There is increasing concern about the long-term trend toward heavier beef cows. A recent study by Maples, Lusk and Peel (2016) shows that heavier carcasses have cost the U.S. beef industry $8.6 billion due to reduced consumer demand. Studies consistently find that consumers want thick-cut steaks. However, large ribeye and loin cross-sectional areas prevent retailers from serving thick steaks while maintaining desired portion size.
We recently evaluated how heavier cows impact the profitability of cow-calf producers. Data from the American Angus Association demonstrates that EPDs for mature weight have increased steadily since the late 1970s while frame size is unchanged. The data shows the genetic trend for Mature Height (MH) is relatively flat while Mature Weight (MW) has increased by nearly 40 pounds. Since frame size is un-changed, that means that the cow herd has added more muscle, bone, and visceral organ mass. Concurrent with the increase in weight, comes increased nutritional requirements and reduced stocking rates. The question then is: Are higher cow-weights economically justified given heavier weaning weights?
Using data on 3,000+ cows from three research stations in Oklahoma and Arkansas, we recently estimated calf weaning weights as a function of mature cow weight. The resulting function shows a less than linear increase in weaning weight as cow weight increases. This means that each additional pound of mature cow weight adds less to calf weaning weight. Weaning weights increase, but at a decreasing rate. So, increasing mature cow size from a 950# cow to a 1000# cow increases weaning weight by 6.8 pounds. However, increasing mature cow size from a 1750# cow to an 1800# cow increased weaning weight by only 4.7 pounds. Both increase mature weight by 50 pounds, but with different results.
Given that stocking rates decline as cow weight increases and weaning weights are concave in cow weight, heavier cows are unlikely to be the most profitable on a per acre basis—and our analysis confirmed this suspicion. Over all of the scenarios we considered (spring and fall calving, Angus cows and Brangus cows, native pasture and Bermuda pastures), lighter cows outperformed heavier cows over a ten-year time period when profits are computed per acre. Our model also considered the higher cull value of heavier cows, differences in stocking rates and supplemental feed costs, and price variations over time. In figure 3, per acre net present value of beef cows by mature weight is presented. Values fall from $39.75 per acre per head for 950# cows to $22.63 per acre per head for 1800# cows.
While results will differ for individual producers, the economics are pointing to reducing cow weights to improve economic returns. Even if our analyses are off by 20%, the economically-optimal mature cow weight is under 1200#.
So, how does a producer with heavy cows adjust cow weight? Just as it has taken the industry several years to reach the current situation, producers will need to adjust over time. Reestablish a maternal line in the herd. Breed cows with desirable phenotypic and genotypic traits to moderate
MW EPD bulls and retain heifer calves that are both phenotypically and genotypically attractive but have a lower projected mature weight. It could take up to ten years to replace heavy cows, but the economics point to improved profitability. (Source: OSU Extension Master Cattleman Quarterly newsletter; Volume 39, June 2018)
The take home message is that heavier cows are not the path to heavier weaning weights. There is a point of diminishing returns and it is a very inefficient process. Put simply, in my best Economist language, more/bigger/heavier is not always better or more profitable. Just as “variety is the spice of life”, moderation is the key to longevity and sustainability.
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