The Functional Cow

In the cattle industry, five factors influence the profitability of beef cow-calf operations.

They are: Gelbvieh feeding calf

  1. Percent of cows weaning calves
  2. Weaning weight of the calves
  3. Sale price of the calves
  4. Annual cost of maintaining a cow
  5. Cull cow management

Many factors enter into each of these and have a majorinfluence such as: health problems, calving difficulty, price of feed, etc. But all these factors ultimately become a part of the overall profitability of the operation.

The key to a profitable beef herd is having a functional cow. Most cattlemen define thefunctional cow as one that rebreeds on schedule; weans a heavy calf every year; and is easy to maintain (feed and disposition). Let's examine the factors most likely to produce a functional cow.

She is crossbred. In selecting the breeds to cross, it is important to remember cow size, level of lactation, maternal abilities, disposition and saleability of the calves. It is also important to stick with the selected cross and avoid the temptation to introduce other breeds. Calf sucklingCrossbreeding can improve reproduction efficiently by taking advantage of the heterosis (or hybrid vigor) that exists when two or more breeds are utilized.

She is of moderate size. How do I determine what size my females will be? Breed choice will have a major influence, as well as the frame of the bulls that sire these cows.

She is a moderate to good milker. The level of milk production can be controlled by the use of breeds involved or through the use of genetic information such as expected progeny difference (EPD). To determine the level of ideal milk production is also a decision the producers must deal with. In an area of high forage resources, high milking has great potential. Also, if the calf is only left on his mother for 150 to 180 days, then milking ability will not be as important. In this case both the sire and the dam will have to transmit excellent genetics to their offspring.

She calves unassisted. Cows with calving difficulty are extremely labour consuming and have a death loss in calves four times that of cows with calves born unassisted.

She has good maternal instincts and a good disposition. Mother ability (very important at time of calving) is influenced by breed choice although evidence suggests that it may vary within the breed as well. It is also important to have a cow with a good disposition so that the cow can be worked with or handled.

She's an easy "fleshing" female and easy to maintain. Feed costs of the cow comprise from 40 to 70 percent of the total cost of maintaining the cow herd. Selecting a breed that has a low maintenance cost and yet rebreeds annually is important. The key to low maintenance cost will not only be the cow's ability to utilize forage efficiently but also the cattleman's decision on how he prices out and manages his supplemental dollar.

Cow & calf sittingShe rebreeds on schedule. The efficient cow calves early (the first 21 days of the calving season), giving her greater time to recycle and rebreed. The calf also has additional age enhancing weaning weight. Reproductive rates are not highly heritable from a genetic standpoint. However, reproductive efficiency should be strived toward as it has more influence on economic efficiency that virtually any other aspect of the cow-calf management program.

Her daughters reach puberty early. Improved reproductive efficiency often starts with the replacement heifer. Ensure that she is cycling by 12 or 13 months of age and is able to conceive early in the breeding season. That way we start her off on the right schedule. Many factors influence the onset of puberty including age, weight, and breed. Research also indicates a strong relationship between scrotal circumference and the daughter's puberty.

She helps contribute progeny that have carcass traits acceptable to the consuming public. As we look at the different traits (including red meat production) in the progeny we must remember that half will relate back to the maternal side.

As beef cattle producers, it is important never to forget that our reason for existence is the production of red meat for the consuming public. Maintaining functional cows is an extremely important aspect of meeting the challenge.