The other day I was asked by a writer to aid them in an article about variability in cattle. It seems, they said, that producers have less uniform groups of cattle to sell or place on feed in Texas than in other areas of the country and that this variability can cost a producer a lot of money in terms of grid discounts, etc. They had enclosed four or five questions that they asked me to answer (give my opinion on) and I did.
After quite a bit of thought, if that is what goes into these musings, I sent it off. To my surprise (well maybe not, considering the outfit asking the questions) I found only three short statements of mine being used in the article. Part of that may have been due to the fact that I really indicated to the writer that I didn't think Texas cattle were more (or less) variable (or uniform) than cattle from other parts of the United States. But I figured that I had made some good points and I thought I would share them here as they apply to cattle across the southeastern United States.
I travel quite a bit in state and across the United States, and what I do see is that the cattle north and west of the southeastern United States tend to be mainly solid black or red, often with white faces. I don't think that means less variability, just more uniformity in coat color.
Cattle in the South do require different breeds and breed types than cattle raised in the more northern states mainly as a direct result of the environment. Southern cattle typically have some differences in the levels of Bos
indicus influence to reduce the effects of hotter and more humid climates, but this does not necessarily mean they are more variable.
Now I don't mean to imply that southeastern cattle are not variable, just not more variable than other places. This can be easily seen looking at cattle in pastures on long drives, spending an afternoon in an auction barn, or working with a processing crew at a feedyard. The variation that is seen in the feedyard really begins, in part, with the seedstock producer who breeds the bulls used by commercial producers.
Commercial bull buyers are generally looking for a specific breed (or breeds) of bulls that will increase growth (weight), so purebred breeders tend to produce bulls with genetics for higher rates of gain and heavier weights. Some do breed bulls to improve carcass merit, female reproduction and maternal ability. But the majority of purebred bulls purchased by commercial cattlemen are purchased on their ability to increase weaning weight, along with having acceptable breeding soundness.
In addition to the inherent genetic variation of the breeds of cattle of British, European or American (Bos
indicus and Bos indicus influence), purebred breeders often have quite different selection goals, and these also contribute to the overall variation.
The types of variation in the cattle coming into the feedyard include large differences in on feed weight (some of which is due to genetics and age of calf), rate and efficiency of gain, and market endpoint: (weight, fat thickness, marbling score, days on feed). In the Texas A&M Ranch to Rail Program, we sorted cattle into lots based on a 100 lb. weight range. Many times the range in off feed or sale weights of these cattle would be four times that, 400 lbs. or more after 160 to 180 days on feed, even though there was a market endpoint of .4 inch fat thickness.
Not all bigger framed cattle have bigger ribeyes or are fatter, nor is the opposite always true for smaller framed cattle. The problem is we can't see very well under the hide without tools like ultrasound. When we did sort cattle at reimplanting based on ultrasound fat thickness and intramuscular fat, we did reduce the overall variation and improved profitability.
Another source of variation (besides weight) is the health of cattle coming on feed. Sick cattle not only don't gain well (if they don't get too sick and die) but they are less efficient, require more days on feed to reach their market endpoint, generally have reduced marbling scores and tend to be less tender (not to mention that they cost more to feed). In the Ranch to Rail cattle, if we could have identified those feeders that were going to get sick, we should have valued them $16 to $17 per hundredweight LESS because of the additional cost of feeding and treating them.
I don't think we have more variability in our southeastern cattle than other areas. Certainly we have wider choices of breeds to utilize, and some of those are not simply personal choices but are necessary breeds in my opinion. I think too many folks think that crossbreeding creates genetic variation when it doesn't. The crossbreds may have different coat color patterns than one or both purebreds, but the genetic average for the cross is the average of the parental types. If the parental types are moderate, then the crossbreds will also be moderate.
I think one of the problems that cow calf producers in the Southeast have is the same that producers have all over the United States. They are getting mixed economic signals. Most of them get paid on essentially weaning weight, so they tend to use bulls (and cows) that maximize sale (scale) weight. The bulls are the major change agent here since the cow has to remain in her environment and produce a calf every year. If she gets too big she might not get pregnant, too small she might not wean a heavy enough calf, so she typically tends to be in the "middle of the road" in size.
If producers can do a few things along the way to improve the marketability of the calf (reducing variation and increasing uniformity) such as shortening breeding or calving seasons, dehorning, castration, identification, preconditioning, avoiding certain color patterns they do, but only if there is financial justification for it.
The current calf marketing system pays for frame and muscling. Feeder cattle command the highest prices across weight ranges with frame sizes of medium (estimated steer off feed weight between 1,100 and 1,250 lbs., heifers averaging 100 lbs. lighter) or large (off feed weight 1,250 lbs. or higher) and muscle scores of 1 (thick) or 2 (moderately thick). Cattle with small frame size or that have muscle scores of less than 2 are severely discounted. I think most cow calf producers have responded to those market signals.
I think those in education in the southeastern states (such as myself) and in other states need to work with cow/calf producers on identifying bulls within breeds that can produce calves that avoid price discounts, perhaps pick up a few premiums, and improve the cowherd if needed or at least not change the cowherd if it's already right for the conditions.
That is being done and has been done, but with many smaller cow calf producers and many new producers returning or just beginning in the cow/calf business, we need to continue.
Producers should try to produce calves that have similar age, muscle type, etc. prior to entering the marketing chain or feedyard. Calves that are of a similar age or age range, frame size, muscle type, breed type, color and health status are more desirable for a number of reasons, especially if you are the one feeding them. And if you happen to write some of this information down, it can add to your profitability if you can market your calves in certain age and source verified programs.
Calves grow approximately 2 lbs. per day while on their momma, so two calves born in the same month, one on the first and the other on the last day of the month, could have a weight range of 60 lbs. between them. If the calves were 90 or 120 days apart in age, then the difference could be 180 to 240 lbs. Small lots of calves with long calving seasons leave a lot of pounds and dollars on the table when the calves are all weaned and sold at the same time. It takes a lot of "put together" cattle from these herds to fill pens with 100 lbs. or less weight ranges, increasing the risk for health and other costs.
A range of frame size from medium to large can be accommodated in feeding a set of cattle to industry accepted weights and fatness. But if the range is all the way from small to large, then some cattle will be either under or over finished unless there are several marketing dates.
Within a breed (I think breed of bull is the bull buyer's FIRST selection decision), muscling is an important trait for cow calf producers since it affects both weight and price per pound, and therefore the amount on the check. We have to be careful that we don't increase muscling (or frame) in the cowherd through retaining replacements of extreme sires. Uniformity of breedtype and/or color is often over valued in my opinion, but it is what a lot of cattle buyers pay on. As such, it is an important trait to consider if you are selling weaned calves. There can be a great deal of variation (and generally is) in cattle of the same breedtype and coat color.
In my opinion, uniformity may or may not be important. A rancher who sells a few calves as singles gets paid for the value of those calves as the buyer sees them and uniformity probably doesn't have much if any effect on price, as long as they all fit one of the several specifications desired by the industry. On the other hand, a rancher with a large group of light muscled, small framed calves of the same color that are uniform will get a discount simply because the cattle are all uniformly sorry.
In addition to sources of variability, there are costs associated with it. In the cow calf herd, frame size (and mature weight) affects cow maintenance costs. More moderate framed cows and their calves would reduce maintenance costs and not incur a market discount as long as muscle score was 1 or 2 (which I would depend on the bull to contribute to).
Calves with muscle scores of 3 or lower are often significantly discounted.
I already alluded to the penalties of long calving seasons. There are penalties due to differences in value of the weaning weight of the calves (which is usually somewhat, but not completely, offset by the increase in market price for lighter calves. But there may also be penalty from the potential loss of pregnancies by later and later calving cows in the herd (especially in a dry year).
Variation in calf health programs (preconditioning or backgrounding, even general weaning stress) will affect the bottom line. The problem is that not all of these problem calves are easily identified until it is too late. All must be managed alike even though some have better immunity and better immune systems than others. Good calfhood immunity begins with good cowherd immunity.
Calves that have overall better marketing management applied to them (bulls castrated at an early age, steers and heifers dehorned or polled, lots shaped according to age, weight, coat color or breedtype) generally command higher $/cwt, although not all marketing venues reward the same so there is a penalty associated with trying to reduce the variation as well.
There are several herd management strategies that would be useful in improving the uniformity of your calf crop and possibly the value of your calves. If you are selling all of your calves at weaning, keep your cow size moderate and make changes in frame and muscling with your bull. You might even consider changing breeds or breed types to fit the market. If you keep replacements, you will need to keep your bulls moderate in frame and muscle and of breed types adapted to your environment.
Everyone can work on narrowing calving seasons and improving calf management practices. Reducing variation in frame, muscling, weight and health should all be considered.
Uniformity in your herd can pay dividends. But it should be considered only along with all other factors bearing on herd production and profitability.
Paschal is a professor and livestock specialist with Texas Cooperative Extension and is based in Corpus Christi, Texas. He can be reached at (361) 265 9203 or j firstname.lastname@example.org.