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Beefs and Beliefs

The most efficient cows

cows grazing pasture
Before you make the claim, define efficiency.

It was many years ago I first heard the claim we have the "most efficient cow herd" ever in the United States, and I remember it struck me as queer even then.

I've since seen it repeated many times, often by economists, and I've come to blame them, generally, for this largely inaccurate statement.

It took me some time to decipher why these folks think this is true. Often the claim was and is repeated mindlessly, as with many other "truisms." At some point, however, I saw the claim explained. Many of you readers know the answer.

It goes like this: "We now produce more pounds of beef with fewer cows than ever before."

On the face of it, that is a true statement. But that does not mean we have efficient cows. Efficiency requires a much longer yardstick and a broader mind to measure.

For example, what is the calories-in, calories-out equation for beef production today?

How many more acres does it take to run those cows and how much additional supplement is required to get them through a year?

How much do those extra inputs cost today?

Moreover, what is the financial return on that increased investment?

These and other questions always bring me back to the great divide between cow operations, which typically are asset-management businesses with large amounts of capital tied up, and the rest of the industry, which are margin businesses, with more cash flow and ability to maximize return on investment. Put the way I usually phrase this, the cow operation needs absolute minimum cost structure in producing calves, while stocker/backgrounders and feeders want high pounds of gain to overcome input costs and the packer generally wants the largest amount of meat per blow of the hammer and cut of the knife, again optimizing output to overcome cost structure.

So, the next time you hear how efficient our national cow herd is, I hope you get out your good records and dig around to see whether you're making a great profit, because efficient cows on an efficiently run operation are capable of making good profits.

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