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Are your cows too large?

Smaller cows also have been shown to have greater weaning efficiency.

January 31, 2024

4 Min Read
Beef farms have decreased in number, but the number of beef on a farm have increased.

By Paul Beck, Oklahoma State University

From the 2012 Ag Census to the 2017 Ag Census, the number of beef farms decreased by 3.9 percent but cow numbers slightly increased. The consolidation was from a 5 percent reduction in small ranches (1 to 100 cows), but 6 percent increases in medium ranches with 100 to 500 cows and 1 percent increase in large ranches with 500 or more cows. We will get to see what impact the recent droughts had on consolidation of cattle farms with the release of the 2022 Ag Census in mid-February.  


Land and equipment costs vs. investment return

There are several barriers for young or new farmers entering beef cattle operations, these include high cost of land and equipment and relatively low returns on investment. The average annual cost per breeding female increased to over $1000 dollars per cow in 2022 and have remained at that level. The recent good calf prices have resulted in positive returns over cash costs for the last few years for cow-calf producers.   


These numbers should grab your attention, because I don’t believe the costs and returns can be much different across the regions where beef cows are produced. The costs of maintaining a beef cow and the unit cost of production of weaned calves have increased tremendously over the past five years. Variable costs such as fuel, fertilizer and herbicides have been blamed as the primary culprits; however, fixed costs such as equipment, hired labor, and land have increased as well. When cattle numbers rebound, and they always do, will these high calf prices remain stable enough to cover these high costs of production? 


Smaller and large cows

Additionally, cow carrying costs have increased because of a 30 percent increase in cow size over the last 30 years from 1,047 pounds in the mid 1970’s to 1,369 pounds in the mid 2000’s, and this trend appears to have continued. A 30 percent larger cow requires 22 percent more energy per day for maintenance and will consume 20 to 30 percent more forage per day, decreasing cow carrying capacity of the farm or increasing input costs associated with pasture management, supplementation, and stored forages. Smaller cows also have been shown to have greater weaning efficiency (pounds of calf weaned per pound of cow body weight). 


The increased cow mature weight equates to an increase in stocking rate if cow numbers are not adjusted. As stocking rate increases we know that weaning weights and rebreeding rates decrease. This has been linked to reductions in forage allowance (pounds of forage available/ pound animal body weight) limiting diet selectivity, diet quality, dry matter intake, and forage regrowth rate. Total weaning weight/acre has been shown to increase up to a point even though individual animal is decreased; until animal performance is reduced to such an extent that weaning weight/acre begins to decrease.  



In research on introduced warm season grasses in the Southeastern U.S. (Beck and others, 2016) cow-calf pairs were separated into heavy (weighing 1,220 pound) and light (weighing 970 pounds) cow size groups and stocked on pastures 2.5, 1.7, 1.2, and 1 acre per cow unit over four years. These pastures were fertilized with 100 pounds of nitrogen per acre over the summer. 


Heavy cows weaned calves than light cows, but the increase was only 19 pounds heavier weaning weight for every 100-pound increase in cow mature weight. Larger cows also lost more weight and body condition than smaller cows. Weaning efficiency ratios of smaller cows were higher (0.49 pounds of calf weaned per pound of cow for small cows vs. 0.42 for large cows). As stocking rate increased, pounds of calf weaned per acre increased from 130 pounds at the lightest stocking rate to 411 at the heaviest stocking rate.  


Weight, condition vs. large cows

The increase in weight and condition loss with larger cows is a concern and this could lead to reduction in fertility and increases in rebreeding interval for large cows, especially those with higher stocking rates. Because hay was fed when needed and cows were supplemented to maintain appropriate body condition, rebreeding rates were not affected. But as cow mature weight and stocking rate increased the amount of hay and annual cow costs increased as well. Increasing stocking rate reduces individual calf body weight gain but increases total calf gain per acre.  


For the larger cows, any advantage in calf weaning weight was diminished during two-year long periods of drought while this research was conducted, but were enhanced during periods of normal rainfall. These responses to drought indicate production systems with higher stocking rates and larger cows are more impacted by climatic stressors and thus less resilient to harsh environments.  

Source: Oklahoma State University

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