at the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.