In Terms of Economic Efficiency, Size Really Does Matter

Fodder for Thought

Studies challenge conventional wisdom in the cow-calf sector with the economic might of smaller cows.

Published on: September 20, 2012

The high cost of inputs the cattle industry is facing may look challenging to some but for others may provide ample opportunities.

Having the ability to see these opportunities and step away from the mentality of "but that’s the way we’ve always done it" will be one of the deciding factors that determines who goes and who stays in the next chapter of the cattle business.

One sector of the industry that could benefit greatly from this changing landscape of opportunity is the cow-calf producer. The cow is essentially the foundation of the entire industry. Improvements in genetic selection and smarter management of cows would, in theory, initiate a ripple effect of continued improvement throughout every other sector of the industry.

This leads us to the question: What defines the ideal cow? Is it cow size, feed efficiency, high fertility? All of these traits are certainly desired in a cow. However, when you’re in a high-priced input environment, economic efficiency or profitability should be at the top of the list.

In my mind, an economically efficient cow will be one that can survive on the minimum forage required while still conceiving and weaning a calf every year. In other words, she should be feed efficient on minimum inputs and use those inputs to produce the optimum output in total pounds of calf weaned.

Common sense tells us cow size should play into this scenario with a smaller cow eating less versus a larger cow. In turn, the smaller cow imparts lower annual feed costs. The second assumption common sense would have us believe is that a larger cow would wean more pounds of weaned calf when compared to its smaller counterpart.

A Google search for 'cow size efficiency' proves to yield some interesting results. Eric Mousel, of the South Dakota Rancher Newsletter blog, shared some intriguing findings showing just how much cow size affects overall profitability. Mousel compiled data on cow weights and weaning weights from reported literature, producers from across South Dakota, and from the South Dakota State University (SDSU) Cow Camp Experiment Station.

Mousel’s analysis showed a clear increase in calf weaning weights as cow weight increased. Even so, when examining the ratios of cow weight to weaning weight no significant differences in weight ratios were seen between the four weight classes analyzed. This suggests that weaning rate does not increase at the same rate as cow size.

The most surprising results came from the model Mousel used to test economic efficiency based on weight class. The model showed that cow size does indeed make quite a degree of economic difference.

Using a model with a fixed land area of 5,000 acres and a stocking rate of 0.75 AUMs/acre, changing from a cow size of 1,541 pounds to an average cow size of 1,000 pounds, profitability increased by approximately 68%. The big factor in this difference was that on a fixed amount of land, it is possible to run 36% more 1,000 lb. cows at the same fixed stocking rate as the larger cows. Similar results were seen with data collected from the SDSU Cow Camp, in a model using less acres and a higher stocking rate.

To read Mousel’s post on cow size efficiency in full length, click here.

While this was only one analysis, it makes it hard to say that cow size doesn’t matter. An obvious advantage in economic efficiency was shown for smaller cow size in both data sets. Still, this isn’t saying that a smaller cow will always be more profitable than a larger one as the profitability of either in the end is based on feed costs.

What can be assumed is that by selecting for a smaller to moderate cow size, this management strategy could in time lead to dramatic improvements in profitability for an operation overall.

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  1. Brent Heid says:

    The really base-line issue is the type and quality of forage available. Our Missouri fescue pastures dictate an 1100 lb female, then breed for the largest calf possible. When we pushed for larger cows, they could not maintain. We gained on calf size---for one year while we culled that poor open mama cow--or else fed the profits out to keep her in shape. Summary? Grass determines cow size.

  2. Anonymous says:

    The whole analysis depends on the cow in the smallest quartile and the cow in the third quartile both weaning a calf of 441 pounds. Obviously if a 1300 pound cow weans a calf that is the same size as the calf weaned from the 1000 pound cow, you would prefer the smaller cow. Above the line where he tilts the field with this 'same calf size' assumption, I note that the 1100 pound cow costs 45c per pound per year whereas the 1456 pound cow costs 41 cents per pound per year.

  3. Anonymous says:

    It has been a long hard fight to get focus on cow size and profitability. The one thing not noted in this article is the fact that the smaller calves are aslo worth more per pound when sold. Great article Jesse!