WITH cattle prices in the stratosphere and costs of inputs following right along beside, and sometimes racing ahead — funny how that seems to happen — maybe it is time to re-evaluate some of the prevailing wisdom in the cattle business.
Don’t quit reading now: I promise not to go on another rant about the false promise of oversized cattle.
The point I would like to make in this column is that we spend too much time and effort on the cattle and not enough time on the business.
As you know, most “cow people” are afflicted with a disease that makes it very hard for them to spend more than a short amount of time sitting at a desk. This disease also makes holding a pencil to record information difficult, and it makes adding and subtracting numbers almost impossible.
Given this ailment, it would seem a good thing that agricultural economists have spent a lot of time researching the most financially viable ways to manage agricultural production. I seldom take issue with their figures, but I sometimes question the practices they choose to examine.
Heifers, for example
We are told, for instance, that it is a better business decision to buy replacement heifers than it is to raise them from your own herd.
Given such things as “normal” weather patterns and market conditions, research shows it is usually possible to buy a bred heifer ready to calve — sometimes even a first-calf pair — for less money than you would have spent on a home-raised animal taken to the same stage.
In the studies I have read, a big part of the expense of developing a heifer comes from the additional feed and medical costs, plus the death loss associated with getting a nursing calf to the bred-heifer stage. Usually added in is the loss of use of the money the calf would have brought if sold at weaning.
What would the financial picture look like if, instead of weaning heifers at 7 months and feeding them a medicated ration high in energy and protein, and giving them the full course of immunizations, they were simply left on their mothers until about 10 months of age, and then weaned with little or no stress onto the best pasture available with minimal supplementation?
I have used both practices a number of times over the years, and I think most people would be pleased with both the cost and the animal performance of the low-cost, low-stress technique.
A second part of the equation is how you will choose to develop a cow herd that performs under your conditions and management.
The best way this can be done is by selecting replacements that do well under your management regime. It helps tremendously if you have enough numbers to be able to select both male and female replacements of your own raising.
At 1 year old, heifers fed a hot ration will most likely be the heaviest, but will they be the best-suited to become cows in a grass-based operation?
For example, which set of heifers will have the most developed rumens and thus do the best on an all-forage diet (meaning on a low-cost ration)?
Many of today’s cows are not capable of nursing a calf for 10 months without losing too much body condition, and they are poorly suited to low-cost management. The question becomes not how to prop up these cows, but rather whether the genetics of these heavy-milking, harddoing cows is what you want in your herd.
The same logic applies to the argument that without being pushed with a grain ration, the heifers will not be large enough to breed to calve two months earlier than the cow herd. This is frequently recommended so first-calf heifers have two extra months to get rebred after they calve.
I believe that every day of normal growth before calving is worth a whole lot more — in terms of overall well-being of the heifers — than is several days of growth after calving.
The low-cost way to get cattle rebred on time is to select for early-maturing animals and to calve on green grass.
To be successful, this low-cost program will require planning.
It will require planning as to the season of calving — on green grass.
It will require good grazing management — making the best use of what you grow.
It will also require the right kind of moderate-sized, easy-fleshing and lowmilking cows.
Okay, I lied about not beating up on big cows, but if we are discussing ranch finances, that is one of the factors which must be addressed!
Learning to do a production practice cheaper is good financial management. Learning how to not need a production practice is even better management.
In future columns, we will look at other ways to cut costs without cutting profitability.