In the last issue we began a discussion of some strategies for reducing the production costs on a typical beef cattle operation. In this issue we will continue this discussion and take a further look at some concepts that can be applied to helping improve your operation's profitability.
One important concept that is not often recognized is matching cow type to forage base. Some areas or pasture and forage types are simply not suited to certain types of cattle without significant amounts of supplementation or other managerial inputs. High growth and milk production translate into increased nutrient requirements for the cow. Increased milk production and cow size increase both energy (TDN) and crude protein requirements as noted in Table 1. A 1 pound increase in TDN would equal 2 pounds of average quality (50 percent TDN) forage and a 1 pound increase in crude protein would equal more than 4 pounds of 12 percent crude protein forage, more if the protein content is lower which is common. Excess milk production and cow size can significantly limit the carrying capacity of any ranch operation.
Increasing profits through crossbreeding. Research has repeatedly shown that crossbred cows have a substantial economic advantage over straight bred animals. This is primarily due to increased longevity and calf weaning weight per cow exposed. This takes into account calf weight as well as cow reproductive performance as seen in Table 2.
It is important to remember that these animals have to be of the appropriate biological type to fit the environment they will be in. Research in Montana demonstrated that both large body size and high milk production decreases longevity of crossbred females in that environment (Table 3). Larger framed, higher milking cows have a higher nutrient requirement to maintain productivity. As they grow older, it becomes more difficult to provide the necessary level of nutrient intake which results in a higher percentage of these types of cows which may not breed back in a timely fashion.
Selection for economically important traits: What traits to select for and how much emphasis should be put on each is a question asked regularly in the beef industry today, especially as we move toward increased value-based marketing. The importance of these traits vary depending on environment, management, economic conditions and segment of the beef industry. Many genetic “antagonisms” exist in beef production today. Some of the most important include:
These traits vary in rank of economic performance among segments of the beef industry; however, the final product must be considered in each segment if the beef industry is to overcome loss of market share it is experiencing today. Obviously compromises will have to be made and single trait selection will have to be replaced with a balanced trait approach. There is much discussion in the industry about carcass traits, it is important to realize that unfavorable relationships exist between increased r ed meat yield and age at puberty, services per conception and mature size. It is important to first match cow type to production environment and feed resources to reduce extremes that may compromise reproductive success and then consider other economically important traits.
To help solve this debate two possibilities have been suggested:
1) Find a happy medium by choosing appropriate breeds, breed combinations and individuals within breeds. Some breeds or breed combinations are better with respect to a particular antagonism. For example, some breeds are sufficiently fertile that they can tolerate more milk and size before fertility becomes limited. Some breeds and breed combinations represent better compromises. British x Continental crosses (i.e. Angus X Charolais, Hereford X Limousin, etc.), for example, generally do better at producing carcasses with both quality and cutability.
2) Use terminal sires and “heifer” bulls. With terminal sires, we can have fast growing, efficient calves and still have a maternal cow herd that is fertile and easy to maintain. Carcass yield and quality can be excellent in this system as well. By using “heifer” bulls (very light calving weights), calving difficulty can be reduced in first-calf heifers. Older cows can be bred to terminal high-growth sires.
Bull costs and bull to cow ratio can significantly impact cow costs. A high priced bull may not always increase the value of offspring, especially if the bull does not produce what was “sold.” Make sure to have a marketing system that will pay for the extra expense of higher priced genetics. Additionally, many production systems have been shown to successfully run one bull with 35-40 cows. Bulls must be in good body condition, checked for breeding soundness prior to breeding and be in moderate sized pastures without extreme elevation changes for this to be successful. Increasing bull to cow ratios also requires closer observation of bulls during the breeding season.
Other Suggestions and Recommendations
As has been discussed many times before, forage testing is one of the most cost effective technologies available to producers. Forage analysis will provide you with information to plan your winter feeding program to match the highest quality forages with the highest animal nutrient requirements. In other words, feed 3rd newly calved cows and especially heifers the best quality forage along with the necessary to supplements to insure their needs are met for rebreeding, milking and growth. In some cases forages can be of higher quality than cow requirements. Overfeeding nutrients can be costly to a livestock operation and it may be profitable to sell higher quality products and replace with cheaper products or use higher nutrient forages as supplements for poorer quality forages (i.e. a combination of higher and lower quality forages).
Sort cattle based on body condition score and age, this is critical for re-breeding performance of the first calf heifer. Nutrient requirements for this class of animal are much higher than for mature cows. If there are extremes in body condition in mature animals it is generally profitable to sort and feed according to body condition. It is unprofitable to develop rations for the herd average especially if there is extreme variation in age and body condition.
Minimize the number of replacement heifers. High heifer replacement rates (as needed when culling rates are high) can greatly increase the cost of production, taking away resources available for producing cows. As mentioned previously crossbred females have greater longevity than straight bred animals. Proper supplementation and body condition score management will also reduce the number of open cows each year and subsequently reduce cull rates. Consideration should also be given to raising heifers as opposed to purchasing replacements.
Pregnancy check and culling open cows early may be a profitable alternative to traditionally selling in the fall when cull cow prices are at season lows. This is especially true in times of limited forage availability; however, producers may want to consider keeping young open cows rather than raising replacement heifers. Open cows require less maintenance feed and generally have greater calving ease. This decision will depend on why the animal was open, her genetic merit and the value of resources that particular year.
Develop a sound herd health program. It is not recommended to cut corners when it comes to herd health. Low-cost producers try to shift their herd health expenditures to preventive medicine rather than treatment. Most cost effective herd health programs focus on preventing: reproductive diseases in breeding stock, calf scours and respiratory disease in calves. Work with your veterinarian to establish management procedures that reduce herd health risks and develop a cost effective herd health plan. Health and nutrition are closely linked so be aware of nutritional considerations that help boost immune response and overall animal health.
Reduce labor costs through reducing use of harvested feeds, improving grazing management, purchasing replacements and buying hay may all be considerations which will decrease labor requirement. This must be weighed against the cost of these purchased inputs.
Market, don't just sell. Your cattle will be treated like a commodity until you differentiate them into a value-added product with recognizable benefits. Provide the potential buyer with as much information as possible so that you receive the true value of your cattle:
• Use good management practices; dehorning, limited breeding season, castration
• Keep records; genetic composition, implants and vaccinations, feedlot and carcass data
• Consider backgrounding
• Comply with beef quality assurance guidelines and become BQA certified
• Consider marketing through an alliance that rewards (pays you extra) your type of cattle.
• Consider participation in source and/or process verification programs that help validate the cattle you produce.
Cost control and low-cost production takes a great deal of study and focus. In many cases significant changes may need to be made in facilities, labor force, etc. to help reduce these costs and could require an up-front investment that will pay off in coming months and years. Cattle operations are businesses and should be managed as such. Cost control is always a major factor for any business and must be in focus for cattle producers.
Dr. Steve Blezinger is a nutritional and management consultant with an office in Sulphur Springs, TX. He can be reached at 667 CR 4711 Sulphur Springs, TX 75482, by phone at (903) 885-7992 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.