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Kris Ringwall, livestock specialist and director of the Dickinson Research Extension Center, far right, looks over heifers at the Central Grasslands Research Extension Center in Streeter, N.D., on Nov. 1, 2017, with attendees of a workshop on cow profitability. (Jenny Schlecht/Agweek)

Bigger isn't always better when picking profitable cows

STREETER, N.D. — No one goes into the cattle business to lose money. But Kris Ringwall, livestock specialist and director of the Dickinson Research Extension Center, believes ranchers may be able to make more money if they heed the results of research into what makes a cow profitable.

Ringwall put on the first of four "SmartBeef Continuing Education: What Makes a Profitable Cow?" workshops at the Central Grasslands Research Extension Center in Streeter, N.D., on Nov. 1. The Central Grasslands Research Extension Center will host the workshop again on Nov. 8, and the Dickinson Research Extension Center will host it on Nov. 9 and 16.

Heifers belonging to the herds of the Dickinson Research Extension Center spent the summer in Fargo at North Dakota State University's Beef Cattle Research Complex, eating and being studied. Due to drought-related feed shortages in Dickinson, some of the heifers are spending the winter at the Central Grasslands Research Extension Center. Ringwall explained that gives more people the unusual opportunity to see the heifers and learn from them.

"We're trying to combine the concept of touching and seeing these cows and at the same time, looking at the data and trying to see what that means in terms of dollars and cents in our pocket books," he said.

The first step at the workshop was for attendees to walk out into the corrals and pick groups of heifers to represent their herd or their potential herds. That was done without the benefits of data or weights.

Back in the classroom, Ringwall passed out all the information they had on the heifers — including birth weights, weaning weights, projected mature weights and information on their growth efficiency.

Ringwall explained there often is an unconscious bias to select bigger animals. But that doesn't mean bigger is better.

The difference between the "herds" that averaged 1,500 pounds and "herds" that averaged 1,200 pounds, Ringwall showed, can mean serious money.

Research has shown that cattle eat 2.2 percent of their body weight every day when properly maintained, and that doesn't change across sizes. So, a 1,200 pound cow will eat 9,636 pounds of feed in a year, compared to 12,045 pounds for a 1,500 pound cow. That means it would take the same amount of feed to maintain four 1,500 pound cows as it would to maintain five 1,200 pound cows.

Ranchers often are reluctant to consider moving toward smaller cows, given that they tend to wean smaller calves. But Ringwall showed that, given that 20 percent more cows can be fed on the same amount of feed, the smaller cows weaned off more pounds of calves overall.

"The cow is this unit that is eating," Ringwall said. "I can push her size down and still make money on the calves.

The Dickinson Research Extension Center has two cow herds: the "beef" herd of cows that have about 1,400 to 1,450 pound mature weights and the "range" herd of cows that have 1,100 to 1,200 pound mature weights. The range herd has shown itself to be more profitable since it can accommodate more cattle on the same amount of feed. Over 2013-2015, the beef herd made $106,603, compared to $117,518 from the range herd when stocking rates were adjusted to match.

Sire selection also is key, Ringwall said. Using bulls with more growth potential on the smaller cows can help make up some of the difference in final calf sizes.

Ringwall does not advise ranchers to sell off their herds to restock with smaller animals. Rather, he wants cattle producers to be more cognizant of cow size and how it affects their bottom line. Eastern North Dakota ranches may have more feed available and may be able to keep slightly larger cows, while western North Dakota's drier climate likely requires smaller animals. However, Ringwall said the ideal size for profitability seems to be 1,200 to 1,300 pounds..

"Our challenge is always to present something that perhaps saves money, something that gives them a little more dollars to work with and ensures that maybe in the next several decades they'll still be here," he said.

For more information about attending one of the remaining workshops, visit