January 30, 2023
By Wesley Tucker
Do you have a favorite cow or two or three? Maybe she greets you each morning and waits to be scratched behind the ears. Maybe she looks picture perfect like she just stepped off a glossy magazine cover, or consistently raises the biggest calf each year.
Maybe it’s sentimental. My favorite is my daughter’s very first bucket calf she showed at the county fair.
I’ll bet if we are honest, we all have a few favorite cows. But which cows in your herd are the most profitable? Can you identify them?
Years ago, while visiting one of my local dairies, the producer commented how his “anonymous cows” were the key to the operation. For instance, his father asked, “Who is cow 215?” After thinking about it, he responded, “I don’t really know. I know she’s not one of our top producers, but looking back at the records, I can’t see where she has ever been treated for mastitis or foot problems. She’s calved ever year like clockwork. She’s done nothing to draw attention to herself or stand out.”
Hence, 215 is an anonymous cow. She’s a good, dependable employee, showing up for work each day, doing her job and never complaining or causing trouble.
Cows with high returns
So, what does it take to create a profitable cow? There are plenty of opinions.
Some producers argue one breed is better than others. They debate individual traits such as growth and carcass quality versus fertility and longevity. Throw in the topic of cow size and the discussion really heats up.
My good friend, Dr. Jordan Thomas, University of Missouri State cow-calf Extension specialist, says no cow is profit-able, or “able” to make a profit. It’s the business model we create that is profitable, or not.
Thomas says our beef cattle business model should only retain females that conceive early in the breeding season. Late-bred females should be sold and removed from the herd. Taking the emphasis off the cow and putting the pressure on me as the manager to cull late breeders does many things:
Weaning weights will increase. Early born calves are older at weaning and simply weigh more.
Longevity of the cows increases. They have more time to return to estrus and are less likely to come up open, so they stay in the herd longer.
Labor and herd health expenses decrease. Shorter calving windows reduce labor required and shortens the cycle of pathogen buildup for things such as scours.
Find your cow performance model
In my grazing schools, my last slide concludes with one single question: “What’s your system?”
Grazing economics often comes down to the delicate balancing act of stocking rates and building flexibility into our system. Do we strive to maximize performance of the grass, the cows, or optimal levels of both? Do we graze only momma cows, or create flexibility by intentionally running less mature cows than we could, then take advantage of the extra grass when we have it to background our calves to heavier weights?
Designing a flexible system to make optimal use of what Mother Nature gives us often separates above- and below-average producers.
The primary responsibility of any manager who supervises employees is to create an environment where all employees can be productive and reach their full potential. Our job, as beef farm managers, is to create a beef business model or system where our cows can lead happy, productive lives.
If we do our job correctly and create the appropriate environment for them, I believe we may find many more “anonymous cows” in our herd — those that show up, do their job, don’t cause trouble and add value to the farm.
Tucker is a University of Missouri Extension ag business specialist and succession planner. He can be reached at [email protected] or 417-326-4916.
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