The Lost Liters: Rethinking Production Inefficiencies

Cutting your calving interval from 100 days to 50 should eliminate at least a third of your most inefficient cows. ( University of Nebraska-Lincoln )

My previous column ended with the phrase, “Don’t be bigger, be better.” I think it has additional relevance and application to this month’s topic. We often focus intently on increasing front-end performance that we ignore the factors that affect the total measure of performance as it relates to ranch profitability. 

Whether you measure ranch output by the animal unit or the acre, market weight is undeniably one of the primary factors in cattle profit/loss equations. For this reason, performance-related traits garner the most significant amount of selection pressure during the tedious process of assembling bull batteries. They are the proverbial elephants in the room. 


I’d like to add another commonly used phrase that fits perfectly into this month’s discussion, “You are only as strong as your weakest link.” Attacking total performance deficiencies by adding front-end terminal growth, in the form of better bulls, tends to be everyone’s initial thought or approach. However, your ability to influence growth has limitations and consequences. 

Adding more growth through genetic selection will never make up for the losses created by the grossly inadequate performance of lesser herd mates. We must benchmark total ranch performance and its effect on profitability by analyzing the entire herd, best to worst. 

If you are stymied by a plateau in your benchmark performance, a slight adjustment to strategy might be needed to get you over the hump. 

Your primary goal could be cleaning up the “back of the house” instead of another remodeling effort on the front. A significant amount of growth, in the form of pounds and then dollars, are squandered by late calving cows that cost the same to maintain annually as those that calve early and wean more pounds. Calves born outside that initial 45- to 50-day window drag your overall average down significantly. Early-born calves will tend to have a 60-lb. to 100-lb. weaning advantage over those “tail-enders.” Cutting your calving interval down from 100 days to 50 should eliminate at least a third of your most inefficient cows. 

You must look at underperforming cows and those that struggle with fertility like a piece of equipment that gets half the fuel economy of another or an assembly plant that can only produce 60% of the widget capacity of another with all the same costs. Those factors quickly find a home in the loss column on your balance sheet and reduce your total profit per acre or per head. 

Encouragingly, these “lost liters” of beef production are often easier to fix than we think. They simply require improvements in management strategies related to maternal performance and herd health. 

An increase in the rigidity of your culling practices, coupled with calculated investments in health-related products and supplements might more adequately address these back-end inefficiencies. And offer a larger improvement than increasing your expenditures for new bulls that yield limited results by themselves.