Vol. 1, #4 Cow Size Considerations

Farm Update

The cows are bred, the calves are sexed, and we anxiously wait for the due date of our first cow (January 5, 2017). We are particularly intrigued by the calf possibilities given the wide of range of quality bulls we used this year. Included are: Thunder (a Sparky son), Royal Chief (a Meadowbrook Chieftain the 9th son, Mandalong Super Flag, Saksvalley Pioneer, and Melbros Stronghold. For a complete list of the bulls we used go to our website (whisperinghillsfarm.com).

Iris and her calf Heidi

Iris and her calf Heidi

I would be remiss in not mentioning our planned trip to Australia in December during which we will incorporate visits to several top Australian Shorthorn herds. Watch for a special interview issue of the Shorthorn Bulletin in January.

Quarterly Topic: Cow Size Considerations

Cow size has once again taken the beef industry by storm as the debate ensues. For the purpose of this discussion I will use three different mature cow sizes to illustrate differences. Small (1200# and under), Medium (1500#), and Large (1800# plus). There currently are many ardent supporters of small cows who I call “down sizers”. What has become clear is that many facts are conveniently left out. It is abundantly clear, to use a trite term, “one size does not fit all”.

The most common argument made for small cows is that they are more feed efficient. In actuality recent research shows that often large cows are more feed efficient. One must remember feed efficiency is not a function of size but an individual cow’s genetic traits making selection for feed efficiency a more important trait than cow size. This becomes extremely important when considering maintenance costs. Broad generalizations regarding cow feed efficiency no longer make sense when using cow size as the basis for comparison.

Calving ease is another attribute often mentioned as a reason to have small cows. The reasoning seems to be that small cows have small calves which lessens calving problems. Quite often the opposite is true. Calving ease is more a function of pelvic diameter and structure with some small cows quite capable of delivering large calves. I am not advocating larger calves. Instead I believe in taking pelvic measurements on all potential replacement heifers and using bulls whose mothers have superior pelvic measurements. This does not guarantee success but certainly puts the odds in the cow’s favor. Medium and large size cows can definitely have calving problems too but, if selected properly, they have “more room to play with”. The dystocia issue can not be solved by just using “calving ease bulls” given the inaccuracy of EPDs, especially in Shorthorns. I will save a discussion of the EPD problem for another issue. Besides, using smaller bulls to get small calves, while keeping replacement heifers out of these small bulls, will inevitable result in a downward spiral that will return one to the “belt buckle cattle” of the 1950’s and 60’s.

Rose this year at 10 years of age with her 3 month old heifer calf Rosalyn. She is expecting a bull calf sired by Melbros Stronghold in February, 2017.

Rose this year at 10 years of age with her 3 month old heifer calf Rosalyn. She is expecting a bull calf sired by Melbros Stronghold in February, 2017.

Management/handling time and costs are almost totally ignored when comparing cow size in almost all cow size debates. For the sake of argument I will use calf weaning weights of 500# for small cows, 625# for medium cows, and 750# for large cows. I am probably being generous allocating a weaning weight of 500# for small cows while many large cows have even higher weaning weights. A large cow example is our cow Rose, who 2 years ago weaned 1322# of calf when she raised her twins, bred back a month early, and had a condition score of 7 at weaning, all on only grass/hay. She personifies feed efficiency. She weighs about 1850# and consistently weans 800# plus calves. Our young herd sire “Thunder” is one of her sons.

For comparing management/handling costs let us start with the objective of attaining 15,000 total pounds of calf at 205 day weaning. Based on earlier weaning weight numbers this would take 20 large cows, 24 medium size cows, and 30 small cows. Simply put it takes 20% more medium cows and 50% more small cows to get the same 15,000#’s of weaned calf. It takes a lot more time/cost to vaccinate, worm, preg check, and calve additional cows, while giving the owner an added 50% chance for dystocia with small cows. Beyond that there are 50% more calves to handle, worm, vaccinate and more importantly to potentially get sick. There is just no way that it does not takes a lot more time and money to take care of 30 cows and their calves compared to 20 cows and their calves. Finally salvage value also must considered. A large cow, on average, will have 50% more salvage value based on her weight at the end of her productive life.

I am not proposing that one cow size works for everyone. Consideration must be given to the type of cattle operation the farmer/rancher has. For example, cow-calf, seed stock, purebred, market steer, grass fed, or organic may all want a different size of cow. For example if I had a cow-calf operation I would probably elect to have small cows because, more often than not, small weaned calves will sell for a higher price per pound The current cattle market may be an exception to the rule. On the other hand, for a grass fed calf-to-finishing operation like mine, a producer would undoubtedly be ahead with bigger cows. Heavier weight at weaning allows for the finishing of calves at 15-18 months of age at 1200-1500#’s, instead of having smaller calves which need to be fed for a second winter to get them to finished condition. Keeping smaller calves longer while they achieve a finished weight of 1100-1400#s creates extra work and costs more in feed.

Sweeping proclamations regarding cow size (i.e. “small cows are the best”) are not the answer. Are you marketing finished grass fed steers directly, selling weaned calves in the fall, selling show animals, selling terminal sires or any number of other possible options? Principled rational decisions incorporating all facets of beef cattle production will always allow each beef cattle operation to reach an appropriate decision about cow size. Too many times in life, let alone in beef cattle raising, people find it easier to follow the crowd rather than make an educated independent decision.

Joseph Schallberger, DVM PhD
Whispering Hills Farm
Member Academy of Veterinary Consultants