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Published April 29, 2013, 10:38 AM

Caring about the cows

When I was 10, my job was “chicken chores.” Feeding, watering, gathering eggs and occasionally cleaning out for a flock of 800 hens. I hated it, and the egg count showed it: maybe 60 percent yield.

By: Steve Suther, Agweek

When I was 10, my job was “chicken chores.” Feeding, watering, gathering eggs and occasionally cleaning out for a flock of 800 hens. I hated it, and the egg count showed it: maybe 60 percent yield.

I’m sure I was supposed to learn responsibility through chicken chores, but I probably needed more motivation. A few pep talks, a bonus of staying up late if the chickens laid 75 percent or more. Maybe even the explanation that this was Mom’s discretionary fund and I could help her.

But as a fourth grader, I didn’t get any of that. I was just going through the motions. Well, some of the motions. I forgot to feed them a few mornings — that meant late in the day nothing for peckish hens in some of the self-feeders — and although no chicken went hungry longer than it took to seek out a different feeder, that’s enough to derail optimum egg production.

I enjoyed the ride-alongs to count cows and put out hay or mineral, but many years from driving, I didn’t see much hope of getting into the beef cow business anytime soon.

Incidental or intentional

Are you or your employees going through the motions with your cows like I was with the chickens, or does everybody get what they can do for the farm business and for beef consumers?

I know farmers across the country who “run a few cows,” but don’t give them much attention. I also know farmers who track almost everything every cow does. Both ends range from herds of 10 cows or less to herds of 200 cows or more. They fill in the back lot or rough ground, but don’t always compete well with the nonfarm job or with corn and soybeans.

If your beef cattle production is more incidental than intentional, maybe it’s time to get excited about what you have. Nationwide, this is a declining enterprise that could see a return to glory if more producers decided to aim for higher quality.

You could elevate your herd to blue-ribbon status with more personal satisfaction, profit per head and room to expand.

That’s because there are more tools available for a family-farm scale cowherd than for a small flock of layers. You can pull them up to being more than just a commodity with some percentage target for eggs.

You control and select the genetics and keep replacement heifers that can make your herd better each generation — better in every way from maternal to growth to carcass. You control the environment with fences and water, and timed rotations on grass.

In the past year or two, DNA testing has become available for commercial cattle, to index heifers’ ability to grow and grade. Keeping the top half of your heifers based on a DNA index will position your cowherd to produce exactly what feedlots and packers want and what beef consumers want. That will add dollars to your bottom line over time.

Editor's Note Suther is industry information director for Certified Angus Beef LLC.

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