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Hitting the target Pritchard encourages ranchers to determine target weaning weight, evaluate progress

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Laramie – Robbi Pritchard of University of Nebraska had an important question for ranchers during the recent High Plains Nutrition and Management Roundtable in Laramie. 

“What is our target weaning weight?” he asked.

“More is not a target,” Pritchard told producers, scientists and students. “Everyone is quick to say our fed cattle are too big, but no one will tell me weaning weights are where they ought to be and shouldn’t go any higher.”

Driving weaning weight

Total pounds of live weight gain post-weaning is the biggest driver of weaned calf value, Pritchard said. 

“If we are going to increase weaning weight, but we don’t want the fed cattle getting any bigger, what is the feedlot manager going to do? The spread between calves and fed cattle is going to get smaller,” he said. “What we need to determine is what the right number is and where it should be.”

“What I do know is that ‘more’ is not a goal,” he stated.

Pritchard said ever since he can remember, he has been told feedlots never make money. 

“Even as they add technology, they never become more profitable. I read an economic report once that stated feedlots return at least 90 percent of the economic benefit of a technology advancement back into the price of calves,” he explained. “Feedlots are in the habit of breaking even.” 

“If I’m working in a feedlot, I’m really just working on the value of feeder calves, so I’m still working for ranches,” he said.


Pritchard sees implanting calves as a way producers can capture more value for their weaned calves. 

“I hear a lot of arguments about implants in public, and I agree they need to be used wisely,” he said. “A lot of ranchers tell me they wish feedlots didn’t implant because that would take all this beef off the market, and they could run more cows.” 

“But, a half hour later, they are talking about how they can’t find anymore grass because it’s too expensive or being plowed up,” he notes.

Looking at implanted and non-implanted programs in feedlots, starting with 700-pound steers, Pritchard finds the carcass weight sold per cow on the prairie is a huge driver in the price of feeder calves. 

“Some 700-pound implanted calves showed a value of $23 per hundredweight over non-implanted calves because the feedlot can use implants,” he explained. “Feedlots spend all that money on the price of feeder cattle, so it’s basically going back to the country.” 

“Ranchers need to be really careful about not wanting feedlots to implant,” Pritchard continued. “Implants can add $163 a head, if the backgrounder is not making any money. Basically, that is $163 on a 550-pound weaned steer.” 

“Ranchers worry about a two-dollar discount per hundredweight because their steers are implanted, but they’re giving up $30 a hundredweight in a world with no implants. That’s just not good economics,” he stated.

Cost of increased weaning weight

Any increase in weaning weight will also increase the annual energy needed per cow, Pritchard explained. 

“Producers will either need bigger cows or the cows they have will have to produce more milk. It could be both, with varying degrees of efficiency. If we have good range, a given size of calf and we are increasing weaning weight without increasing the frame size of the calf, we’re just making fleshier calves. Who does that benefit in the long run? That’s why they get discounted,” he said.

Creep feeding to increase weaning weight is also an additional cost that should be evaluated, to determine if it’s very economical.

“If we want to add 20 pounds to weaning weight, ask ourselves what 20 pounds more expected progeny difference (EPD) for weaning weight costs in a bull. Bulls start getting really expensive when we start adding 20 more pounds of weaning weight,” he added. “We will spend a lot of money on a bull that will last an average of two years, which may make AI look very cost-effective.”

Pritchard remembers a time when auctioneers would brag up calves at the sale barn that had been implanted. 

“Then, I watched a transition take place to where they would brag up the calves that have not been implanted. The implanted calves they were bragging about are calves that were actually checked on, the producers were trying to make progress with and they were actually better calves,” he recalled. “If those calves had 40 pounds of additional weaning weight, at best, half of it could probably be attributed to implants and the rest to improved management.” 

“They may actually have been bragging up improved management,” he said. 

Running the numbers

In an example, Pritchard compared two pot loads of calves of the same age and from the same environment weighing an average of 650 pounds that came through the sale barn. One load was implanted and one was not. 

Pritchard said the implanted calves actually had the genetic potential to only weigh 620 pounds. 

“There is not as much grow power there. As a buyer, I’ve assessed they are the same frame size, same flesh, same weight and same color, but 30 pounds of growth is from implants,” he explained. 

Pritchard believes implants work on a percentage of what the animal can do genetically, environmentally and nutritionally. 

“I can’t get the same response out of a slower-growth steer in absolute pounds per day when I implant them, but I will get the same percentage of response as I would out of a higher growth steer,” he explained. “When I put these two steers in the feedlot and give them the same implant, the higher growth steer will grow faster than the other. That’s what feedlots saw, and that’s why they didn’t want an implanted steer.” 

“The problem wasn’t the implant, it was that the animal didn’t have as much genetic potential for growth, and the implant covered that up,” he said.

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

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