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Smaller cows can produce more profitable fed steers

Smaller cows can produce more profitable fed steers
Measured back to the farm level, smaller cows of the right kind show they can produce more profit in fed steers, as well as in sale-barn value.

At last someone has studied the relationship of smaller cows to profitability of the smaller steers they produce.

The result was a group of smaller-framed cows from North Dakota State University's Dickinson Research Center out-profited a group of larger-framed cows.

Smaller cows were about $65 per head cheaper to keep and produced steer calves with total carcass value about $250 lower, and had a net return per steer of $74 less.

Uniquely, this appears to be the only study to measure cow costs and performance on a per-acre basis for different-sized cows and then weigh that against collective feedlot profit for the different-sized steers they produced. It's pretty hard to dispute that smaller cows are cheaper to keep, and that they produce more pounds of beef per acre, but until this study no one had measured feedlot profitability and linked it back to the cows and their production costs and returns.

Kris Ringwall, beef specialist for the NDSU Extension Service and director of the Dickinson Center, has been blogging about the outcome of the 20-plus year experiment on NDSU's Beef Talk blog, and with his co-workers has produced quite a bit of data. You also can find results in their annual report at

The gist of the story is this: Smaller cows were about $65 per head cheaper to keep and produced steer calves with total carcass value about $250 lower, and had a net return per steer of $74 less. However, because they and their dams were cheaper to feed and because they produced more tons of quality fed beef, they produced more profit.

"The net result was a 10% increase in revenue for the smaller-framed cows, when compared with the larger-framed cows, based on steer calf performance," Ringwall says.

The smaller-framed cows' total finished steer net return was $4,517 greater from the smaller-framed cow herd, when extrapolated to a herd of 120 cows averaging frame score 3.8 and weighing about 1,050 pounds, versus a herd of 100 cows averaging frame 5.5 and weighing about 1,450 pounds.

Herd figures showed smaller-framed cows earned $49,308 ($821.81 on 60 steers), while larger-framed cows earned $44,791 ($895.82 on 50 steers).

Obviously, these figures came from the time of higher cattle prices, but the relationships should hold, Ringwall adds.

If you look at the charts accompanying this story, in one you'll see the first two columns are labeled FLOT. These are the smaller (SF) versus the larger (LF) steers which came out of the grazing program early and went straight to the feedlot. The right two columns are labeled GRAZ, and again one column is for the large frame and the other for the small frame.

Smaller cows can produce more profitable fed steers

At the bottom of the overall system chart, you'll note the system net return, which includes cow costs and all other direct costs, is lower on a per-head basis for the smaller steers. That should be no surprise.

This reiterates the point that per-acre measurement of ranch profitability versus per-head is the key metric. Remember the smaller fed steers made more as a unit downstream from the ranch primarily because there were more of them.

When we dig into the grazing data more, however, the chart supporting that information suggests the smaller-framed steers were very close in individual animal performance to their larger counterparts. The biggest difference is they started and finished at lighter body weights. They do produce uniformly lower costs per head and per pound of gain, but as we know their total value at the end of grazing is lower, as it was at the end of the feeding period.

Once they go to the feedlot, the higher carcass value of larger-framed steers cannot outrun the lower costs and larger numbers of the smaller steers.

Ringwall says cow size is an important topic but the overriding issue is cow efficiency, because controlling costs is a major beef production issue.

Back in 2008, Ringwall reported that the larger cows at the research center were actually producing smaller calves, compared with smaller cows. This was a shock to many who have bought into the bigger-is-better cow mantra. The latest research compares two herds of cows now kept at the center, one averaging over 1,400 pounds and the other averaging 1,100 pounds.

Ringwall explains the difference in maintenance requirements means they can keep 120 smaller-framed cows on the same resources required by 100 larger-framed cows. Because of later calving and longer grazing season across the board on Dickinson Center cows, regardless of frame score, the data for the traditional management of larger cows comes from a blend of the center's own data and Minnesota-North Dakota farm financial management records. Ringwall adds he is confident of the veracity of the numbers the team has put together.

The project includes several changes in management, including cow downsizing, later calving dates and better forage planning and management. It actually began in the 1990s, he adds. The changes also involve keeping the later-born calves on the farms and grazing them through the winter and spring before putting them on feed.

The extended fall grazing system is relatively simple. It involves turning the cattle into entire fields grazed of field pea-barley intercrop, then unharvested corn before transfer to the feedlot. They use no strip grazing to extend the grazing or manage intake. Ringwall says they have tried to keep things very simple, in a manner that would be achievable by the typical beef producer.

Ringwall notes that smaller cows by themselves were not the key, but smaller-framed cows that could produce steers which could make good-grading carcasses.

"The other factor is sire selection," he says. "Herd sires that control frame, but support desired gain and carcass characteristics, need to be utilized. As a caution, decreasing the size of cattle is easy to do, thereby decreasing herd performance. However, the astute producers understand the genetics of cattle size and only then set out to decrease cow size with increased herd performance."

Smaller cows can produce more profitable fed steers

More steer data builds case

Other data from this study showed that in 2011, 2012 and 2013 steer calves from the "range herd," which is the smaller-framed calves, had an average frame score of 3.8, while the larger-framed "beef herd" steers had an average frame score of 5.5.

The center’s small-frame steers grew to an average of 1,401 pounds when fed about 90 days harvested at around 22 months of age, with a carcass value on the rail of $2,018.

The frame score 5 and 6 steers grew to an average of 1,610 pounds when fed about 90 days and harvested at around 22 months of age, with a carcass value on the rail of $2,243.

In the fall, the traditional cows at the research center averaged about 1,450 pounds. The smaller-framed, Lowline-Angus-influenced cows weighed about 1,100 pounds, Ringwall says. These are not purebred herds, and the Lowline breeding was used several years back to quickly bring down the frame score of the range herd, while keeping gradeability.

"Marketing smaller calves at weaning needs to be thought through," Ringwall adds. "The true return and future in my option is to use a more diverse group of cattle, including yearlings to maximize forage harvest at the right time."

Three cost-saving techniques

Ringwall says data from 2012 through 2014, following the switch from winter calving to May-June calving, provides more insight to help answer producer questions. The Dickinson Center has identified three major cost-cutting methods:
1. Later calving date decreases labor and cow feed costs.
2. Lower overhead with an intensified, multiple-crop rotation that includes cover crops, harvesting some crops and grazing the majority of the acreages by cows, calves and yearlings.
3. Reduce cow frame score to decrease inputs and increase ranch output.

Ringwall says the later calving date really discounts the idea of selling these smaller calves at weaning, if weaning is done in the fall. Instead, when coupled with better forage management, the calves can become part of a flexible stocking rate for the ranch, as well as possibly offering counter-seasonal marketing options.

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