Traditional breed cattlemen have long tended to view genetically smaller “acreage” cattle (Dexters, Miniature Herefords, Low Line Angus) as an industry novelty.
Their practical function remained obscure to those determined to push calf performance numbers progressively higher, which was accomplished primarily by opting for ever larger framed faster gaining sires. In these circumstances acreage animals had no logical place on typical cattle ranches. Everyone was looking for more, not less weight per animal.
The beef industry has gone through other large/small phases and I believe we are on the cusp of another distinct change in direction. There will almost certainly be a programmed movement back to smaller cows in the foreseeable future, and breeders cashing in will be the aforementioned specialty groups previously perceived as operating feebly on the fringes of the industry. I expect their contribution however to be less in direct marketing of finished beef than live sales for commercial cross breeding.
The rising consumer demand is for smaller more affordable cuts at retail, in public institutions and finer restaurants, while maintenance and processing costs for larger animals are becoming increasing industry concerns. We hear a lot about what farmers are and virtually nothing about what they are not. What they are not are slow learners and they will shortly begin to recognize irrevocable changes in cow sizes will soon be getting under way.
When cull cows were fetching 65-plus-cents a pound an 1,800 lb. animal returned a substantial cheque. This income was factored into calculations on that animal’s lifetime return, the equivalent of another calf and more in value. The resulting inevitable increase in frame sizes was seen as a distinct financial advantage.
The precipitous decline in slaughter cow prices and sharply increased operating costs have come at a most inopportune time. At this writing, cull cash returns (on good days) range from half to two thirds of traditional market pricing and the outlook for early recovery to historic levels is uncertain at best. The new math in farming may need to increasingly consider cows a depreciable asset largely expensed by the end of their productive term with subsequent salvage returns seen more as found money than replenishment income of consequence.
This assumption is admittedly based on the possibility that beyond predictable peaks and valleys current prices will be relatively permanent (clearly a fertile source of difference of opinion), but whatever the extended time frame these reduced returns will almost assuredly be in place long enough to contribute in some measure to putting significant numbers of farmers out to pasture in place of their cows.
The direct accounting impact of low cull prices will be an increase in return demanded from each calf produced in a cow’s lifetime. A ball park number in the switch from meaningful salvage income to part write off could be in the vicinity of perhaps $50 per lifetime calf, a significant consideration when calves are seldom penciled in at more than a couple of hundred dollars profit if that.
When we were ranching we noticed a precipitous drop in weaning performance by larger cows when 205 day numbers were calculated as a percentage of dam weight. We’ve had 1,100 lb. heifers producing 205 day calves at 58 per cent of their own weight (unadjusted) an unattainable projection if extended to 1,800 lb. prime age females on a no creep basis. We considered a roughly 15 to 18 per cent reduced performance by bigger cows to be as good as it gets using this measure.
Taking into account changing consumer preferences, improved performance and operational cost advantages the logical direction for size in today’s average crossbred herds is downwards.
It would likely take two or three generations of breeding to acreage bulls to reduce standard commercial cows to 1,100 lbs., but it could be done without abating structural quality. I’ve seen some outstanding acreage cattle at livestock expositions and in my view finding their respected place in the mainstream of beef production is merely a matter of time and that interval is no longer all that distant.
A jaded purebred breeder once offered the observation that “ ranchers don’t know a lot about cattle but they do know size and balls.” I don’t believe that for a moment. Modern day ranchers are well-educated producers open to new approaches and ideas that will work for them amid a tough economic environment and changing social customs.
For ladies left behind to calve out cows while hubby is working off the yard to “save the farm” the sight of an acreage bull snuggling up to a large boned heifer would be an unqualified blessing. Knock 20 pounds off accustomed birth weights and everyone could rest easy, the calf puller displayed more productively as a nostalgic rec room ornament recalling “the good old days.”
Anyone seen turning an acreage bull out with his commercial heifers will most assuredly attract a great deal of sorrowful head shaking and concerned predictions of impending doom.
But I’m persuaded these pioneering ranchers will have a leg up in an industry those same neighbors will envy in relatively short order. Ranching is indeed a lifestyle, but if it is not a business first it will not remain a way of life either.
Stan Harder is a mostly retired Angus breeder living at St. Brides, Alta. You can email him at: [email protected]