Making Hay · Beef Checkoff · EPDs · Sustainability · Creep Feeding · Selection · Replacement Heifers · Fertility · Cattle Market · Commodities vs. Beef · Letter to Drovers
"That simpleton approach is probably why the crossbred heifer sale at this year’s Ft. Worth Stock Show averaged $1,300! The buyers there thought they were saving money."
Published in February 2001
You see and hear the phrase all the time. It’s in all of the professional beef publications, Extension and university papers and presentations, college textbooks, and newspaper columns. I even found it the other day in “NF-Ag News & Views,” a publication by The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation (http://www.noble.org). It was in the article titled “Mother of the Year” by Ryan Reuter, beef cattle specialist.
What is this most popular phrase for professional beef cattle management? It’s “Buying your replacement heifers is usually more economical than raising them.” Doesn’t that ring a bell? It’s so commonplace it must be gospel for sure. But think about it for a minute.
For years I have thought about it and always ended up with the same conclusion. If cattlemen can buy replacement heifers for less than it costs to raise them, then the cattlemen who raise and sell them are losing money. On the other hand, it must cost the heifer buyers more to raise a heifer calf then they’re worth at a local sale barn. In other words, virtually every time a heifer--one that’s destined to be a replacement--is born, ranchers on both sides of the transaction lose money.
I called Ryan to see what he thought of my conclusion. He said he hadn’t thought of it quite that way, although he agreed with me. Then, in defense of his heifer-buying statement, he indicated most people who own cattle just aren’t trying to be low-cost producers. In their case, he said, it is more economical to buy replacements than it is to raise them. He then emphasized that’s why he says “usually” the practice of buying replacements is more economical.
My own philosophical approach to the cattle business is that I am raising beef for the American consumer. In the process of doing that I want to be economically and environmentally sustainable. That means not only do I have to be able to raise replacement heifers for less than it costs to purchase them, but I need MY replacement heifers to optimize my future production.
If cattlemen have different reasons than mine for owning cattle, then they can’t be motivated to adopt the low-cost beef cattle management approach that, in effect, REQUIRES THEM to raise their own replacements. Since so many producers own cattle for lifestyle rather than business reasons, I had to agree with Ryan that most folks do not want to be troubled with “complicated” management techniques. They enjoy going through the physical motions of raising cattle and don’t want to think. That simpleton approach is probably why the crossbred heifer sale at this year’s Ft. Worth Stock Show averaged $1,300! The buyers there thought they were saving money.
The Low-Cost Management Approach
Raising beef as a business requires a strict, all-encompassing management approach that optimizes earnings. This doesn’t mean production is maximized. Nor does it mean expenses are minimized. The low-cost producer will spend money on inputs, and his cattle must grow. But he balances his costs and revenues so his profits are optimized.
For an example of this balancing act, let’s use the inputs of fertilizer for increased forage production and/or the planting of legumes for fixing nitrogen and providing quality forage. Both of these costs have rather predictable returns in terms of forage production and beef raised. To make the decision about which approach or combination of approaches to use and to what level, a producer must take into account his soil types, forage species, growing seasons and grazing utilization, cattle conversion rates, stocking rates, cattle types, the future price of cattle, and his marketing scheme (among other things). That’s right. The low-cost producer not only has to understand how all the fundamentals of beef cattle production fit together, but he has to think and calculate before he acts.
I raise my own replacement heifers. I know my replacements are essential in order for me to be an economically and environmentally sustainable beef producer. To achieve that goal in a commodity production environment, I must strive to produce beef for less than the average cost of production. That in itself requires that I not only raise steers but also heifers for less than the market price of both products. To do that, I retain all calves until they are 14 months of age. Then they go to slaughter as grass-fed beef, or I retain them through the feedlot stage. With this approach I raise beef for a minimum of “14” months a year, while providing forage for my cows “just” 12 months a year.
I’ve stocked my ranch at a level that uses the soil’s forage production capabilities for an average year. I optimize forage production and utilization with fertility enhancements, weed control, and controlled grazing. I have a 45-day breeding season that selects for maximum fertility in the cow herd. The cows calve in late April and May to best use photoperiod for optimizing fertility and minimizing supplementation. My “little if any” supplementation program selects for environmental adaptation. My bulls are smaller framed, low birth weight, good maternal, environmentally adapted, structurally sound, easy fleshing, growthy critters with excellent temperaments. I need all of these qualities in the calves that go to market as beef as well as in the heifers I retain as replacements.
Heifer Decision Made at 14 Months
Weaned calves go to a management-intensive grazing system of rye, ryegrass, and legume pastures. With today’s higher-priced fertilizer these winter pastures cost about $65 to raise a weaned calf to 14 months of age. At that age I’ll decide which heifers to retain for my replacements. Naturally, the heifers will have been sired by my total performance bulls and been out of the cows that I’ve identified for meeting my criteria for low-cost beef production. (By the way, that doesn’t mean the cow that weans off the largest calf is the best cow.) When the replacement heifers are 15 months of age they are merged into the mature cow herd, where they’ll stay until they no longer meet my requirements for retention. I hope that’s in their old age.
With this management approach I raise replacement heifers for less than the market price of cattle. But that’s not the most important factor regarding a replacement heifer. What’s more important by far is that, because I raise my own replacements, I know that on average the genetics of my replacement heifers are better than the average genetics of my cow herd. With this approach my “cheap” heifers give my all-important cow factory a leg up every year in my goal of being economically and environmentally sustainable.
Copyright 2001, Slanker Productions, Powderly, Texas
Ted E. Slanker, Jr., email@example.com
R.R. 2, Box 175, Powderly, Texas 75473-9740
903-732-4653 Ofc, 903-732-4151 Fax