Cow, Meet Your Environment

April 8, 2016 06:05 PM

By: John Maday

Beef producers have seen trends in cattle type come and go, from the short and fat dwarf cattle of the 1950s to excessively large-framed giants of the 1970s and 80s. Since the 1990s, cow sizes have become more moderate, but Oklahoma State University animal scientist Dave Lalman, PhD, says many producers still are not selecting for cows that match their environments, meaning lost efficiencies and higher-than-necessary production costs.

Lalman discussed matching cow production levels with environmental conditions with veterinarians during the recent Academy of Veterinary Consultants conference in Dallas.

In some respects, producers have made good progress in improving the genetic potential in their herds, Lalman says. For example, birth weights have held fairly stable while weaning weights have increased in some breeds, and fed cattle today average close to 70 percent USDA Choice compared with 50 percent in 2006.

However, he says cow efficiency does not appear to be improving significantly. In Oklahoma for example, hay production has increased by about 35 pounds per cow per year since the 1970s. Some of that hay likely is shipped to other states or used for other purposes, but producers use much of it to meet the growing appetites of their cow herds.

Lalman focused particularly on milk production as a trait indicating overall cow efficiency. Data show, he says, that just one breed – Simmental – has posted reductions in its average EPDs for milk production in recent years. Historically, Simmental was had the highest milk production among beef breeds. Virtually all the other major beef breeds have been moving higher in milk production.

Even in the Oklahoma State University commercial cow-calf herds, average milk yields have increased from 17.8 pounds per day in 1998 to 31 pounds today. Higher milk production, Lalman says, correlates directly to higher year-around maintenance requirements for the cow. Those high-milking cows have greater visceral-organ mass, need more harvested feeds and are more difficult to keep in good body condition for high first-service pregnancy rates.

Part of this trend relates to steer and heifer yearling weights, which have been increasing for most breeds. Higher yearling weights in feeder cattle generally correspond with heavier mature weights for cows, and mature-cow weights have been moving higher in several breeds.

Some breeds and breeders are measuring and selecting for lower feed intake and feed efficiency along with adequate growth and milk production and other economically important traits. Lalman says commercial producers should take a close look at their forage resources, feed expenses, cow size and milk EPDs, and consider applying selection pressure toward cows that perform efficiently in their production environment, with lower maintenance requirements and less need for harvested feeds.  In summary he says:

  • There is little to no evidence that cow efficiency is improving.
  • Commercial cow herds are on an unsustainable path for some genetic traits.
  • Cows are not getting taller, but are getting bigger.
  • The cow-calf sector overall can’t seem to get enough milk production and muscle growth.
  • Feed inputs and costs per cow-calf pair continue to increase, and production is not keeping up with those costs. 
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