David Lalman warns the beef industry may be edging back toward another era of insanity.
In the 1940s and 1950s the beef industry downsized cattle to ridiculous compactness. Then through the 1970s and 1980s it went the opposite direction, dropping the belt-buckle trend and producing what the Oklahoma State University animal scientist called "hat-band" cattle.
Photos from that era display show steers so tall the owners and judges could not even be seen behind the cattle – only their hats showed.
Former OSU department head Bob Totusek termed these times the "era of insanity" and the "era of a return to insanity."
Lalman is concerned the industry may be returning once again to insanity by over-selecting for milk and muscle.
"The pendulum is swinging," he cautioned in a talk at the Alltech International Symposium this week in Lexington, Kentucky.
Lalman says the data over recent years shows cows are not getting any more efficient, and may be losing ground. He says data from the southwestern database of Standardized Performance Analysis kept by economist Stan Bevers in Texas shows these trends pretty clearly on more than 300 ranches in Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico.
Lalman noted that pure-breeding in commercial herds is on the rise, perhaps negating some of the advantage once gained by hybrid vigor in those F1 cows which were so prevalent a few years ago.
Moreover, he said, it's been pretty well documented that 100 pounds of added weight in each cow only adds six pounds in her calf. OSU economist Damona Doye has calculated this added calf weight is worth $5-7 but the cost per cow is $42.
But just as dangerous is the steady move within the industry to add milk and muscle to cows.
Lalman neatly charted breed trends for milk production EPDs in Angus, Hereford, Charolais and Brangus and they all climb steadily upward at alarming rates. The Angus breed alone has been adding about one pound of milk production per year, he said.
He offered research from the USDA Ag Research Service station at El Reno which shows strongly that moderate milk is the optimum level of production with Brangus cattle, for example. He said that and other research indicate the milk production level of a great many cows today is limited well below their genetic potential by the environment in which they live.
"So my question is how much milk is enough and when will we get there?" Lalman said.
Last, Lalman said the trend toward larger rib eye area, therefore heavier muscling, is rising as steadily as the growth in milk productivity.
Such growth in muscling also increases energy requirements and may be limited by environment, along with other potential negative side effects.
Commercial beef producers need to be aware of these trends and of their biological costs, Lalman said. Then they need to moderate their tendencies toward selection for these traits at counterproductive levels.