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Beefs and Beliefs
beef calf

The failure of the animal-performance mindset

Here are a few examples how I think we went astray with a focus on individual animal performance.

In last week's blog I began to explain my hypothesis that individual-animal performance is the sole blueprint for today's cattle industry, and why it was actually the wrong path.

I'm arguing we should have looked instead at net profit and profit per acre as key performance indicators, letting everything else fall into place.

Today I'm adding some more thoughts about how the industry would be different by giving the divergent viewpoints of common beliefs from two angles:
1. The single-animal viewpoint
2. The profit-per-acre/net-profit viewpoint

Calf size: With the animal-performance mindset, the bigger calf should pay more money. After all, we get paid by the pound. It was not well-thought out or measured, but the assumption led to bigger cows, bigger calves, bigger cows, ad naseum.

With a mindset of net profit and profit per acre, calf size only matters in context of the profitability of the operation. Size as a measurement criteria would never become a focal point.

Milk production: With the animal-performance mindset, a cow's milk production looked like a free lunch to get that even bigger calf. Again, not well thought out, but the whole goal was the bigger calf.

With the mindset of net profit and profit per acre, milk production would never really appear on the radar, because the cow which produced too much would be culled for being reproductively unsound, and perhaps the cow which produced too little, if that's possible, might get culled if she produced unhealthy calves. More likely, no one would ever have thought about milk production as a trait to be selected for or against.

Reproductivity: With the animal-performance mindset, constant selection for bigger (taller) calves brought about taller cows, and the long-bone-growth negative correlation to hormonal soundness, the drive for more milk production, and a big body needing more energy, together dragged down reproductive soundness. It was tolerated, though, because the primary goal was a bigger calf. Feed sacks piled up to hide the error.

With the mindset of net profit and profit per acre, on the other hand, reproductivity would be a critical factor, and any cow that failed to produce a calf every year would be suspect. Most likely she would become ground beef. A cow represents a lot of capital investment and failure to produce a return would be unacceptable.

Grazing management: With the animal-performance mindset, grazing management would be a harder sell. Indeed it has been. Everyone knows individual-animal gains are highest with continuous stocking at light stocking rates. There are numerous problems with long-term grassland declines, and summer and winter slumps, but if the goal in the mind's eye is a bigger calf, that can all be pushed to the side.

With the mindset of net profit and profit per acre, grazing management makes complete sense because it produces more total income at a lower price. The type of animal therefore, can be adapted to the system that produces more output, therefore income, at lower costs. The looks and appearance of the "production line," meaning the cow, is not that important. Her function and ability to crank out widgets within that system is critical, however.

Labor: With the animal-performance mindset, labor inputs must rise to help achieve that bigger calf. Winter calving is acceptable because it produces a bigger calf. Calving barns ... the same. Recordkeeping for each animal, calf tagging, and feeding all must be allowed to increase to achieve that big calf.

With the mindset of net profit and profit per acre, labor is correctly seen as one of the most expensive, yet containable inputs. It can be minimized and therefore it will be. Labor costs can be honestly weighed against the gains they may create, and decisions made accordingly.

There are more ideas than this, and I'd love to hear more from you readers, but I think this is a pretty honest appraisal of some of the reasons were are at our current location, and how we could have ended up somewhere else.

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