Cow Selection Strategies that Compliment Your Feed Resources

Cow Selection Strategies that Complement Your Feed Resources

October 2012

Cow-calf pairs in pastureOver the last six years there was a steady reduction in beef cow numbers nationally. This reduction in cow inventory means fewer feeder calves. Lower feeder calf inventory has put pressure on feedlot operators because of the increased competition for the calves that are available and excess bunk space in the feedlots. Due to the price slide that exists when pricing feeder calves, heavy calves are priced at a lower price, dollars per pound or dollars per hundred weights, compared to lighter weight calves.

In the past, the value of the added gain was usually about $0.55 per pound. Looking at feeder calf prices in late June and comparing 500-pound and 600-pound calves in the Nebraska markets, the value of added weight is more like $0.84 per pound of added gain. Even with fewer calves total beef production has increased. Some cow/calf producers may interpret the current market signals to investigate opportunities to increase weaning weight. What management decisions, other than creep feeding the calves, might cow/calf producers consider to stay profitable?

Using EPDs for sire selection

There are at least a couple of genetic tools that can be used by the commercial cow/calf producer to increase weaning weight. The ones that first come to mind are to select sires with high EPDs for weaning weight and yearling weight and/or select sires that have higher EPDs for milk production.

There is ample information from seedstock producers and breed associations that can be used to select for increasing weaning weight. Breed association data would suggest that the trend lines over time indicate there has been an increase in most of the growth traits and milk production. In addition, in most breeds, the trend line for mature weight has gradually increased over time. In most cow/calf operations, replacement heifers are selected from within the herd and not purchased outside the herd. With this information, it is hard to think that mature weight of the cow herd nationally hasn't increased. This is likely one reason that, although feeder calf numbers have decreased, total beef production hasn't decreased.

Adding milk production to your cow herd will increase weaning weight. Remember that the EPD for milk production is not actually milk production but is weaning weight as a result of milk production. It is hard to say whether just increasing weaning weight as a result of milk production in a cow herd has any impact on mature weight or weight at slaughter of the resulting progeny.

Evaluate input (cow costs)

For the cow/calf producer it is not only about output (weaning weight) but also input (cow costs). On a fixed feed resource base, as the nutrient needs of the cow herd increase as a result of increased mature weight and/or milk production, the number of cows that can be managed on this resource base decreases. If number of cows doesn't decrease, then outside feed resources need to be incorporated into the feeding program so that reproduction is not compromised. Increased mature weight and increased milk production increase annual cow costs. The flip side of that is that weaning weight will increase.

Keeping the cow grazing is more economical than carrying harvested feeds to them to meet their nutrient requirements. As mature weight increases and/or milk production increases, the number of cows grazing a fixed pasture resource base needs to decrease. It is more profitable to produce another calf as compared to another couple of pounds of weaning weight per calf. Optimizing traits like milk production and mature weight for a commercial cow/calf producer are likely more economical than being on the extreme ends for these two traits.

If we compare a 1,200-pound cow herd to a 1,350-pound cow herd and assume that annually both groups eat about 2.2% of their body weight on a dry matter basis, then the 1,200-pound cow will consume 9,636 pounds (dry matter basis) of feed annually compared to 10,841 pounds (dry matter basis) for the 1,350-pound cow herd. The difference in forage intake on a dry matter basis is 1,205 pounds. If this forage is priced at $0.051 per pound dry matter basis ($90 per ton hay that is 88% dry matter) the difference in forage cost is $61.62 per cow.

If the grazed resource base is fixed and there is enough of this resource to graze 100 head of cows with an average weight of 1,350, this same resource base could handle 112.5 head of cows that average 1,200 pounds. If both groups of cows weaned 50% of their dam's weight and 90% of the cows exposed to the bull weaned a calf, weaning weight for the 1,350-pound herd is 675 lb and for the 1,200-pound herd is 600 pounds. So the 1,350-pound cow herd would wean 90 calves for the 100 cows exposed and the 1,200-pound cow herd would wean 101 calves for the 112 cows that were exposed to the bull. If 600 lb calves are priced at $1.79 per pound and 675 pound calves are priced at $1.69 per pound, the 1,200-pound cow herd will generate $108,474 (600 lb x $1.79/lb x 101 calves) and the 1,375-pound cow herd will generate $102,668 (675 lb x $1.69/lb x 90 calves).


Managing the cow herd so that more cows calve the first 21 days of the calving season will increase weaning weight without doing any selection for additional weaning weight or milk production. There are a number of management strategies that can efficiently add weight to calves after weaning. Consider management strategies post-weaning to add weight.

Market signals, from a cow/calf perspective may suggest to select for traits that have a positive impact on increasing slaughter weight of the resulting progeny. The caution is to not only focus on output of the cow/calf enterprise, but also pay close attention to inputs. Continue to focus on breed and breed combinations that fit the feed resources that you have on your operation. Feed costs are the greatest portion of annual cow costs. As mature weight and/or milk production increase so will feed costs. Stay the course. Over the years you have likely developed a breed combination with traits like mature weight and milk production that fit your feed resources. If you are still in the business, this is likely profitable for your resources. There are other opportunities to add weight post weaning.

Rick Rasby
Beef Specialist
University of Nebraska