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Guest Opinions

What’s Changed and What Hasn’t?

The week between Christmas and New Year’s is often a time for reflection – a chance to reflect on the last 12 months, re-prioritize and make plans for next year.   

Future planning can be very formal,  including bulleted lists, objectives, goals, family meetings and scheduled progress reports. Some planning is less structured and may only involve a discussion with the family dog.  

My own thoughts have lingered on a question that I’ve been thinking about for about a year – since the Range Beef Cow Symposium last December.  The question is important not only to my job but to our own family operation.  When you think about important topics commercial cow calf production, what has changed in the last five to 10 years, and what remains the same?  

I’ve had the great fortune of being allowed to contribute articles to the Roundup for nearly seven years.  Does every production year bring back the same questions and management issues, or are we creating new concerns?  

Here is a partial list to mull over as the new year begins.

Supplements and range nutrition

Over the past 10 to 15 years, we have distinguished between ruminally digested and bypass protein, and range supplements have included everything from nonfat dried milk to distiller’s dried grains.  

The basic requirements and metabolism of the cow hasn’t changed.  Cattle on low quality winter grass still benefit from plant-based digestible protein supplements.  Our grandfathers fed cottonseed cake, and we have transitioned to soybean meal, sunflower meal, and distiller’s dried grains, but the same principle holds true.  

We can get better intake and better utilization of winter range when we supplement protein.  We continue to debate whether the protein should be in cubes, blocks, tubs or tanks.

Taking care of the cow

One of the first papers discussing the impact of proper management of the cow during late pregnancy was by Larry Corah in 1975.  

Recent research has focused more on the long-term productivity of the offspring and created the term “fetal programming,” but the original story still holds true.  If we allow cattle to dip too low in body condition score, there may be short-term gains, but thinner cows expose us to greater risk during rebreeding. Additionally, there are indications that strategic supplementing seems to provide additional benefits through feedlot performance and heifer productivity.  

The fundamentals of body condition scoring (BCS) still hold true, and BCS is still an important management tool regardless of calving date or winter feeding program.

Over the past 10 to 15 years, I’m convinced we have witnessed some significant changes in the beef cattle industry.  Some changes are more noticeable than others, but all have had an impact on our industry.

Management and labor 

The levels of management and labor per cow have decreased. As equipment, fuel and land or resource costs have increased per cow/calf pair over the last 10 to 15 years,  as an industry we have compensated by either managing more cattle or finding supplemental work off the ranch.  The end result is that we spend significantly less labor per cow. 

This has impacted the equipment we buy, supplements we choose to use and the characteristics of the bulls that we select.  

Now when we make purchasing decisions, whether it’s feed or equipment, we always factor in labor, or labor savings, as an important component. I believe that’s a relatively recent production change.

Marketing cattle

Opportunities and avenues to market cattle continue to expand.  

Natural and age and source verified markets continue to expand. 

Video and internet auctions have not only impacted how we market our own cattle, but it has also increased accessibility for potential buyers.  What were once local cattle markets are now regional and national markets.  

Bull sales and bull prices are monitored nationally rather than locally. 

Some of the strengths of the ranching community include our devotion to the land, our commitment to the ranching way of life and our a focus on family and family traditions.  Ranching decisions should always include a family component and many of our traditional management decisions are based in sound science and are economically sound.  

The management challenges exist in recognizing new opportunities in management and marketing, while holding on to those things that are proven to work.