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Looking for beef cows that make more money

Photo by Bill BrewsterDr. John Paterson, Montana State University beef extension specialist, presented research recently that pinpointed key characteristics of highly productive beef cattle

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Dr. John Paterson, MSU’s beef extension specialist, provided the latest information about ways for producers to make their cowherds more efficient during the annual educational meeting of the Gallatin Beef Producers.

Paterson, speaking at Headwaters Livestock of Three Forks, MT on Jan. 7, presented research data that was collected by Paterson, his staff and graduate students which pinpointed key characteristics of highly productive beef cattle.

Paterson provided information from recent research conducted on 120 first calf Angus, Angus x Simmental and Simmental heifers from the Bair Ranch that were fed at the GrowSafe Research Facility at Montana State University in Bozeman.



Paterson said one definition of an efficient cow is the ratio of pounds of calf weaned/the unit of forage consumed. Another definition that can be used is the pounds of calf weaned/pounds of female exposed to a bull.

He reminded producers that break-even prices vary with different calf crop percentages, annual cow costs and weaning weights. For example, a 95 percent calf crop with cow costs of $350 results in a breakeven cost of $92.10 for a 400 pound calf and $61.40 for a 600 pound calf. If a 95 percent calf crop had an annual cow cost of $250, the break even cost for a 400 pound calf would be $65.79 and it would be $43.85 for a 600 pound calf.



It is important to focus on efficiency, he said, because it can lower costs, and/or increase returns which lead to better use of resources and increased profitability.

Factors that affect production efficiency in the cow herd include cow size, milking ability and reproductive performance.

Studies show that average mature cow weights increased from 1,075 in 1975 to 1,350 in 2005, Paterson noted.

He reminded producers that cow intake, energy and protein requirements were influenced by mature cow size as mature size increases from 1,000 to 1,400.

Classic characteristics show that high maintenance cows have high milk production with lower body fat for a combination of high output and high input.

On the other hand, low maintenance cows show lower milk production with higher body fat mass for low output and low input cost.

Regarding production efficiency, he said earlier calving cows generally wean older and heavier calves and use feed more efficiently than later calving cows which results in higher net returns from earlier calving cows. In addition, he said earlier studies have shown that cows that maintain a shorter postpartum interval are more efficient through their entire lifetimes.

Biological efficiency is impacted by factors that include cow maintenance, gestation and lactation requirements, reproductive performance, along with calf maintenance and growth requirements and calf weight.

One point to remember, Paterson said, is the fact that larger, heavier milking biological types tend to be more efficient under abundant feed supply.

Under limited feed supplies, moderate size cows and moderate milk production tends to be better adapted and more efficient than larger, heavier-milking types, studies show.

Paterson showed a chart that indicated Angus cattle rank first in predicted efficiency when dry matter of under 21 pounds was consumed per day. With dry matter reaching 40 pounds a day was consumed, Charolais cattle ranked first.

Reducing maintenance energy requirements through genetic selection in the cow herd is a long term project and requires seedstock producers to be visionary and stay on task, he noted. Reducing energy needs in the feedlot can be implemented currently with already characterized genetic information (carcass EPDs).

At this point, most breeding programs have focused on improving economically relevant output traits such as growth, carcass quality and fertility to enhance the economic viability of beef production systems.

Paterson included some observations in his presentation made by rancher Lon Reukauf of Terry, MT:

1. Big cows eat more.

2. Heavy milking cow eat more.

3. Big, heavy milking cows eat a lot more.

4. Cattle are like people, some are easy keepers and some are always slender.

Paterson said studies published in 2002 by Jenkins and Ferrell showed different breeds of cattle have different appetites. Ranked by largest appetite to smallest appetite, the list reads: Angus, Charolais, Red Poll, Hereford, Gelbvieh, Braunvieh, Simmental and Limousin.

“Generally absent from current breeding programs in the U.S. are avenues for exploiting genetic variation in feed efficiency, even though reductions in feed inputs would substantially improve profitability,” Paterson said.

It is possible, he said, to select cows that eat less but produce normally.

Using the state-of-the-art GrowSafe System at the MSU research facility, graduate students Bryan Nichols and Ty McDonald were able to measure individual feed efficiency. The GrowSafe System is also being used by Midland Bull Test in Columbus, MT.

Residual feed intake (RFI), defined as the difference between what an animal eats and what it is expected to eat based on its size and growth rate, was determined from feed intake and gain data when cows were basically in the second-third trimester of pregnancy. The RFI test was conducted on a 75 percent roughage diet in order to mimic range conditions as well as possible. Results from this study showed no difference (P>0.05) among breed types, calf birth weights and calf weaning weights between cows which were classified as low, average or high RFI (low = ate less than expected, average = ate expected, or high = ate more than expected amounts of diet).

For example, in a comparison of the ‘Bair Cows selected for high or low rFeed intake, 10 low RFI cows with a body weight of 1,291 pounds had a hay intake of 19.2 pounds and had a daily gain of 2.21 pounds. The dozen high RFI cows that weighed 1,319 pounds had a daily gain of 2.11 pounds but had a hay intake of 26.9 pounds. The hay:grain ratio was 8.7 for the low RFI cows and 12.7 for the high RFI cows.

Paterson said there were no differences in birth or weaning weights for calves that came from high or low RFI cows and there were no differences in high or low RFI cows cycling at the beginning of the breeding season.

The research at Montana State University was substantiated by research in Alberta and Australia that showed selection for low RFI cattle can have significant results according to Paterson.

For example, the research showed lower maintenance requirement of the cow herd by nine to 10 percent and reduced feed intake by 10 to 12 percent. While having no effect on average daily gain or mature size, it also showed improved feed conversion ratio by nine to 15 percent.


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