In the last issue we began a series on some of the factors that must be considered when putting together a cow herd. Interestingly, there are many herds in this country that are decades old and still carry genetics from breeding animals that produced calves that walked to market on the Chisholm trail. Some of these herds have seen a tremendous amount of change over the years. Some have not. Regardless of the source the genetic base for the cattle which ultimately end up in our food system is immensely diverse. In this diversity we find the root of a lot of the problems we encounter in the market and the industry.
The following paragraphs will take a look at some things we need to consider when developing a cow herd whether we are building one from scratch or enhancing the value of the one that is already in place.
Learning from the Chicken Boys
We constantly bemoan the market share that the poultry industry has gained, largely at the beef industry's expense. Much of this is related to pricing. In general, at the meat case, poultry is less expensive than beef. When you look at the economies of scale as well as the time it takes to produce one pound of beef to be sold in the meat case the difference is staggering. To produce a pound of chicken it takes about five weeks from birth to slaughter. A given house can hold 100,000 birds which means that a given chicken house can produce 500,000 lbs. of chicken in just over one month. That same house can do this several times per year resulting in a couple of million lbs of chicken produced from one poultry house owned by one man and probably operated by himself and maybe one hand. Compare that to the beef industry where it takes about 18 months to produce one pound of beef with who knows how many people handling the animal it comes from in the course of it's lifetime.
A second and very important factor is consistency. When my wife goes to the store and buys a package of boneless chicken breasts (Yeah, I know, but confession is good for the soul) she is pretty confident that they will taste pretty much the same as the last package and the same as the next package. Chicken is chicken is chicken. As beef producers we can learn a lot from this reduced variability and the results it has produced.
Can we eliminate the variability in beef? I think the honest answer to that is no, not entirely and I don't think we'll see a significant reduction in any of our lifetimes and probably not in that of our children. If you took a snapshot of the beef industry today you would see the immense variability between our herds. You would see the immense variability within our herds. I'm talking about variability between 20 head of cows owned by one man and the variability in the calves they produce. This brings us to our first focal point and place to start: reducing the variability within our herds.
Planning for Reduced Variability
What creates the variability we see in our cow herds? Here's a list of some things:
1) Genetics and breeding -- Cows and Bulls
2) Heifer development
3) Health and Nutritional Management
4) Overall Management
When we look at developing a given animal we normally consider the BIG 3 - Genetics, Nutrition and Management. You cannot effectively manage or develop an animal with any of these three lacking.
1) Genetics and Breeding
Let me state for the record that I AM NOT a geneticist. Take one look at my grades in my college genetics classes and you'll see why. I do realize that the role genetics plays in production is a cornerstone of our operations. We refer to the genetics of our animals in broad collective terms often because the entire concept is so difficult to understand. Genetics plays a role in everything from the color of the hair coat, the amount of sheath a bull possesses and whether an animal is horned or polled down to it's ability to withstand stress and fight off disease.
Basic selection of cattle going into a herd is typically very subjective -- “Boy that's a fine looking animal, let's load her up.” Remember, the cows are your base production units -- your manufacturing plants. Each cow produces a calf that is part of a group. Depending on your marketing program the ideal base cow herd will produce a group of calves that are like peas in a pod, similar in structure, muscling, hair color, etc. Once these calves are fed out and the hide pulled off, the carcass characteristics should be quite similar - similar yield and quality grades, dressing percentages, etc. Especially if you are marketing your cattle in groups, producing a calf crop possessing a lot of similarity (assuming that these are positive attributes) is beneficial. Given the trend we are seeing in the industry in marketing fat cattle on a carcass value basis (review our discussion on Grid or Formula cattle sales in the last issue), it is also very beneficial if these cattle produce similar, high quality carcasses. In order to know if you are accomplishing this you have to be able to track that information through the feedyard, we'll get to that in a moment.
To initiate this program you have to have a record keeping system. This can be a simple as a small spiral notebook you keep in your pocket or the best computer program your money can buy. You have to be able to track birth dates, weaning dates, weaning weights and sales price as related to the average market on the day/week of sale for that weight class of calf. Secondly you need to be able to track this information back to the cow/dam. This means you will need some type of identification system; ear tags or brands, which relates a given calf to it's dam. Hopefully you have the opportunity or the labor available to spend enough time in your herd(s) to determine when a given cow is breeding back as related to when she calves. Initially, you want to be able to assess the weaned calf data of a given cow against the entire herd. You need to evaluate the following:
1) Is the calf she's producing typically heavier, lighter, about the same as the rest of the calf crop?
2) Is the quality of the calf she produces consistent with the rest of the calf crop? In other words is frame, muscling and fleshing (degree of fat cover) greater, less, equal to the rest of the calf crop?
3) How does the appearance (color pattern) of the calf match the other cattle? A longhorn looking calf will have a negative effect to a small degree on the overall perceived value of a group of predominantly single colored calves.
4) How does this calf perform healthwise? Does it seem to have more of a problem with sickness, resistance to infections, etc. Has it had a problem with foot rot or pinkeye?.
5) How efficient is the cow in producing this calf? Does she breed back in a timely fashion? Does she require a lot of supplemental feeding in order to retain body condition?
If you keep records over a period of time you can determine if a cow historically produces a calf that is better or poorer than the herd average. The cows that bring down the average production should be removed from the herd. Additionally, you want to remember that your goal should be to produce a calf crop that has as high an “average” as possible. This is not just in terms of weaning weight but also overall quality.
These are all factors that need to be evaluated up to and through weaning and really are of significant concern primarily if the cattle are marketed at weaning in some fashion. To gain a better understanding of how your cow herd truly stacks up you need to retain your calf crop through the feedyard and on into the packing facility. A data collection program exists for producers that are interested in collecting this information for the purposes we discussed. Among other factors it gives you individual data on grade yield, etc. of your cattle. The cost of this service is about $6.50 per head. Additionally, another program is being developed by a group known as Consolidated Beef Producers (made up of a large group of feedyards) that will provide this information at a lower cost and also make other performance data available to the cattle owner over the Internet. Through this program, performance data will also be available while the cattle are in the feedyard. One additional piece of information that will be accessible will be the ability to compare the performance of other cattle in the yard and in the program in general. This program should also be available at a lower cost. Based on a conversation I had with a feedyard manager this week, this program should be up and running before the end of this year. Both programs provide an excellent tool for the cow/calf producer to collect the necessary information to make substantial improvements to his herd.
Yet another method that is available to producers to collect this performance information on a somewhat smaller scale are through some of the feed-out programs offered by Extension/Experiment Stations affiliated with land grant universities in many states. These programs offer an option to smaller producers to enroll a few head of their cattle which are tagged and sent to the feedyard with other producer cattle for feeding and for collection of performance and carcass data. While this will not give you data on all your cattle it will give you a benchmark to see where your herd is stacking us and provide some indication of where you need to go with your herd development. Contact your local county extension agent for more information on programs of this nature.
When we collect this type of performance data we are able to see the degree of variability within our herd. This information shows us what the true value is of the cattle we are producing in terms of the meat they produce. In many cases when we examine the log of carcass data and subsequent valuation we see an immense variability in the value of the carcasses. In a given pen of cattle in many cases it is not unusual at all to see a carcass value spread of $500. In other words the best carcasses are worth $500 more than the poorer carcasses. That affects us in several ways. It contributes to the meat quality variation we have seen for so long in our industry. It causes fed cattle that are sold on a live bases to be bid at a lower level than they might actually be worth. Finally, it has a significant affect on the producer's level of profitability. These tail-end producers really drag down the overall average price you receive for a pen of cattle.
We begin to see that there is a tremendous amount of information that can be utilized in developing our cow herd and we haven't even begun to discuss breed types, management and other factors. Building our herds to where they NEED to be in the coming years will be a process requiring a lot of time, commitment and hard choices. It may cause some producers to totally change how they view their cattle operation and how they have typically done things. While we will never completely change some producer's mind, the industry over the coming years will make it increasingly difficult for profitable production without delivering an animal that is in demand.
Dr. Steve Blezinger is a nutrition and management consultant with an office in Sulphur Springs, TX. He can be reached at P. O. Box 653 Sulphur Springs, TX 75483, by phone at (903) 885-7992 or by e-mail at email@example.com.