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Weighing in on the Cow Size Debate

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

It seems that lately almost every beef magazine, meeting or even Extension publication has covered the importance of cow size. And almost everywhere I turn, the message being delivered is that smaller cows are more efficient and profitable, and bigger cows are going to cause you to go bankrupt. This has become a major point of contention for me personally.

Don’t get me wrong – I am not advocating bigger cows, per se, but the blanket statement that smaller cows are more efficient and more profitable just because they don’t eat as much is simply not true.

The point that most of these articles or talks misses is one major factor – every cattle producer has a different environment. To make a blanket statement about size of cow, whether large or small, without consideration of environment is simply missing the point.

There is a classical study from the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in Nebraska that details the importance of cow size and environment. The study demonstrates that, in higher energy environments, larger cows are more efficient because they can be much more productive than smaller cows. They will have enough extra energy to be productive and still maintain their condition to rebreed. The increased efficiency is because they will be more productive, yielding more milk, a heavier weaned calf, etc.

Contrarily, in low energy environments like rangelands, smaller cows will be more efficient because they will be able to meet their requirements and maintain adequate condition to rebreed in a timely manner. Their increased efficiency is due to their ability to rebreed at an acceptable rate, while larger cows in a low energy system will have poor conception rates.

So how does this apply to the Wyoming producer? If I run cows in the Red Desert or the Shirley Basin, I want to be very cognizant of my environment and make sure my cow size stays in line with my cow requirements.

However, if I run cows on irrigated pastures in the Big Horn Basin or Torrington or perhaps have winter wheat in Wheatland, bigger cows make sense. They are going to be more productive and produce bigger calves while rebreeding, which is the very definition of improved efficiency.

In summary, I strongly believe that we need to match the environment and resources with cow requirements. Within the confines of that environment, having the highest-producing cows that individual environments allow will optimize profitability.

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