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BeefTalk: Cowsonality Important to a Productive Cow Herd

Developing and maintaining a producing cow herd is no easy task, and doing that task well is close to the heart of every producer.

Even when the cows aren’t tagged, every producer can pick out the favorite cow or cows and recite a unique story about many of them. That brings us to the topic of “cowsonality,” the attitude and behavior exhibited by individual cows that contribute to their place in the development of a productive cow herd.

Those anecdotes are indicative of each cow’s cowsonality, which, if positive, is an important trait to retain in the herd.

That brings us to the process of who stays and who gets marketed, along with the debate of raising or buying replacements. Producers realize that successful cow herds are more than just what is on paper. Knowing the cowsonality within your cow herd is important and is often the reason producers opt to raise their own replacements. Good cow families are the core of a herd.

In the fall, as the cows are gathered, perhaps some reflection from the cow’s point of view is good:

“I have tried to keep an eye on you (the calf) as we follow the annual trek, a path I know well,” the cow says. “I hope you learned as I prepare to ‘cut the cord’ and say goodbye, at least for now. This summer was pleasant. The grass now is not what it was earlier in the year. The chill in the air means the horses and riders will be appearing on the horizon to take us home.

“It seems like yesterday when all 84 pounds of you arrived (the same weight as my first calf) during a dark, chilly April night with no complications. I am glad my producer has chosen some warmer times to calve. I certainly do not miss those cold nursing periods with minus 30-degree wind chills.

“When you were born, I had a slight chill, but a good time, and the help were proud when their flashlight showed you up and nursing. A gentle ‘moo’ satisfied them and they moved on to check a young heifer calving just below the hill.

“As I get older, I appreciate a lighter birthweight. I remember your 105-pound older brother. I had to more than sneeze to pop him out, but I was in my prime, a strong 6 years of age and boss of bunk No. 9.

“Today, at 12, I’m holding my own. This year had good, green grass over our knees. The rancher said the crested wheat was good this year, and the trails in the native summer pastures were familiar. That next generation of ‘know-it-alls’ who took over Bunk 9 last winter had to ask for guidance through the wide-open spaces of the northwest pasture.

“After all, I know the choice spots to graze and nurture a young, growing heifer like you. The watering holes soon were learned by all your friends; the smell of summer grass was soothing and produced milk for your well-being.

“Summer was one of those dry, but sometimes wet, years when we had to look a little harder to find the grass at times. The grass was good as riders started to scout the pasture for all the family. I know well where your cousin hides. For some reason, she is always the last to come in. I guess she is smarter than the average, but to no avail.

“Your growth report card is great. You weighed in at 608 pounds, gained 2.14 pounds a day, framed in at 5.5 and weighed 2.48 pounds per day of age. I’m pleased at how you have performed, and I noticed you didn’t get unruly when the herdsman gave you your vaccinations. That is a plus.

“I remember one of your sisters turning on the herdsman when she came out of the chute. I haven’t seen her since. The crew mumbled something about disposition, and your father’s temper, which your sister inherited.

“Let’s enjoy these next couple of weeks. If history holds, once we are turned into the stubble, our final separation is not too far away. I noticed the word ‘replacement’ on the comment section of your report card. The other heifers averaged 536 pounds, so that puts your ranking very high. With a 5.5 frame score, you will fit in fine.

“My advice to you: Eat a balanced diet, watch your winter weight gain and wiggle your ears when you see anybody with a pipette in their hand in the spring. Now, I can feel Junior doing a few cartwheels getting ready for next spring’s delivery, so we better get back to eating to maintain my current weight at 1,250 pounds and condition score at 6. At my age, I don’t want to give the crew any reason to look twice.”

At the same time, producers looking over the herd may be wondering, “What is that cow really thinking?”

Cowsonality is real and, when selecting replacements, I hope it is making the cow herd more functional and productive. The best advice for producers may need to be filtered by taking time to understand the cows within the herd, and after a lifetime of understanding, a producer becomes a rancher, one who knows the land and the cattle.

Remember to take care and appreciate that individual cowsonality, and that cow will take care of you.

May you find all your ear tags.

BeefTalk: The Challenge of Managing Human Resources

BeefTalk: The Challenge of Managing Human Resources


One person can only do so much.

One person can only do so much.

One person can only do so much.

One person can only do so much.

Having the right team is critical to the success of the cattle operation.

By Kris Ringwall, Beef Specialist

NDSU Extension

A major challenge to beef production today is finding the right labor force with training, knowledge and common sense.

Factors such as pay, time and place are important, and, yes, the beef production business has lots of discussable points. But the bottom line is this: Having the right team is critical to the success of the day’s desired outcomes.

Managers are challenged every day to interact and engage with those who work for them to meet the day’s predetermined goal. Cattle operations do not often have human resource departments to assist with finding the right team members. That task generally is relegated to the manager.

I am not an expert, but allow me to share some “in-the-field” management training perceptions. One key is being positive: What can we do, not what we can’t do.

Of paramount importance is management presence, which is necessary in serving and assisting the team. Managers need to be present, displaying consistent, predictable actions that make those they supervise relaxed and comfortable.

Jumping through hoops, opening opportunities in situations that seem stagnant, shifting excessive burdens or simply adding words of encouragement to move forward allows growth. People prefer consistent, predictable expectations within their daily life, at work and at home.

Another important factor is risk. Employees need an assurance that if they take a risk, they still have a supportive network behind them. Growth requires risk.

However, I believe people can become too complacent. A manager must know when congratulatory, appreciative praise is appropriate versus the occasional tap indicative of decreasing or mediocre work performance. I believe all people have the capacity to excel in their job within their own capacity to perform.

As a manager, appropriate acknowledgment must occur, regardless of perceived job importance or ranking. Productive efforts will succeed quicker from a strong, broad base within a well-focused team. Acknowledging the base is critical.

I believe not all people are congenial toward co-workers. Invariably, a negative person-to-person interaction within the work environment arises. The manager must understand how these relationships develop and why the situation persists, and take the appropriate action, which could mean seeking outside advice and professional help.

I also believe that managers:

Must be prepared to deal with crises, which occur even with excellent managerial processes – An appropriate assessment, evaluation and implementation of a response plan must occur with timely decisions and follow-up. All crises eventually must lead to preventive programs when feasible.

Are leaders who listen, evaluate and respond – Managers must maintain an adequate working knowledge of the disciplines they supervise to redirect or re-inspire employees successfully.

Must be fiscally savvy – The world still functions on money and, without money, even the best ideas wither. Appropriate fiscal management teams must be developed and utilized to assure a broad-based, thorough review of all aspects of management.

Must be a reflection on what life means and how we live – We each have an obligation for the future and are called to look for hope and inspiration. Leadership allows a self-determining planning process to focus on what we truly seek, which is a future that does not jeopardize future generations.

Are challenged to use present resources to move forward and opportunistically impact the future through leadership and service – Preparation and consensus-building within the many choices are critical. Managers need to look to the future and give witness to the determination of a successful future.

Need to challenge conventional thinking – A new consensus can turn the fork in the road into multiple options that enrich our spirituality, create viable communities and sustain individual lifestyles within various environments.

In summary, following lessons learned in biosecurity and crisis management, one person can hold only seven balls; the eighth ball always will fall to the ground. Management is no different; I can only do so much.

The key to success is knowing when someone is handing you the eighth ball. Oftentimes, as a manager, the response is, “I will do it myself!” Unfortunately, such a response only results in a tired manager at the end of the day and a less responsive team tomorrow.

The bottom line: People are people. People do not come with a set of instructions, yet their capacity to learn is exponential. Harnessing that goodness for the betterment of the whole is the heart of every good manager. And remember, yes, the cows are important, but people come first.

May you find all your ear tags.

BeefTalk: Market Cows and Bulls Rather Than Cull

Fall is the time for breeding cattle inventory reconciliation. Factors such as the availability of feed, labor and desire will be part of the review. The outcomes of this review really set the future for the cow-calf enterprise and the degree of managerial pressure through cattle numbers a producer places on the land resources available.

This is a big deal. Individual animals will be scrutinized critically and selected for next year’s production herd. The decisions will set the future marketable production of the breeding herd but also will help capture maximum value for market cows and bulls. This an important facet of cow-calf operations, especially as inventories are adjusted to bring in younger cows.

The marketing of cows and bulls no longer needed in the herd (often called culling) is similar to the annual sale of calves and yearlings. Once completed, the producer and herd settle in for another production year.

If one reviews cattle history, the term “cull” should be dropped from cattle vocabulary. But first, let’s take a closer look at market cows and bulls. I reviewed the executive summary of a publication titled the “National Beef 2016 Market Cow and Bull Quality Audit” that was published by the Cattlemen’s Beef Board and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

The previous (2007) audit encouraged producers who “recognize and optimize cattle value, monitor health, market cattle in a timely and appropriate manner, prevent quality defects and are proactive to ensure beef safety and integrity.” Within the industry, steps were taken to address the 2007 goals.

A review of the 2016 executive summary notes a successful outcome of the targeted goals for commercial beef producers when marketing cows and bulls. The implementation of the 2007 goals deserves a pat on the back because market cows and bulls are a significant part of a commercial cattle producer’s marketable pounds.

How much? Let’s look at the CHAPS (Cow Herd Appraisal Performance Software) benchmarks from those producers involved with the North Dakota Beef Cattle Improvement Association (NDBCIA). The CHAPS benchmark shows that for every 100 cows exposed to the bull, the producer would have 91 calves in the fall.

If the male-to-female ratio was 45 steers and 46 heifers, this producer would have approximately 25,785 pounds of steers (573 pounds per steer) to market and 24,932 pounds of heifers (542 pounds per heifer) available as potential replacements and/or to market at 193 days of age. The 15 replacement heifers (14.9 percent) would account for 8,130 pounds, leaving 16,802 pounds of market heifers.

Approximately 13.2 percent of the cow herd inventory also will be reduced, accounting for 18,057 pounds (1,389 average cow weight for 13 marketed cows). If a bull also is replaced, more than 2,000 pounds of market bull would be available for this assumed NDBCIA herd of 100 cows.

If a producer marketed calves at weaning, approximately 42,587 pounds of calf would be available to sell and 20,057 pounds of market cows and bull would be on the auction block. This is no small piece of change because 32 percent of the production weight is market cows and a bull.

So think positively. Market, not cull, animals.

Back to history: The word “cull” was probably an unfortunate term associated with fall herd reduction. A scan through some computer dictionaries or Webster’s Dictionary shows the definition of the word “cull” as rather offensive. Webster says that if we use the word “cull” as a noun, we are referring to “something rejected, especially as being inferior or worthless.” The word also can be used as an action verb meaning to “select from a group or to identify and remove the culls.”

When producers say they are culling, the statement is still true; however, the days of removing inferior and worthless animals should be historic, not current concepts of the process. More correctly, cattle removed today are market cattle, and the livestock markets actively sort and present excellent market cows and bulls. The culls, that is, those cattle that are so inferior as to be worthless, never should be marketed.

A managerial talking point certainly is created when nonmarketable cattle arrive in the sale pen. In terms of marketing alternatives, producers need to strive for zero tolerance by marketing all cattle in a timely manner. Holding some cattle through the grazing season when they should have been marketed the previous year is poor management with serious consequences.

When cattle arrive home from summer pasture, sort, resort and market bulls and cows without delay. The concept may seem simple, but understanding the roots of the process means changing a very deeply embedded concept that has been long established in the cattle industry. No herd should have any cull cows or bulls. Now go read the 2016 executive summary.

May you find all your ear tags.

BeefTalk: Cows as Combines

Cows are harvesters, sort of a biological combine, and dining on crop aftermath can be a real component to profitable commercial beef production.

Yes, bison, yaks and many other four-legged precursors were company competitors, but as far as production units, the cow combines win out. Cow combine units come in various colors, depending on the dealer one chooses, but all have pretty good track records.

Mixing and matching the header unit with the combine unit is possible and certainly a producer’s choice, realizing that many producers prefer a solid-colored unit. But keep in mind, the performance level of the mixed unit seems to have more production capacity than the straight units.

The use of cows as biological combines is not new, and the Dickinson Research Extension Center has been studying the impact of extended grazing in extensive beef cattle operations for many years. All these studies have a common outcome; that is, cow-calf producers tend to underutilize their cows when harvesting forage. Some harvesting opportunities simply never are utilized.

More recently, beginning in 2016, center scientists Songul Senturklu and Doug Landblom tested several harvesting units under various scenarios. The results were amazing. The units that only harvested grass were more expensive because their overwintering costs were greater, $209 per unit. Interestingly, finding some more cropland and cover crop to harvest into the fall reduced wintering costs by almost a third (32.5 percent), to $141.

So, carrying that thought farther, letting those harvesting units go around the agronomic fields a second or third time and complete a late harvest of standing summer grass growth cut the overwinter charges by more than two-thirds (65.1 percent), to $73. No question about it: The cow is the vehicle to harvest fall plant growth.

This win-win scenario lowers costs and improves production maintenance of the cow. That leads to another thought: Cows need to be in good condition at calving next spring and even better condition at breeding next summer.

The middle three months of gestation, or pregnancy, in other words, are the time to improve cow condition. Can this be accomplished while the cows are harvesting well into later fall to early winter?

The answer is “yes,” but keep in mind that herd management and calving dates also need to focus on grazing. In other words, calve on growing grass in the spring to maximize a cow’s grazing potential.

But fall crop aftermath grazing is beneficial regardless of calving time. Right now, cow milk production is decreasing for spring-calving cows, the weather is favorable and, generally, crop aftermath is bountiful. When moisture tends to run short, grain production acreage often is shifted into potential cow feed.

While crop production has many variables, standing plants are meant to be tasted. I always ponder, when I drive by fields that are not fenced nor have access to water, how much a cow would enjoy that field. A moderate-milking, 1,300-pound cow would like to eat her fill of good, green grass prior to weaning, actually eating all that she can to produce milk.

After weaning, that same cow keeps eating if feed is available. When a cow eats above her requirements, she gains weight. In this case, replacing the weight she lost raising her calf, along with adding more body condition (commonly called fat) in preparation for winter, is the hoped-for scenario. Now that is the scenario cow-calf producers like.

Because the third trimester of gestation has not been reached, milk production ceases at weaning and good weather provides the opportunity to utilize cheaper feed resources. Essentially, the cow will eat in excess of her requirements in the crop aftermath buffet.

In addition, a good management option is to sort the thinner cows and send them to the best fall pastures. One scenario is to consider weaning the calves of those cows early, reducing the milking stress on their mothers. The fall pastures will put the needed feed in front of the thinner cows and the cows will improve their body condition score.

In the meantime, the moderately to heavier-conditioned cows can be grazing areas that are less lush. However, most producers will let all their cows enjoy fall aftermath grazing, keeping life simple. All the cows should respond with increased conditioning and be better prepared for winter and next year’s calving and breeding.

Remember that when the third trimester of pregnancy starts, rebalance the ration and involve your local nutritionist to develop a proper herd nutritional program. Also remember to keep an eye on the cattle, identify potential fall plant toxicity and visit your local Extension agent, particularly if you are implementing new grazing strategies. Input is always good.

May you find all your ear tags.

BeefTalk: 2018 Cow-Calf Production Benchmarks

Commercial beef producers joined the “500 Club” in pounds weaned per cow exposed, according to the 2018 Cow Herd Appraisal Performance Software (CHAPS) records.

The new benchmark is 502 pounds and illustrates better understanding of benchmarks. This knowledge is critical because it allows producers to gauge, adjust and keep track of cattle production based on long-term benchmarks within the industry.

You cannot change what you do not measure. Measurement of a trait through time helps make active decisions to lower, maintain or increase that trait within the herd. Begin by knowing the level at which the cow-calf enterprise is functioning.

The NDSU Dickinson Research Extension Center calculates yearly averages of beef cow herd data from producers. The CHAPS team calculates five-year rolling average benchmarks from herds with at least 50 cows that have been in CHAPS for three years or more. Yearly averages are good, but a rolling five-year average buffers yearly ups and downs in the data.

A review of the 2018 benchmarks is a worthy read because understanding normal, or in this case typical, performance allows producers to better understand how to set and guide individual herd goals. Overall reproductive traits, expressed in percentages of cows exposed, and some growth traits, expressed in pounds, are presented.

The typical CHAPS producer has 93.7 percent of the cows that were exposed to bulls be pregnant in the fall, with 93.1 percent calving in the spring. In the fall, 91 percent of the cows that were exposed to bulls weaned a calf.

During a typical calving season, 63.2 percent calved during the first 21 days, 87.6 percent during the first 42 days and 96.1 percent within the first 63 days. The average age of the cows was 5.6 years.

Calf age, growth and weaning numbers were as follows: age, 193 days; weight, 557 pounds; and frame score, 5.2. The weight per day of age was 2.9 pounds and the average daily gain was 2.5 pounds.

“Pounds weaned per cow exposed to the bull” is a trait that factors in management and genetics in cattle production. For every cow exposed, CHAPS producers weaned 502 pounds of calf.

Interestingly, benchmarks do not vary very much across years, which is indicative of a mature cow-calf business. Because of the maturity of the cow-calf business, cattle producers have developed stable production practices that, in some cases, cross generations of beef producers.

Minor ups and downs may occur, but newsworthy changes are seldom. Some individual operations will experience what one might call Mother Nature trauma, but those operations have little they can do about those events, other than to have an emergency response plan in place. As an aside, that emergency response plan needs practice, so go over those plans at least once a year.

Back to the benchmarks. The good news, although small, is that pounds weaned per cow exposed benchmarks for 2018 reached the “500 Club,” with an average benchmark of 502.

That’s good news because the industry has been on a five-year run of lower pounds weaned per cow exposed. That number was 499 pounds for 2013, 496 pounds for 2014, 495 pounds for 2015, 494 pounds for 2016 and 498 pounds for 2017. These may not seem like huge differences, but the trend is good.

Prior to that, the benchmark for pounds of calf weaned per cow exposed had been quite consistent. Historically (10-plus years ago), the benchmark was 500 pounds for 2005, and 502 pounds for 2006 and 2007. In 2008, the benchmark for pounds weaned per cow exposed was again at 500 pounds, and it was at 507 pounds for 2009, 505 pounds for 2010, 503 pounds for 2011 and 501 pounds for 2012.

Interestingly, the average producer has not been able to sustain the 500-pound threshold in recent years, so I guess we will wait to see if the “500 Club” pound mark holds.

Has the industry changed much? Not really. Is 500 pounds the right number? Well, each producer has to determine what fits the operation.

However, CHAPS has been calculating the number since the mid-1980s, and after many years of evaluations of CHAPS herds, 500 pounds is doable and a logical goal. A tweak could be that those producers with lower input may accept a little fewer pounds at weaning, but again, each producer needs to do what is right for that person’s operation and checkbook.

But the discussion today is simply benchmarks. And as stated earlier, benchmarks allow a producer to measure managerial changes on the operation.

Fall is a good time to review the status of the beef operation as the calves come home. Sitting on the fence and watching the cattle walk by is good, but numbers are needed to offer the details for a proper evaluation. Do you know your pounds of calf produced per cow exposed?

May you find all your ear tags.

BeefTalk: Economic Greats – 93 Percent of Cow’s Weight Harvested

As I was reviewing Cow Herd Appraisal Performance Software (CHAPS) records recently, cow Y1002’s record popped up.

Because of the weight of her calves at harvest (93 percent of her weight), she is one of the economic greats of the Dickinson Research Extension Center’s herd.

Y1002’s dam is half-Red Angus and half-Angus, and Y1002 was sired by an Aberdeen bull called Cadet Quartermaster. I would call Y1002 a frame score 3, 1,100-pound cow. Her weight has averaged 1,069 in the fall, but as she ages, she will put on some weight.

Y1002 has weaned a calf every year. Her 2015 calf (C5132), born on a late spring day, May 26, comes to mind as representing what I would expect out of a commercial cow. The sire of C5132 was not known because the center group mates and Y1002 was exposed to three bulls in her particular 2014 breeding pasture: 3280, an Angus bull, and two Red Angus bulls, A042 and A079.

Calf C5132 was 80 pounds at birth and 582 pounds at weaning, boasted 2.6 pounds of average daily gain and was 43 inches at the hip (frame score 4.9) on Dec. 3, 2015. C5132 was representative of his contemporaries. As with most calves, to the visual eye, he was just a calf but slightly on the small side.

Once neutered, C5132 went to the winter backgrounding lot, where he was targeted to gain 1.5 pounds a day on roughage, and was summered in 2016 on grass, crop aftermath and other forages. On Dec. 13, 2016, C5132 weighed 1,195 pounds and went to the feed yard, arriving at 1,104 pounds after shrinkage.

At the feed yard, C5132 gained 4.8 pounds per day, reaching 1,673 pounds on harvest day, April 18, 2017 (683 days of age). C5132 had a hot carcass weight of 996 pounds, .4 inch of back fat and 15.4 square inches of rib eye, with a 2.8 yield grade and average Choice quality grade. Recall the earlier statistics and ponder.

Remember, C5132 was frame score 4.9 at weaning, and his mother, Y1002, averaged 1,069 pounds in body weight. Now ponder, and ponder a lot. I would be proud to look across the pasture at a whole herd of cows that resemble Y1002.

The economics of the cow-calf business involve three very important economic drivers. Economic driver No. 1: calving cows in sync with grass. Y1002 bred and calved on grass. Upon rebreeding, she foraged through late fall and early winter with limited harvested feed because her third trimester didn’t start until late February.

The delay in the consumption of harvested feed potentially shaves a third of the winter feed costs or more in cases where a producer is finely tuning winter grazing operations. The mid-December weaning puts calves into the backgrounding facilities, where gain may be minimized, but they stay vigorous and healthy.

Following winter, C5132 and his contemporaries were turned out on cool-season spring grass, a grazing banquet. This is the same grass type on which C5132 started life.

Keep in mind, the mother cows again were across the hill grazing and calving on their own cool-season pastures. As summer progresses into fall, properly designed grazing strategies will funnel the cows to more crop residue and the yearlings to fall cover crops, standing corn and other higher protein forages.

Here’s an important point: As 2016 came to a close, Y1002’s bull calf (D6001) weaned at 576 pounds, with 2.1 pounds of average daily gain and a frame score of 4.8. This was as C5132 was ready to load on the truck going to the feed yard.

This is time to ponder and ponder some more. While the DREC was providing for Y1002 and her 2016 calf, the ranch had added 613 pounds to C5132 (her 2015 calf).

Back to the economic drivers. Economic driver No. 2: the importance of monitoring cow weight. In this case, one cow is marketing a calf each year, but the second year does not have the costs of the cow’s pregnancy. This is interesting to note.

Y1002 is a 1,069-pound cow, exceeding 1,100 at maturity, and averages 538 pounds of calf at weaning, with the potential to market 1,200-pound yearlings. Sure, heavier cows could produce these calves, but then the extra cow weight is simply a burden and expense to the operation.

Economic driver No. 3: the bull. Cow Y1002 is not a large, robust, muscular cow, but the bulls that sire her calves have those traits. The bull she mated with helped produce 996 pounds of carcass on the rail at .4 inch of back fat and 15.4 square inches of rib eye, with a 2.8 yield grade and average Choice quality grade. That is 93 percent of the cow’s weight harvested.

Who decides all this? The producer does by constructing the fences, planting in the soil, partitioning the grass and determining the level of production and financial rewards sought. So, I just had to ponder and smile as Y1002’s records were reviewed. Unfortunately, Y1002 only produced bull calves, all steered, but commercial wonders.

When producers ponder the future, they have no need to question the futility of agriculture. Opportunity abounds. The challenges are us and our willingness to think, plan and achieve.

May you find all your ear tags.

BeefTalk: What Can Sheep Teach Cows?

Diversity of livestock is a healthy approach to livestock production, just as the integration of different plants is a healthy approach to expanded cropping systems.

In the end, the soil benefits. When soil is healthy, living systems, including us, benefit.

Focusing on comingling livestock, this is a complex story, despite preconceived conclusions that the beef cow seems to have a pretty good handle on how to graze grass. Data has shown sheep can be added to the grasslands without significantly affecting the cattle stocking rate.

Dickinson Research Extension Center summer research intern Vladimir Kutka reviewed FINBIN (http://www.finbin.umn.edu/) data from 2010 to 2017 from the Center for Farm Financial Management, University of Minnesota. A review of 64 farm years for market lambs and 27 farm years for feeder lamb production involving Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota operations produced discussable points.

Kutka found lamb production, using standard marketing pipelines, is not very profitable. The top 40 percent of the sheep operations had positive net return columns, but being average in the sheep business does not work. During the same time period, 60 percent of the cow-calf operations had positive net return columns. Being average in the beef business does work.

That seems like a strange thing to say, but sheep operations were harder to develop and manage to produce a positive outcome than cattle. On a personal note, having been involved in both for my career, I would say that is true.

However, lest beef producers become slackers, below-average beef operations also have a negative net return. Opportunity for beef and sheep is best focused on achieving sustainable returns on investment, a challenge for all producers.

A sustainable return on investment starts with a positive net return. The high 20 percent of the sheep operations earned about $65 per ewe, while the high 20 percent of the beef operations were at $521 per cow. (You need eight sheep to offset a cow.)

But that is not what this conversation is about. Rather, it’s about how beef operations can diversify by adding sheep and adding more income.

Let’s go back to the start: What can sheep teach a cow? Surprisingly, production traits are similar between species when comparing high- and low-revenue operations. These production traits include slight advantages expressed in lower death loss, increased reproduction and subsequent lamb or calf weight weaned off per ewe or cow while feeding less for those operations with strong positive net returns. This makes sense.

The fundamental key to profit and loss, whether cattle or sheep, is controlling costs. No cattle or sheep operation can turn a blind eye to expenses. Also, two big challenges are keeping sheep where they need to be and protecting them from predators.

So where is the real money? The real money is not in the physical aspects of the business. In cattle and sheep enterprises, the price realized at auction was a major factor.

Marketing is huge. Beef producers in the top 20 percent received $335 per calf more than producers in the lower 20 percent. Sheep were the same. The top 20 percent of sheep producers received more in sales than the lower 20 percent by $43 per lamb sold in the feeder and market sectors.

As Kutka noted, unfortunately for those looking for a silver bullet to high performance, none of these factors alone made up the bulk of the profitability gap between the low versus top producers. Kutka notes that, as with any business, small improvements add up to large gains once multiplied throughout the enterprise. Those who manage the small simultaneously change the large, which is a principle that is true for cows and ewes.

Again, what can the ewe teach the cow? Getting back to marketing, when and how a producer markets is key. If a producer decides to add sheep to a cattle operation and assumes that the majority of overhead expenses still are embedded in the cow-calf enterprise, then how does a producer maximize the return by adding sheep?

The answer is the same for beef producers who have the opportunity to add more income to the beef enterprise: Maximize the weight of the product sold. And if needed, consider retaining ownership to harvest. Look at the average lamb operation that, during the last 10 years, lost money selling just a little more than 121-pound lambs.

What if those 121-pound lambs were processed and sold at retail? Now, rather than spending more time physically managing the sheep, implement a marketing program that takes the lambs through harvest.

What is that lamb worth? Why don’t you set $400 as a goal? So rather than selling for $179 per lamb, why not sell for $400? That adds another $221, minus an estimated $100 for processing, or $121 per lamb.

That is what sheep can teach cows. Do not underestimate the value of the retail product; lambs can be sold retail.

May you find all your ear tags.

BeefTalk: Livestock Diversity a Good Thing

The study of chemistry is based on absolutes more than variation.

The study of biology is based on variation more than absolutes.

Sometimes, what we do is absolute, but more often than not, what we do has a varied response.

That is so true in agriculture. Agricultural managers are called upon routinely to evaluate variation and sort out the good and, in some cases, actually seek more, not less, planned variation. And so today, we take a look at diversity.

Diversity is a buzzword today in agriculture: crop rotations, planting sequences, cover crops. All of these elements are part of successful management.

Grasslands, by their evolution, are historically diverse. However, the cows in the pasture have very little visual diversity, which is evidenced by cattle producers’ underutilization of additional cattle breeds or types.

Diversity throughout agriculture is a good thing. The crossing of cattle breeds or selected lines of cattle opens a new dimension, a dimension that positively responds to the freshness of increased vigor. That is good.

Just like crop producers are exploring and expanding plant diversity within grain and forage production, so should the beef producer. The livestock producer does not need to stop with simply crossbreeding cattle. I want to go one step further and expand the grassland grazers to cattle and sheep.

Yes, I said cattle and sheep. Diversity of livestock is a healthy approach to livestock production, and that goodness ultimately is expressed in better grass production through enhanced grasslands. Cattle and sheep are an obvious source of diversity within grassland grazers.

The complementary grazing of cattle and sheep is real, not just something to ponder. The Dickinson Research Extension Center determined the biological needs of sheep fit very well with cattle.

In fact, grazing ewes and cattle at the center, one ewe to every cow, complemented the cow herd very well. The cow and ewes, along with their offspring, were able to maintain normal growth without affecting the grasslands.

A very diverse plant population exposed to two types of grazers allows the opportunity for additional revenue per acre above the revenue from simply grazing with cattle. The grass did well, the livestock did well and the producer did well.

But! Yes, this scenario has “buts.” Creating diversity with alternative livestock assumes cows have the luxury of being the principal, or primary, grazing animal. The cow is not going to be replaced, but reviewing other opportunities for grazing alternative, companion livestock is a good mind-expanding process.

On a recent trip to Mongolia, I observed vast comingled herds of grazing cattle, sheep, goats, yaks, camels and horses on grasslands. Why? The thought is to better utilize the land and available forage that grows on the land.

Obviously, comingling has limits, and once that limit is met, additional grazing or stocking on the grasslands is detrimental. But finding that limit is part of the art and science of livestock production. One thing is for sure: Grazing systems that only utilize one species, such as cattle, leave additional grazing opportunities on the table.

But — yes, another “but” — comingling livestock, such as cattle and sheep, is not easy. The challenges to measuring the bottom dollar in a cattle or sheep operation are difficult to overcome. Nevertheless, let’s move forward.

At the Dickinson Research Extension Center, research suggesting one ewe can be added to the grasslands for every cow that is grazing at no expense to cattle or grasslands is ongoing. Granted, adding sheep to a cattle operation means more work and producer education; however, that does not mean the opportunity is not there.

What about the grass? What about the added dollars if dollars are tight? Currently, the center maintains a flock of White Dorper and St. Croix crossbred hair sheep to graze areas that the cattle will not.

This approach does bring challenges. Like most beef operations, the center is short of labor. Adding a more management-intensive species of livestock, such as sheep, requires considerable thought and planning. Still, the bottom line: When appropriate, adding ewes to make the sheep enterprise significant without decreasing the cow herd makes sense.

For years, the center has utilized sheep for forage management, particularly around the empty cattle pens during the summer. Although the cattle pastures have not been targeted yet, the center has several plant species that could be managed better by multispecies grazing. But first, management hurdles need to be addressed.

Sheep uniqueness also is very real, but diversity is good. The learning curve is steep but doable. But do we want to? “Yes” is the correct answer.

May you find all your ear tags. F

BeefTalk: Sheep and Cows: Some Do and Some Do Not

Driving across the grasslands, one finds oneself asking, “Who eats all this grass?”

Those who live in more urban settings actually ask, “Who cuts the grass?” Well, we have no need to cut grass because sheep and cows graze, coexisting within the same grasslands, along with other grazing-type animals.

Sheep and cows harvest the grass and other plants that provide cover and stability to the soil. Their grazing is very complementary to each other. The forage roots, stimulated by grazing, essentially hold the earth together.

Think about it. Who builds homes in a sand pile? Add plants, and stability arrives. That is a good thing.

So, back to who does cut grass. In pastures, animals cut the grass. The evolution of this unique and precious relationship is the anchor for animal, plant and soil interactions.

Animals eat the grass, stimulating grass plants to spread, wrapping the world in grass and other plants. Animals provide food for humans, who keep the animal population in check.

Life is good, and even better when a diverse mixture of plants and animals thrives, each adapting to its unique ecosystem and helping sustain the world. With this diversity comes relationships that generally evolve through time. Time notes the pluses and minuses, working through the various scenarios, some that work and some that do not work.

One of those centuries-old relationships is the grazing of various animals on the grasslands, a beneficial relationship because the different types of animals focus their grazing on different aspects of the grasslands. Again, sheep and cows coexist and that is good.

If overpopulation does not happen and an adequate annual harvest keeps the populations in check, the grasslands benefit. The world functions well.

Back to the challenge. Agriculture is a human activity that includes the growing of plants and animals while maintaining agricultural lands. Do not forget: Sheep and cows coexist.

Unfortunately, through time, agriculture has become “mono-cultural.” The care of plants and animals is simplified, with one plant or one animal type cared for at a time. Missing from this thought process is the symbiotic relationships that different plants and animals have adapted through time to survive.

Because these relationships are complicated, an ecosystem approach will not find its way into production agriculture quickly. Grasslands, by their very nature, contain numerous plant types that add diversity, which is good.

Range system programs, designed to maintain and enhance plant diversity, work well, although implementation takes some effort. Likewise, a diverse grassland is enhanced by grazing appropriate numbers of different livestock species.

Remember the question, “Why do sheep and cows coexist?” That is why.

We should ask, “Is this real or simply frivolous pondering?” Studies by Mike Humann and Don Kirby at the Dickinson Research Extension Center in 1983 and 1984 evaluated incorporating grazing sheep and cattle together.

They noted, “While cattle are the predominant grazers of range and pasture in the northern Great Plains, sheep offer a significant untapped potential use of this diverse grazing resource. … Since the mixed-grass prairie provides an abundant variety of classes and species of vegetation, we questioned whether one class of livestock could make efficient use of this varietal abundance.”

They found sheep diets complemented the grazing of cattle extremely well.

“The sheep production cycle, breeding, gestation and lactation of ewes compares favorably with the quality of forage selected seasonally by ewes,” they wrote. The biological needs of sheep fit very well with cattle.

In 1990, James Nelson and others grazed ewes and cattle at the center, one ewe to every cow.

They noted, “Grazing sheep and cow-calf pairs on native range … allowed both species to make normal growth without sacrificing either pasture quantity or quality.”

Data show the complementary grazing of cattle and sheep is real, but not simple. So why not?

As in any process, the conversion of the grasslands from an unfenced to fenced rangeland introduced more challenges to an already complex system. And truth be told, the management of cows and sheep in a confined space is not simple. But having worked with sheep and cattle, and sheep producers and cattle producers, the task is not impossible.

The challenge quickly reverts to the willingness to commit a limited time resource weighed against the opportunity to see a dollar return. With sheep and cows, some do and some do not work well together.

We hope the some that do work will surface more, allowing production agriculture to take in the built-in efficiencies that Mother Nature already has provided.

May you find all your ear tags.

BeefTalk: Cost Per Pound of Calf is Struggling

Beef production, like any other business, needs to control costs to continue in business.

For the total optimist, the thought would be that price always would offset costs; thus, perpetual dollars would be coming into the business. Cattle producers know well that is not true. Seasoned producers have been through the ups and downs of markets and know the need to be cautious and keep records.

Historically, beef producers have not been overly enthusiastic record-keepers. Thankfully, the North Dakota Farm Management education program (http://www.ndfarmmanagement.com) and FINBIN (http://www.finbin.umn.edu/) from the Center for Farm Financial Management, University of Minnesota, help a lot.

Levi Helmuth, farm business management instructor at the Dickinson Research Extension Center, and other North Dakota instructors contribute to the database and help build a good resource of beef cattle financial records.

A review of North Dakota numbers from FINBIN using 2000 as the base shows some slowdown in calf costs since the run-up in calf prices a few years ago. The huge red flag of a couple of years ago – when the cost per pound weaned per exposed cow jumped 200 percent since the turn of the century – is now a yellow flag. The current cost per pound weaned per exposed cow is a 180 percent increase since the turn of the century.

Some would say the turn of the century comparison is excessively historic, but remember, the beef business is historic, with slow turnover and long-term investments. Decisions made in the year 2000 still are relevant today.

What has changed with the current numbers? Simple: Income means nothing without a cost calculation. While many producers understand that the costs of feed and maintaining the cow inventory are large, obviously total direct and overhead costs are the summation of all costs in the herd.

In 2000, producers spent, on average, $342 per cow for total direct and overhead expenses. The average costs were $583 in 2013, an increase of 170 percent; $648 in 2014, an increase of 189 percent; $606 in 2015, an increase of 177 percent; $574 in 2016, an increase of 167 percent; and $618 in 2017, in increase of 180 percent. So in the last five years, cow-calf producers seem to be cognizant of costs, trying to keep them in perspective.

Essentially, during the last five-year span, total direct and overhead costs for a cow have averaged $606. Has marketable calf output kept up with expenses? The answer still appears to be sluggish or perhaps on the negative side.

In 2000, according to FINBIN, the average weaned calf weight was 544 pounds. The last five years look like this: in 2013, 541 pounds; in 2014, 547 pounds; in 2015, 553 pounds; in 2016, 571 pounds; and in 2017, 576 pounds. The five-year average actual weight of weaned calves was 558 pounds, an increase of 14 pounds (or 103 percent) since the turn of the century.

The bottom line is a cow-calf producer’s costs increased, with very sluggish progress in the amount of saleable calf weight. Another way to look at that is to look at pounds weaned per cow exposed because the cow incurs most of the cost.

Pounds weaned per exposed cow were 492 pounds in 2000, 479 pounds in 2013, 471 pounds in 2014, 489 pounds in 2015, 498 pounds in 2016 and 507 pounds in 2017. The actual five-year average pounds weaned per cow exposed was 489 pounds.

At the turn of the century, cow-calf producers were achieving 492, or 3 more pounds weaned per cow exposed than the average for the last five years. (I am not going to calculate the negative percentage.) Realistically, for every cow we turn out to the bull, we wean fewer pounds than we did in 2000.

As costs climb, that is not good. Cow-calf producers need to manage costs and production. Combining costs and production, the cost per pound of weaned calf per cow exposed was 69 cents in 2000. The last five years are $1.22 (up 177 percent) in 2013, $1.38 (up 200 percent) in 2014, $1.24 (up 179 percent) in 2015, $1.15 (up 167 percent) in 2016 and $1.22 (up 177 percent) in 2017.

Essentially, the cost per pound weaned per cow exposed has fluctuated, with the cost per pound weaned per cow exposed for 2013 and 2017 at $1.22. The actual five-year average cost per pound weaned per cow exposed was $1.24. This 180 percent increase comes with no increase in pounds of calf marketed, which is not sustainable.

As cow-calf producers interact with the market and the expanded beef industry, individual producers must decide their individual approach to survival and meeting the family and operational goals. Invariably, those thoughts will include dollars. Remember, nothing is free.

May you find all your ear tags.