In Support of Small Cows

By Meg Grzeskiewicz

By now most people know that more revenue and more pounds do not automatically equal more profit, which is why I am going to show you that small cows can be profitable.

I believe that you can single-trait select females for one thing: the percentage of her weight that her calf weighs at weaning. I regard this as the ultimate measure of a cow’s worth. It is a defense against the trap of selecting females based on simply having the largest calves and ending up with a bunch of massive females that will eat you into the poorhouse.

Small Cows: By the Numbers

Divide the calf’s weaning weight by the cow’s weight and multiply the answer by 100 to get the percentage. In the case of ranches that allow cows to wean calves naturally, weigh calves at the same age every year, between 6 and 8 months.

A 1,000-pound cow that weans a 450-pound calf has weaned 45 percent of her weight. A 1,500-pound cow weaning a 550-pound calf has only produced 36 percent of her weight.

The efficiency differences between large and small females are thrown into even sharper relief when you quantify the feed intake of both. Let’s assume both cows eat 4 percent of their body weight per day in dry matter (actual consumption will vary lower and higher throughout the production cycle). The 1,000-pound cow has eaten 40 pounds of dry matter per day for 14,600 pounds per year.

woman in field
Meg Grzeskiewicz is the owner of Rhinestone Cattle Co. in New York state and is a past intern of Greg Judy.

The 1,500-pound cow has eaten 60 pounds per day for 21,900 pounds per year. This comes out to be 32.4 pounds of forage dry matter for every saleable pound of calf the 1,000-pound cow gave you. Compare that to 39.8 pounds of dry matter per saleable pound of calf from the 1,500-pound cow. This means that the smaller cow has taken a larger portion of the feed she’s ingested and passed it on to her calf, instead of hogging it to herself just to stay alive the way the larger cow did. That small cow could eat up to 6 percent of her body weight without costing you more feed than the big cow does.

Let’s assume you’re feeding nothing but forage, hay and mineral. You live in New York where I do, feeding hay five months out of the year (many farmers here aren’t proficient at stockpiling fall forage, so they may be feeding hay for upwards of eight months). How much more money did you spend on winter hay to produce each pound of calf from the larger cow than from the smaller one? You’re buying 800-pound round bales for $35 each, and they are 88 percent dry matter. This gives you 704 pounds of dry matter per bale. Twenty percent waste from weathering and feeding leaves about 563 pounds of dry matter going into the animals’ mouths.

Your 1,500-pound cow is eating about 60 pounds per day (again using that 4 percent of body weight consumption number), so she needs 16 bales to make it through the winter. That’s $560 in hay that her calf needs to cover at the sale barn. If the 550-pound calf sells for $2 per pound, you’re left with $540 ($1,100-$560). Profit per pound of calf is $0.98.

The 1,000-pound cow eats 40 pounds per day, so she needs 10.6 bales. Her calf only needs to cover $373 in hay. It also sells for $2 per pound, so you make $527 ($900-$373). Profit per pound of calf is $1.17.

But wait! $540 is more than $527! How is the smaller calf a benefit then? The answer lies in the carrying capacity of your land.

Say you have 200 acres of grass, and your forage quality and quantity supports 100 big cows. With 3 percent death loss, you’re selling 97 calves at 550 pounds each. This is $106,700 at $2 per pound. They need to cover $56,000 worth of hay those 100 females ate. You’re left with $50,700. Profit per acre is $253.50.

How many more cattle could you run on the same acreage if you replaced all of your 1,500-pound cows with 1,000-pound cows? The big cow ate 7,300 pounds more dry matter in one year than the small cow did. This means you can replace every two large cows with three small cows (21,900 x 2 = 43,800. 14,600 x 3 = 43,800). Wouldn’t you rather have three calves weighing 450 pounds for a total saleable weight of 1,350 pounds, than two 550-pound calves for a total of 1,100 pounds?

This same property can hold 150 small cows. Three percent death loss gives you 145 saleable 450-pound calves. At $2 per pound you get a whopping $130,500!

Those females ate $55,950 in hay, so you profit $74,550. Profit per acre is $372.75. That’s $23,850 more in your pocket from the same amount of land due to using smaller cows and selling smaller calves.

Note: This is not meant to be an exhaustive scientific study. If it was, differences in nutritional content between hay and green grass would have to be included. Energy intake and usage would have to be quantified in calories. Dry matter intake percentage of body weight would be adjusted monthly. When those variables are so tightly controlled, the resulting data becomes less realistic and repeatable. My aim is to present a real-world scenario that, while simplified, is accurate and can be recreated on any ranch.

This article appeared in the June 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Shift the Workload: Focus on Livestock Culling, Genetics

By Meg Grzeskiewicz

Raising livestock on any size operation is hard work. There’s no way around it. However, you can minimize your personal time and labor investment by shifting your farm’s workload from yourself to your animals. They have their entire lives to spend doing a few simple jobs: eat, grow and reproduce. You, on the other hand, have numerous important things to do. This mind-set for management of any species will lead to a low-input ranch that can be run on just a couple hours per day.

My shift-the-workload philosophy is a product of my diverse experiences in agriculture. I have a bachelor’s degree in animal science and agribusiness from West Virginia University. I have worked on ranches in Montana and Texas, and for renowned grazier Greg Judy in Missouri. As an intern at his ranch I learned how to harness the power of nature with mob grazing.

I now own Rhinestone Cattle Co., a grass-fed beef and consulting operation in western New York. I have taken much inspiration from the work of Tom Lassiter, Gearld Fry and Ian Mitchell-Innes.

This article is written from the viewpoint of a 100 percent forage-fed beef cattle producer in the northeastern United States.

Make Your Own Rules

Your only obligations as a rancher are to provide your animals with humane living conditions, clean water and plenty to eat. All decisions above and beyond that are up to you. I’m always busy, so it’s essential to me that my cattle are able to take care of themselves. My goal is basically to move one polywire every day, then sit back and collect a check.

Pick a set of management protocols that are ideal for you, and make your animals fit into that program. Base this on how much time and input money you’re willing to spend in order to reach your desired end product and level of production. Make a list of requirements for your herd to meet.

angus calf
A Red Angus crossed with Belted Galloway, 4-month-old bull calf.

Here are some of my rules:

  • Cattle will be mob grazed and moved once per day.
  • Cattle must remain in good body condition year-round with no feed or supplements other than pasture, hay and mineral.
  • All mature females must conceive during a 45-day natural breeding season.
  • All cows and heifers must calve unassisted, without night checks.
  • No preventative health products will be given to any animal.

Breed the Toughest Cows on Earth

Once you’ve set the rules for your ranch, you need to breed cattle that are up to the job. Buy breeding stock from an operation that is run exactly like yours if possible. In that case, the animals’ durability under your style of management is already proven.

Buying from a ranch with conditions more challenging than yours is even better, as long as animals are not unhealthy or mistreated.

Avoid sale barns! You never know the genetic makeup of auction cattle or why they are being sold. That beautiful cow in the ring could be infertile, aggressive, or chock-full of grain. Buying from a private seller allows you to see the environment in which the cattle are living. You may also be able to look at multiple generations of related animals for added insight.

Linebreed! There are no social “family” relationships between cattle the way there are between people. The thought of breeding “siblings” and “cousins” together worries most ranchers and disgusts some. But when carefully controlled, there is no cause for alarm. Morgan Hartman published an excellent science-based series in defense of linebreeding. He explains that as long as no more than 50 percent of a calf’s DNA comes from any single ancestor, it’s not inbreeding. Once you have genetics that perform well on your farm under your rules, don’t stray from them. Don’t purposely scramble your progress.

The only way to pack consistent, proven genetics into your cattle is by keeping lineages uniform and intensifying them.

cattle grazing
Gearld Fry has been an enthusiastic advocate of linebreeding for decades, and he jokes, “I have yet to get a two-headed calf!”

The common practices of obsessive outcrossing and switching bulls every other year start you at genetic square one every time. Imagine this as trying to drive toward a destination in a zigzag pattern — it takes a lot longer to get where you’re going, and you end up covering a lot of extra mileage.

Linebreeding, in contrast, is like heading toward your destination in an airplane on a straight path. Hartman also insists that rampant outcrossing keeps recessive genetic defects from being identified.

I have a theory that you can build the best possible cowherd by selecting for just one particular trait: the weaning weight percentage. I regard this as the ultimate measure of a cow’s worth.

The formula for finding the weaning weight percentage is as follows: Divide the calf’s weight by the cow’s weight and multiply the answer by 100. Smaller cows always excel in this area.

A 1,000-pound cow that weans a 450-pound calf has weaned 45 percent of her weight. A 1,500-pound cow weaning a 550-pound calf has only produced 36 percent of her weight. This is due to the fact that a large cow needs more feed just to maintain her own body than a smaller cow does.

As the weaning weight percentage of your herd goes up, all other traits will fall into place. High-percentage cows will automatically have correct udders, proper hormonal function (and therefore great reproductive performance), desirable milk output, high feed efficiency, structural soundness, strong maternal instincts, clean bills of health and moderate frame sizes.

The efficiency differences between larger and smaller females are thrown into even sharper relief when you quantify the feed intake of both.

Livestock Culling: Stop Running a Petting Zoo

Your cattle should be given two choices: thrive under your rules or be culled. This philosophy puts the workload on your cattle instead of on you.

The alternative is to make excuses for inferior animals and break your back trying to prop them up. Straying from your ideal management scheme to accommodate even one problem animal is a slippery slope. Before you know it, you’ll be wasting money and running yourself ragged. Your cows will be the ones calling the shots, and you will be working for them. This isn’t a commercially viable ranch; it’s a petting zoo.

When an animal violates your rules (for example, needs calving assistance, requires veterinary attention or comes up open), do whatever is necessary to get it healthy and relieve its suffering in the short term. But as soon as possible, take it to the butcher! Don’t give it another chance to cost you money and make you miss dinner.

Producers often lack resolve in this area if the animal was expensive, has a great parent or production history, or has sentimental value.

If any calf causes you to step outside normal whole-herd management boundaries, the cow needs to go as well. Sometimes blaming a cow for a calf’s problem can be a stretch (for example, a 3-month-old calf that dies of coccidiosis). In this case, it’s hard to argue that the cow is directly at fault.

However, why did her calf get sick and no others? Someone is bound to comment that research has not proven the heritability of many things I’m recommending be culled for. But just because a theory hasn’t been proven as true doesn’t mean it’s proven as untrue. Do you really want to gamble on the possibility of propagating genetic weakness in your herd? I would rather be safe than sorry.

A rancher I met said, “I’ve sold some good cows, but I’ve never kept a bad one.”

Regardless of where the blame lies, that calf will lag behind its herdmates for the rest of its life. A study published in the Veterinary Ireland Journal (Vol. 4 No. 5) reported that calves sick for 11 days had still not compensated for the missed gain by 5 months of age. Taking that low paycheck one time should be enough to sour you on the experience.

If a calf dies, it will not give you any paycheck! Therefore, the cow must be sold in the calf’s place to make up the lost revenue. This isn’t as much a culling decision as a business management one. If being down one head bothers you, spend the sale income on a replacement.

Giving any cow a second chance isn’t worth the risk of history repeating itself. There are plenty of good cows in the world.

Keeping problem cattle dilutes the genetics you’re working so hard to strengthen. I definitely don’t think it’s worth going an entire year without income from that cow, hoping it was a one-time problem, while she continues to stuff herself on your precious grass. I must qualify my above statements by saying that your chosen rules must not predispose your herd to problems.

You can’t decide to continuous graze 50 head on a 10-acre field all summer, not deworm, and cull anything with worms. You’ll have an empty field. Do your research when choosing management protocols. Go to conferences, read articles, talk to consultants and expert producers. Discuss your goals and see what others are doing to succeed.

Hard, unbiased livestock culling is absolutely essential to the establishment of a strong herd. It goes hand in hand with intensively breeding durable, low-input genetics. Use both of these practices as tools to build a ranch on which you call the shots. Adopting this mind-set makes a herd of any size profitable and enjoyable to run.

This article appeared in the June 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Meg Grzeskiewicz is the owner of Rhinestone Cattle Co. in New York state and is a past intern of Greg Judy.

Rare Breeds: An Introduction to Randall Cattle

By Philip B. Lang

Cattle breeds can vary greatly, so finding the right one can be a challenge. Much has been said lately about breeding cattle with strong genetics for milk production on grass. This is what Randall cattle are all about.

For farmers interested in an old-time subsistence cattle breed for a homestead or small grass-based dairy, Randalls may be just the ticket. Randalls originated in Sunderland, Vermont, on the farm of Everett Randall, who, along with his father before him, kept a closed herd of cattle derived mostly from the landrace hill cattle of the area. This herd is thought to have been totally isolated for over 80 years, surviving virtually unchanged while other landrace herds across New England disappeared by being “graded up” in the first half of the 20th century.

Randall Cattle Characteristics

Randall cattle breeds have retained the excellent qualities required by their subsistence farm progenitors. My wife, Dianne, and I acquired our first Randalls 10 years ago, when only about 60 were known to exist. There are now around 130 breeders, about 30 of which live on our farm. We keep, breed, and milk our Randalls under subsistence-farm conditions. Our operation, Howland Homestead Farm, doesn’t include much improved pasture or seeded hay fields, and we don’t feed grain. Calving is unassisted, and mothers exhibit a strong, sometimes fierce, maternal instinct. Our herd has never had a metabolic disorder, and vet calls are rare. Although the first thing most people notice about Randalls is their strikingly beautiful “color-sided” lineback color pattern, the breed is unrelated to other linebacked cattle on today’s farms.

Randall cow and calf
A Randall cow and calf. Photo courtesy

Most Randalls have black markings on a white base, but as numbers increase we have also observed shades of blue, mahogany, gray, and an occasional recessive red. Size can vary a great deal, from small to medium, depending on type. We have had mature females that weigh from 600 to over 1,000 pounds. Despite some very close breeding and low numbers in the past, there are several distinct “families” or “types” within the breed. Even though they are nearly 100 years removed from their original founding group of animals, distinct Channel Island, Shorthorn and other influences can still be seen among the herd members.

Many other individuals show no similarity to modern cattle breeds, leading us to believe that these animals are showing their landrace background. Randalls have not been selected for milk production for over 30 years, so their potential when used in management-intensive grazing or other high-quality forage feeding systems remains unknown. We have hand-milked quite a few Randalls over the last decade, mostly on mediocre grass pasture and first-cutting wild hay. We have found the Randall breed’s output on a par with our dairy/beef crossbreeds.

Milker pour filter fresh milk to can
Randalls are excellent milk producers.

We aren’t sure of the butterfat content of Randall milk, but we commonly skim off from 1 to 1.5 pints of heavy cream per gallon for our own use. All of our Randalls have produced steadily throughout their lactations. We have also used Randalls and Randall crosses for beef and veal in our grass-fed meat business. Because of their long isolation from other cattle breeds, the hybrid vigor of Randall crosses on Highland and Hereford females has been phenomenal. Purebred Randalls vary a great deal in their meat characteristics, usually along family lines. Many are beefy and well marbled with white fat, while others show the leanness and yellow fat of Channel Island cattle. The use of the Randalls for beef needs further exploration and development, but to us they seem to have potential for those looking for an all-purpose breed.

Randall Cattle As Working Animals

Randalls shine when it comes to animal draft power. There is currently a high demand for Randall bull calves to train as oxen, and in the last few years several teams have been assembled, to rave reviews. Randalls are highly intelligent and willing to work, and they respond quickly to training. They remember their training for life and seem not to experience plateaus in their learning.

Randalls have increased substantially in numbers, but they are still considered quite rare. Like any rare breed of livestock, the best way to keep them going is to put them to work in the environment for which they have been bred. It is our fervent hope that the rumblings we’ve been hearing about a return to small, sustainable subsistence-type farms will create more “jobs” for Randall cattle. It is on such farms that the highly functional and self-reliant nature of the breed can reach its fullest potential. More serious breeders are needed to keep the gene pool diverse and to provide a safety net against an epizootic or other modern disaster.

This article was first published in the October 2003 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.