Efficient Cows, Profitable Calves

January 2, 2016 02:12 AM

Many factors play a role in achieving cow efficiency

Even though more heifers are entering the U.S. cowherd, the most productive females on the ranch are the cows already in your pastures. Their value has already paid off their initial investment and their efficiency holds the key to profitability.

During the Range Beef Cow Symposium this past November in Loveland, Colo., a panel of ranchers described how they improved the efficiency of their cowherds and gave producers advice on how to get the most from their cows.

The economic component of efficiency is the most important consideration, says Trey Patterson, CEO,  Padlock Ranch Company, based in  Ranchester, Wyo.

“Yes, we do need a certain level of production, but we need to have economic efficiency,” he explains. In order to reduce costs, Patterson considered feeding cows and heifers less purchased and harvested feed. 

“We have to push the limits. The top-notch managers push the limits without falling off the cliff. You’ve got to be bold enough to try that,” Patterson says.

It might involve small changes, such as feeding a cow 25 lb. of hay per day instead of 28 lb. or lowering the stocking rate on the pasture from 3 acres per month to 2.5 acres. 

However, you need to pay attention to your cattle and pasture, he acknowledges. When you start to see production or body condition decline, then you should be ready to respond with additional feed. 

The Padlock Ranch has been pushing the limits of rangeland heifer development for the past few years, with less supplemental feed. Starting in 2011, heifers received 3 lb. of cake per day with no hay. The next year, it dropped to 2 lb. In 2015, heifers got just 1 lb. of cake a day.

During each of those years, additional heifers for Padlock Ranch were developed in a feedlot during the winter with a grower ration. The 2012 heifers on range came in nearly 50 lb. lighter for July breeding, but had an improved first service conception rate of 64.5% compared to the heavier feedlot heifers at 60.7%.

This year’s heifer development groups showed an additional economic advantage by having lower costs through winter and better average daily gain (ADG) through summer. In the first part of May, before heading to grass, the average weight of feedlot heifers was 802 lb. for 1,026 head. Range heifers came in at 662 lb. for 1,093 head.

For the next 120 days, the heifers all grazed out on range before being AI’d July 23. Range heifers weighed 836 lb. compared with 902 lb. for feedlot heifers—a 2.36 lb. ADG for range heifers and 1.22 lb. ADG in feedlot heifers during that period. Range-developed heifers also cost $60 per head less for the 120 days on winter pasture prior to breeding.

Patterson notes that keeping heifers out on range might be the best way to encourage grazing behavior to build a better cow. “Do you want the first time they have to graze in the winter to be when they’re pregnant?” he asks.

Mature cows at the Padlock Ranch are fed during the winter, but on an “as needed” basis—which is dependent on various factors such as weather severity, body condition and grazing pressure.

Since 2015 has been dry compared to the past three years, there isn’t as much available grass. Patterson estimates he’s at 60% of the forage availability compared to past years. He will feed some hay this winter as well as 1 lb. of cake, featuring 35% crude protein with nearly the same profile as distillers’ grains on a dry matter basis. While timing can vary, in most years, the May calving herd will start receiving supplements after the first of the year.

A GrowSafe unit at Olsen Ranches, helps measure the feed efficiency of calves and improves the genetic decisions for the herd.

Genetics play a large role in how cattle will ultimately perform. Douglas Olsen, owner of Olsen Ranches, Inc. near Harrisburg, Neb., has been evaluating Hereford genetics through the American Hereford Association’s National Reference Sire Program since 1999. In those 16 years, Olsen has helped analyze 10,400 calves from 200-plus bulls for the program. 

“Efficiency, simply put, is the input over the output,” Olsen says. “An efficient cow must be able to convert forage into to a high value calf.”

Olsen Ranches raises commercial Hereford and Red Angus cows, with a small registered herd as well. Steers and non-replacement heifers are finished in the family’s feedlot. 

In 2010, Olsen installed a GrowSafe system to measure feed intake data and track gains on the fed cattle. Since then, almost 1,800 steers have gone through the system to help evaluate the efficiency of 71 sires in the Hereford and Red Angus breeds.

In 2012, a group of 209 steers were sent through the system to evaluate 13 sires. When looking at two groups of similar in-weight steers sired by two different bulls, there was a $36.14 difference in feed cost between the groups for the 72 days. Another comparison between similar in-weight steers showed 0.63 lb. improvement in ADG and an increase in value of almost $50 per head.

“There is an opportunity for change. We know feed efficiency is heritable, and with selection, we can change it,” Olsen says.

Residual feed intake (RFI) is another data measure Olsen has looked at to improve the efficiency of his herd. These various measurements has helped reinforce the fact that visual appraisal will not move the cowherd forward in being more feed efficient.

As a seedstock producer, Lee Leachman, partner in Leachman Cattle of Colorado, aims to improve the efficiency of his cattle to pass those genetics onto commercial cattleman. He thinks efficiency measures such as feed-to-gain ratio, RFI and residual ADG can help determine where cattle stand. However, producers can get locked into one measurement and push themselves towards single trait selection, limiting the overall improvement of their genetics. 

“What I want to think about is how efficiency affects profit,” Leachman says, defining it as “profit per acre.”

The mentality should shift from being locked in as certain-sized operation toward how much dry matter is available per acre. 

“We need to get away from thinking about it as a certain number of cows,” he adds. “We need to start asking ‘What is the most efficient way to harvest that forage’ and ‘what do I want that cow to look like?’” 

Chasing trends such as excess milk and growth have negatively impacted the profitability per acre for cattle producers on range pasture, he says. 

Another difficulty in solving the feed efficiency equation is the trend of increasing carcass weights. As carcass weights go up, it drags minimum cow size up with it, Leachman says. Despite the trend, cattle producers should be aiming to raise replacement females that can wean a calf that will feed out to a larger size than she is on grass.

“If you’ve got a cow that weighs more than the slaughter weight of your steers, you’ve got a real problem,” Leachman adds.

Slightly smaller cows that are more efficient with calves that can perform should be the ultimate goal. “The efficiency makes a bigger change, plus it has less antagonism on the carcass weight,” Leachman says.

Heterosis shouldn’t be ignored either. Leachman points to research done by the U. S. Meat Animal Research Center (USMARC) showing a crossbred cow generates 23% more annual income compared to a straightbred female.

“That heterosis effect looms large in the calculus,” Leachman says. “It radically changes your profitability.” 

USMARC’s research also shows longevity improved 15% and lifetime production increased 30% for crossbred cattle. “Every way you look at it, crossbreeding increases the efficiency of a cow-calf operation,” he adds.

From maximizing forage resources to selecting genetics for improved efficiency, there are several tools that can help improve cowherd efficiency. Choose the methods that make sense on your operation. 


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