In some ways, my cowherd is average. In other ways, it is above and in still others, below. Those things are true of each cow in my herd, too. That’s all part of what “average” means.
Usually this involves numbers like weaning weights, pregnancy percentages or carcass values of progeny. Add them up and divide by the number of cows. Just that easily, you can compare each cow to the herd average. In turn, you can compare your herd to averages from a cooperative or from government statistics.
That helps illustrate where they are above average as a group and where they need the most work, if any of the below-average numbers strike you as a need to improve. Of course, it’s great to note a below-average death loss as something to push even lower, but opinions vary greatly on the ideal cow weight.
Mature cow size also varies by region and as one northern report recently stated, the average says little without context. Cows that weigh 1,300 pounds (lb.) may be great if they wean calves heavier than the national average of about 575 lb., that go on to gain faster than three pounds per day and grade better than 70 percent Choice.
But if they fall short in any of those areas, you have work to do on genetics and management. Heck, even if they are slightly above those numbers, the market says you have work to do on the way to filling demand for outstanding cattle.
Uniformity is a big concern all along the chain. Imagine the discounts, or remember them from last fall, if your calves have little in common and must be sold individually or in very small groups. Cows that average 1,300 pounds may have herd mates from 1,100 to 1,500 pounds. That’s about as wide as most producers want for a range, so they can produce somewhat uniform calves.
Think about the problems encountered from feedlot to packer and beef marketer when beef cuts are variable in size.
Beyond weight, the range in value comes down to calves’ ability to gain and grade. Taking both of those into account, a decade of data from one Kansas feedyard found an average difference in value of about $700 from top to bottom among pen mates fed together, based on 2012 prices. Obviously that number has grown.
Records can help you find the cows that produce the lowest value calves over several years, and those can be replaced by heifers from cows that produced the highest value calves so that everyone in the beef supply chain wins.
Rather than judge any cow by what happens in one year, look at her historical average and see if any one calf is significantly above or below average, and if her calves are getting better over time. Sorting by sire groups can help isolate genetic effects, so you can see if the bull or dam deserves blame or credit.
Computer programs can convert records into a comparison index to track over time and compare to other cows. At a more complex level, computer programs provide the expected progeny differences (EPDs) at breed associations that help you select bulls that are above average in the traits your herd needs most.
Whether choosing bulls or evaluating your cows, remember that average is never a target, just a reference point.
Much is at stake in the cattle business today, as a Kansas report recently noted a cost of $1,150 to keep a beef cow for a year. Some herds go back to a collection of $100 bucket-calf heifers in the 1990s, but much has changed in the economy to where the average value of a cow exceeds $1,500 in most markets.
And when calves cost $1,500 per head with targeted end-values above $2,000, the entire system clamors for above average performance and grade.
At the other end of the beef supply chain, when beef costs five dollars or $10 per pound, every consumer demands above average satisfaction. We have all the tools and incentive we need to get it done.