By Chris McClure Contributing Editor
As we sit at a point of very low numbers in our national cow herd, it is time to get serious about building back. How is that for an obvious, somewhat late statement? It’s one that likely will elicit a “Duh!” as it is read. (I would have added to that chorus had I been reading this.)
Although I am not a fan of the folks in D.C., there has been a phrase that I like that has been in use by a particular political party for about four years now – “Build Back Better.” I mention it despite the negative connotations most of you who read this will attach to those words. But I think in reference to where we are in the cattle cycle, it is an appropriate phrase.
As we rebuild the cow herd we need to build back better, it’s time to really examine the productivity of the genetics in our cattle and focus on adding traits that return the most for our investment. For quite a few years, that has been a black hide because the market seems to discriminate positively in their favor. Do those genetics deliver what we expect? Perhaps on the selling end, but I’ve found through the years that most of my money is made on the buying end or, at various points in between.
I see feed efficiency as the No. 1 characteristic we need to be looking at to add to our herds. That needs to include both efficiency on pasture and efficiency in the feedyard. With the price of feed at record highs, we need to do everything possible to get the most for our feed dollar.
Feedyards know that profit is driven by efficiency, volume and velocity. Cow-calf producers need to look at their operations similarly.
That efficiency translates to better forage utilization while on pasture – higher weaning weights and a greater percentage of live calves. A little hybrid vigor can go a long way in providing both of those. It also can help with disease resistance, especially in the South where high parasite loads can drain energy and reduce the ability of the animal to fight off challenges. We often think we can fix those things when the cattle go into a pre-conditioning program or on feed, but the days lost getting the animals up on feed and overcoming the challenges presented by comingling result in lost gain and, often, lost animals. Unhealthy cattle don’t gain and rarely overcome the losses during periods of morbidity.
As mentioned previously, a live calf is where it all starts. We associate higher birth weights with higher weaning weights, but that isn’t always the case. Some breeds and some specific genetic lines are great at producing a small calf at birth that grows at a faster rate than their contemporaries, resulting in a higher weaning weight than similarly aged animals. Sometimes, that’s a reflection of the mother’s milk production, but it also is tied to the ability of that animal to adapt quickly to utilize available forage efficiently to supplement the nutrition it receives from the milk. Lower birth weights often mean a live calf and a mother that recovers more quickly from the birth process.
To be competitive, most breeds have focused on genetic selection to improve their marbling ability. Hide color is immaterial once it has been removed at harvest. I’m concerned that we have become so enamored with certain color animals, that we’ve given up other profit drivers. Besides, technology at the feedyard has allowed us to improve USDA Quality Grades on almost all animals – usually by feeding them beyond the profit-maximizing point based on their individual growth curves. We give up profit for Quality Grade, thinking that grade alone drives profit. It certainly impacts it, but I like to see low feed conversions, above-average gains, and good yield numbers on the cattle I feed. Nearly any hide color can meet the threshold for quality if you grid them.
So, how do we build back better? We invest in genetics that will deliver those profit drivers to the calves we raise. We set hide color aside and think about the environment our cows inhabit and adapt our herds to better fit that environment. Based on those environmental conditions, we also must seek ways to wean the most pounds we can without compromising our resources through overstocking or overgrazing. Feedyards know that profit is driven by efficiency, volume and velocity. Cow-calf producers need to look at their operations similarly. How can we wean more pounds in a shorter time to allow our cows to recover and re-breed as quickly as possible? It’s all about the pounds.