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Are Your Cows Efficient Enough?

18 October 2012

CANADA - With the prospects of better calf prices this year, the cow calf industry is facing the possibility of future profits and the ongoing need to refine production output and costs. Efficiency within the cow herd becomes more important as owners seek to expand profit margins.

“There are several points that are important in increasing the overall efficiency of your cow herd,” says Ken Ziegler, beef/forage specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development. “The overall efficiency of your cow herd is dependent on the match of the cow’s biological type with the environment that that they are in. Cows need to fit the environment, which to the greatest extent is based on what the producer believes necessary to good care. Climate and feed resources are also factors affecting the type of cow herd you should own. However, they don’t play as big a part as the producer does as a care giver.”

Within any group of similar cows there is variation in their ability to convert plant energy into animal energy. Some cows are genetically more able to accomplish their job on less feed. Conversely, some cows genetically need more feed in order to raise calves each year. Research is currently underway to further develop the concept known as Net Feed Efficiency (NFE). Because of the complexity in measuring NFE, this concept has first become available to the cattle industry through bull test stations. Bulls are being identified for their NFE and buyers can bid on this, similar to any other traits. Because NFE is reasonably heritable, this feature can be passed on to the daughters.

Cow milking ability is a major factor that establishes the nutrient requirements at any given time of year. Cows that milk less have lower feed requirements.

“The change in nutrient requirement does not change as quickly as cow size does,” says Mr Ziegler. “A 2000 lb cow does not eat twice as much as does a 1000 lb cow. Rather, feed requirements change with the animal’s metabolic weight rather than their live weight. The metabolic weight is achieved by multiplying their live weight by the .75 power. The size of the cow isn’t as important as is her long-term compatibility to her environment.

“Although large cows in a herd can be as productive relative to their body size as smaller cows, it’s not as likely. If a large cow is ‘lazy’, a poor performer, it’s not as noticeable as if a smaller cow is lazy. A manager will be quicker to notice that a little cow in the herd is lazy as her calf is just plain small. A larger cow can be lazy, but her calf will still fit in with the other calves. She then sneaks by for another year.”

Although poor keeping cows cull themselves through infertility, the poor performing cows don’t have a biological method for culling themselves except through the scrutiny of the cow owner. The tool for culling them is much more subjective and sometimes less observant. The only certain way to correct this is to individually weigh the calves in the fall and to correlate this with the actual weight of the cow.

“In deciding the optimal cow for your situation, look to those cows that are pregnant in deciding the type of replacements to place back into the herd and to look to the open cows to decide what heifers to send to the feedlot,” says Mr Ziegler. “Then, look to the bulls that reinforce the characteristics that you are trying to raise in your heifers.

“Finally, the degree of tolerance to poor efficiency is largely based on economics. The relationship between feed prices and calf prices will determine how inefficient cows can get and yet still be profitable.”

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