Quality in the cow herd

When you think of a “quality” cow herd, I suspect you see easy-fleshing cows with 500- to 600-pound calves, each born unassisted in a 60-day window. A dream to handle, docile in every case, never a stray missing the gate. Calves top the market and feeders fight over who will own them every year.

That’s a pretty good picture, but let’s widen the view to a quality survey reported by McKensie Harris and others in the 2106 Market Cow Report of the National Beef Quality Audit. It does not conjure picturesque or pastoral scenes, but there are some interesting quality trends to take in.

Market cows, the culls you sell, are a key source of lean trimmings to the beef supply chain and often represent 15 percent to 25 percent of gross income. However, the decision to sell a cow is not an active management choice in most operations. Commercial cattlemen “market” cows as a byproduct of the cow’s inability to remain productive, not because they want to increase income from cull cows.

That’s certainly different from the feeder and fed cattle scene. For one thing, those cows reflect delayed genetic trends in the herd, assuming the culls are older than average. The previous market cow NBQA was in 2007, conducted prior to the significant drought and culling across the U.S. in the next several years. The 2016 report offers insight as to how genetics within the commercial herd have changed relative to type and carcass characteristics, due to management and drought-induced culling.

Today, the percentage of Angus-type fed cattle hovers around 67 percent, a comparable number to the 2016 market cow report that suggests 68 percent of cows and 67 percent of bulls were Angus type. That’s a sizable increase in Angus influence, considering the 2007 report from John Nicholson and others indicated 44 percent of market cows and 52 percent of market bulls were predominately black hided—just 9 years earlier.

The genetic trend for marbling has increased for most breeds regardless of hide color. While neither market cows nor bulls are managed to express genetic potential for marbling, the 30-unit increase in average marbling score (about one third of a quality grade) from 2007 to 2016 confirms the commercial cow herd has improved in quality potential. Besides that 30-unit marbling increase, distribution of marbling scores also improved, moving a greater percentage of cows toward higher scores.

While skewed toward quality, cows fit every marbling category. There were 2.8 percent with enough to grade Prime, between slightly abundant to abundant marbling. It’s hard to argue the Prime target is too lofty a goal for fed cattle when nearly 3 percent of cull market cows achieved that level of marbling for prime. Remember, they likely represented a delayed genetic trend, and the report is already two years old. Market cows cannot qualify for Prime due to advanced maturity, but today’s overall genetics and herd management signal the potential for continued increases in average quality grade. NBQA herd changes were not limited to marbling potential. Market cow carcass weights increased by 50 pound over the 9 years, with ribeyes increased by 0.45 square inches. That’s a product of the larger carcass rather than more heavily muscled cows.

Cows can still get better, obviously: 21 percent of them were marketed at a light muscle score, reducing beef yield and increasing the chance of harvest lameness. The fall season offers benefits for a short-term feeding period in which cows can put on weight quickly and generally move to a more favorable marketing window. Keep in mind, feed efficiency tends to worsen with the older cows and the longer they are fed, so have a marketing plan in place.

Before entertaining a cow-feeding enterprise, check two things: 14 percent of the market cows in the NBQA had worn or broken teeth, which makes them poor feeding candidates. Better candidates but perhaps wrongly classified were the 17 percent of cows pregnant when sold. A short feeding period may not only improve cull-cow quality, but also offer a chance for one more pregnancy check before marketing. If these late-discovery bred cows don’t fit your ideal 60-day calving window, they certainly have more value for somebody as bred rather than thin, open cows.

Cull cows can serve as a good indicator, given the NBQA data, of where the beef community has improved and what challenges remain. In your herd, cull cows are a reflection of what doesn’t work in your system. Understanding how she got there offers a path to a higher quality cow herd.