Smaller-framed Cows

Smaller-framed Cows May Help Contain Input Costs
By SUE ROESLER, for The Prairie Star, reprinted with permission.
Sunday, August 1, 2010 3:25 PM MDT

Cows and their calves are different sizes here in Mandan, ND but ARS research is aiming for a smaller-framed cow herd.
“Grazing as long as possible in the Winter and having a smaller-framed cow herd that eats less are some of the ways that may help keep input costs low and ranches profitable,” says Dr. Scott Kronberg, an ARS research range scientist with an animal focus. “A lot of us think it will cost more to feed cattle in the future,” Kronberg said as he explained that oil has a trickle down effect and other prices tend to be tied in with oil. “As oil prices rise, other costs such as fertilizer and fuel to run farm equipment, also rises. When it comes to a choice between driving their cars or paying high prices for beef, consumers are more likely to buy cheaper cuts of beef and continue to drive,” Kronberg said. For some, beef may even be a luxury if it is unaffordable.

So for producers to stay profitable in the future, they have to be able to break-even and continue to have an efficient operation when cattle prices are low. “Then they can be really profitable when prices are high,” he said.

Kronberg was one of several speakers on the crop tour at the USDA-ARS Northern Great Plains Research Laboratory’s annual Friends and Neighbors Day in Mandan, ND. “There are a lot of ways to cut the cost of livestock production and still be productive,” Kronberg said. “We’re looking at grazing more and feeding less. If I could graze all year I would,” he said.

Kronberg said even in heavy snow, cows will eat the grass sticking up through the snow. They grew Altai wild rye, which grows very tall, and allowed the cow herd to graze well into January. If the snow is just too high, they can supplement when needed. He said he is just building a smaller-framed cow herd to base his research on, and wants cows to be smaller and thicker, in the 1,100 pound range producing calves who are 500 to 600 pounds by the end of October.

“It might seem a little different to raise smaller cows. It is probably not what your neighbors are doing. But these smaller-framed cows are really efficient and live a long time,” Kronberg said. In addition, he wants cows that will produce a “nice calf” for 20 years. At the ARS ranch, they calve in May instead of March. The reason is so the calves will not become bigger cows who could end up in their last trimester in the Winter and need a higher-quality feed for good nutrition.

“A lot of producers really don’t know how much their cows weigh because they don’t weigh them,” he said. Instead, an average of the cattle is usually obtained when cattle are weighed in bulks of about 10 at a feedlot. He challenged the crowd to guess the weight of three Angus cows who gathered in front of an electric fence with their Spring calves. “There really isn’t a cow here who is one I’m looking for yet,” he said.

Cow #1 was the largest of the three and weighed 1,483. “She is a pretty common size for cattle in many regions up here,” Kronberg said. Last year, the cow weaned a heifer calf that was 472 lbs. on April 20. This year, her calf was 76 lbs. at birth. Cow #2 was 1,280 lbs. and weaned a bull calf that was 520 lbs. in October. This year, she gave birth to a 86-pound calf on May 12. Cow #3 weighed 1,005. The calf size was not given.

While Kronberg does not know for sure that smaller-framed cows will eat less and still be efficient, his research is focusing on that. “If you have a cow that has to be culled in year eight because of no calf, that is not efficient to your cattle production because it costs a lot to bring her into the herd,” he said.

Range scientists in Miles City, MT have devised a new method of determining exactly how much forage grazing calves are consuming. It does not involve inserting a cannula into the calf. “We can’t look at production efficiencies until we know what goes into the feeding expense everyday,” he said.

Winter feeding is usually the most expensive feed for producers if cattle are kept in a feedlot or in the yard. In addition, if cows are in their third trimester, feeding a lot of hay is expensive. Smaller cows that calve in late Spring or Summer would not run into that problem. “If we can graze well into the Winter, the costs go way down,” he said.

Vern Anderson, livestock specialist at Carrington, ND Research Extension Center, asked how land prices fit into the schematic. Kronberg agreed that if a producer owns his own land, costs can be contained better.

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