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Spangler: Matching cows to the environment can increase the bottom line

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Matching the cow to the environment can add some dollars to the rancher’s pocket, according to University of Nebraska – Lincoln Beef Geneticist Matt Spangler. 

He recently presented a webinar on genetic considerations for the beef cowherd.

Ideal cows

Ranchers need to select cows that are fertile at a young age, have a short post-partum interval and can maximize production within a year, Spangler said. They also need to have maternal calving ease and the ability to adapt to stress from their production environment, like changes in temperature and moisture. 

He added that optimal milk production and docility are also important, as well as a cow that is an efficient grazer and can maintain her body condition. 

Spangler noted that most ranchers want cows that are docile, but they should also make sure those cows are protective and aggressive enough to care for their calf.


Producers should look at several factors when defining the efficiency of their cowherd. 

Factors like pounds of calf weaned per cow exposed, conception and calving rate, calf survival, lactation and growth to weaning are all important, he said. 

Energy consumed calf value per $100 of input cost is also important, although it is a harder value for producers to understand and determine. 

“Energy consumed is not easy to collect, so we don’t always do the best job determining that,” Spangler said.

“Robert Totusek of Oklahoma State University probably said it best,” Spangler continued. “Anytime the matter of cow efficiency becomes overwhelmingly complex, we should revert to the basics. Profit equals weaning weight multiplied by percentage calf crop multiplied by the price per pound, then multiplied by the number of cows minus the annual cost of cow-calf operation.”

“Really, what it comes down to at the end of the day is that we want to make money,” Spangler said. “To do that, we need to accurately determine our cow costs and become more efficient.” 

To do this, producers need to determine ways to increase the number of progeny per dam through either selection, heterosis from crossbreeding or better management. 

“The problem is we do a very poor job of measuring and valuing input,” he said. 

Energy requirements

Referring to a chart comparing the energy requirements of different food animals, Spangler showed a lot of the energy utilized by the cow is maintenance. 

“If we can improve the efficiency of maintenance, we can make a big improvement in our cow-herd,” he explained. 

However, he was careful to note that efficiency improvements don’t mean growth in cows. 

“That is not the target. We are not trying to grow our mature cows,” he said. “The target is maintenance requirements and efficiency.”

High maintenance cows with high visceral organ weight makes those cows have a higher maintenance requirement even when they’re dry. 

Fitting the environment

Selecting cows to fit the environment can be tricky, Spangler said. 

“Milk production level is important to how the cow will fit into her production environment. If ranchers live in a harsher environment, they should take caution when selecting bulls to use and keep milk production EPDs in an optimum window. What is hard to rationalize is the bull that works best for an operation may be below average in milk production.”

In areas where feed availability is high and stress is low, cows that are biologically moderate to heavier milking and moderate to large in mature size may work. 

“Higher output in those types of environments can be successful in terms of rebreeding and storing energy,” he said. 

However, in environments similar to Wyoming and Nebraska, these cows may need supplement, which may not make the most economical sense, he noted.

If feed availability is low and stress is high, producers should be more conservative. Cows that are more moderate in size with low to moderate milking ability may work better in this type of environment. 

Producing replacements

Spangler questioned if producing replacement heifers is economical in some situations. 

“By producing our own replacement heifers, are we producing a calf that is significantly different than the terminal calves we would like to produce?” he asked. “There is not a breed out there that does everything the best. That is why it is important to use complementary breeds to crossbreed.”

Spangler encouraged producers to focus on economically relevant traits, which are the traits that provide the best revenue source or input cost to the operation. 

“What is important is to understand are the differences between sources of information. EPDs and economic index values are more valuable than actual records or ratios,” he explained. “EPDs are seven to nine times more effective in generating a response to selection than actual measurements.” 

Spangler continued, “It can make multiple trait selection easier, but producers should use an index that matches breeding objectives.”

Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

Efficiency calculation

University of Nebraska – Lincoln Beef Geneticist Matt Spangler said that Robert Totusek’s formula for calculating cow efficiency is very useful and one of the more basic formulas for the calculation. 

Totusek, a professor at Oklahoma State University, uses the following calculation: 

Profit = Weaning Weight x Percentage Calf Crop x Price/Pound x Number of Cows – Annual Cost

Maintenance requirements

What is the difference between high maintenance and low maintenance cows asked Univeristy of Nebraska – Lincoln Beef Geneticist Matt Spangler. The numerous differences between high and low maintenance cows impact profit.

Some of the differences can be seen in the table below:

High Maintenance Cows

Low Maintenance Cows

High Milk Production

Low Milk Production

High Visceral Organ Weight

Low Visceral Organ Weight

High Body Lean Mass

Low Body Lean Mass

Low Body Fat Mass

High Body Fat Mass

High Output

Low Output

High Input

Low Input


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