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In Support of Small Cows

By Meg Grzeskiewicz

By now most people know that more revenue and more pounds do not automatically equal more profit, which is why I am going to show you that small cows can be profitable.

I believe that you can single-trait select females for one thing: the percentage of her weight that her calf weighs at weaning. I regard this as the ultimate measure of a cow’s worth. It is a defense against the trap of selecting females based on simply having the largest calves and ending up with a bunch of massive females that will eat you into the poorhouse.

Small Cows: By the Numbers

Divide the calf’s weaning weight by the cow’s weight and multiply the answer by 100 to get the percentage. In the case of ranches that allow cows to wean calves naturally, weigh calves at the same age every year, between 6 and 8 months.

A 1,000-pound cow that weans a 450-pound calf has weaned 45 percent of her weight. A 1,500-pound cow weaning a 550-pound calf has only produced 36 percent of her weight.

The efficiency differences between large and small females are thrown into even sharper relief when you quantify the feed intake of both. Let’s assume both cows eat 4 percent of their body weight per day in dry matter (actual consumption will vary lower and higher throughout the production cycle). The 1,000-pound cow has eaten 40 pounds of dry matter per day for 14,600 pounds per year.

woman in field
Meg Grzeskiewicz is the owner of Rhinestone Cattle Co. in New York state and is a past intern of Greg Judy.

The 1,500-pound cow has eaten 60 pounds per day for 21,900 pounds per year. This comes out to be 32.4 pounds of forage dry matter for every saleable pound of calf the 1,000-pound cow gave you. Compare that to 39.8 pounds of dry matter per saleable pound of calf from the 1,500-pound cow. This means that the smaller cow has taken a larger portion of the feed she’s ingested and passed it on to her calf, instead of hogging it to herself just to stay alive the way the larger cow did. That small cow could eat up to 6 percent of her body weight without costing you more feed than the big cow does.

Let’s assume you’re feeding nothing but forage, hay and mineral. You live in New York where I do, feeding hay five months out of the year (many farmers here aren’t proficient at stockpiling fall forage, so they may be feeding hay for upwards of eight months). How much more money did you spend on winter hay to produce each pound of calf from the larger cow than from the smaller one? You’re buying 800-pound round bales for $35 each, and they are 88 percent dry matter. This gives you 704 pounds of dry matter per bale. Twenty percent waste from weathering and feeding leaves about 563 pounds of dry matter going into the animals’ mouths.

Your 1,500-pound cow is eating about 60 pounds per day (again using that 4 percent of body weight consumption number), so she needs 16 bales to make it through the winter. That’s $560 in hay that her calf needs to cover at the sale barn. If the 550-pound calf sells for $2 per pound, you’re left with $540 ($1,100-$560). Profit per pound of calf is $0.98.

The 1,000-pound cow eats 40 pounds per day, so she needs 10.6 bales. Her calf only needs to cover $373 in hay. It also sells for $2 per pound, so you make $527 ($900-$373). Profit per pound of calf is $1.17.

But wait! $540 is more than $527! How is the smaller calf a benefit then? The answer lies in the carrying capacity of your land.

Say you have 200 acres of grass, and your forage quality and quantity supports 100 big cows. With 3 percent death loss, you’re selling 97 calves at 550 pounds each. This is $106,700 at $2 per pound. They need to cover $56,000 worth of hay those 100 females ate. You’re left with $50,700. Profit per acre is $253.50.

How many more cattle could you run on the same acreage if you replaced all of your 1,500-pound cows with 1,000-pound cows? The big cow ate 7,300 pounds more dry matter in one year than the small cow did. This means you can replace every two large cows with three small cows (21,900 x 2 = 43,800. 14,600 x 3 = 43,800). Wouldn’t you rather have three calves weighing 450 pounds for a total saleable weight of 1,350 pounds, than two 550-pound calves for a total of 1,100 pounds?

This same property can hold 150 small cows. Three percent death loss gives you 145 saleable 450-pound calves. At $2 per pound you get a whopping $130,500!

Those females ate $55,950 in hay, so you profit $74,550. Profit per acre is $372.75. That’s $23,850 more in your pocket from the same amount of land due to using smaller cows and selling smaller calves.

Note: This is not meant to be an exhaustive scientific study. If it was, differences in nutritional content between hay and green grass would have to be included. Energy intake and usage would have to be quantified in calories. Dry matter intake percentage of body weight would be adjusted monthly. When those variables are so tightly controlled, the resulting data becomes less realistic and repeatable. My aim is to present a real-world scenario that, while simplified, is accurate and can be recreated on any ranch.

This article appeared in the June 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.