What’s the optimum cow? Like all good extension responses, the answer is, “It depends.” It depends on your business goals, feed resources, management options, market and personal preference.

Dr. Harlan Ritchie, professor emeritus, Michigan State University, wrote a review of the factors that affect cow efficiency. There is biological efficiency and economic efficiency. I will summarize the review, but I encourage you to go tohttp://www.msu.edu/~ritchieh/papers/optimumcow.html for some excellent insight into the optimum cow.

Biological efficiency

Biological efficiency is mostly related to the maintenance requirements of the cow. According to Ritchie, “High-maintenance cows tend to have the following characteristics: high milk production, high visceral organ weight, high body lean mass, low body fat mass, high output and high input. Conversely, low-maintenance cows tend to be: low in milk production, low in visceral organ weight, low in body lean mass, high in body fat mass, low-output and low-input.”

In general, this means that higher-milking breeds (Simmental, Shorthorn, dairy and crosses) will be less efficient than lower-milking breeds (Hereford, Angus, Charolais and crosses). However, with the conditions found in the Northeast, where we have abundant rain and therefore high-quality forage, there is little difference in biological efficiency between biological types.

In fact, contrary to popular belief, measures of mature cow size (weight, height, etc.) are not correlated with biological efficiency. Therefore, even with the increased maintenance requirement of larger breeds, the increased output (weaning weight or carcass weight) favors the larger biological types. The best match to our environment is the British x larger Continental.

Economic efficiency

Economic efficiency refers to inputs relative to outputs, with the goal being to decrease inputs and/or increase outputs. A study done in Montana showed that feed energy consumed per unit of weight sold was not related to profit. Crossbred cows produced greater output due to increased conception rate and weaning weight compared to straightbred dams and therefore were more profitable. F1 dams (Angus x Hereford and Simmental x Hereford) yielded consistently higher profits than either straightbred Herefords or three-quarters Simmentals, with one-quarter Simmentals being intermediate.

The above measures evaluated economic efficiency to weaning. When calves were fed to USDA low Choice quality grade and priced on carcass value:

1. Among two-breed rotations, British x British crosses were the most economically efficient, followed by British x Continental crosses.

2. Among three-breed rotations, it made little difference whether two British or Continental breeds were used in the cross.

Ritchie concludes: “Because of the beef industry’s stated need for a dramatic improvement in uniformity and consistency, one is occasionally lulled into thinking about abandoning crossbreeding and returning to straight breeding. However, the compelling evidence in this study favoring the use of the crossbred cow as a means of harvesting the significant economic benefits of maternal heterosis quickly dispels that notion.” This is as true today as it was when he wrote the article in 1991.

Table 2. Profitability of eight beef herd management systems

Table 2. Profitability of eight beef herd management systems

Production and pasture management

Research conducted at Cornell University (Andersson et al., 1990) also sheds some light on the most profitable combination of biological types and forage management. Medium and large-frame Angus cows were bred to an Angus (medium) or Simmental (high) bull. A description of the cows is shown in Table 1.

Then, based on data collected on dry matter production of four grazing management systems, several scenarios were modeled using COWHERD software (Perry et al., 1998). Each cow production group was modeled using intensive rotation (IR), with 16 paddocks moved every three to five days; moderate rotation (MR), with four paddocks moved every five to 14 days; continuous improved (CI), limed and fertilized; and continuous unimproved (CU), no lime or fertilizer.

Stocking rate was determined by forage availability to meet nutrient requirements of the cow/calf pair on a constant 110 acres. The profitability of each combination of cow production level and pasture management is shown in Table 2.

The most productive grazing system was the IR, and therefore it had the greatest carrying capacity. The high-producing cows had the highest net farm income because of the greater weaning weight and therefore production per acre was maximized. This is important, because each farm in this system has the same charge for land, buildings and equipment. Maximizing production dilutes overhead cost.

The next most profitable farm was medium cows on an MR grazing system. On a per-cow basis, the continuously grazed, unimproved pastures were second most profitable. This system had the lowest amount of input (lime, fertilizer and labor), and therefore could support a lower level of production. In all measures, the continuous improved had the lowest profitability. The application of lime and fertilizer did not increase forage yields sufficiently to cover the added cost of increasing soil fertility.

Carcass weightA10717_3

A final note on market: An ongoing research project with a New York processor is designed to determine the factors that affect retail value of beef and profitability. The carcass measurements of hot carcass weight, back fat, rib eye area, marbling, and kidney, pelvic and heart fat have been collected. At each slaughter, two carcasses are processed uniformly, prices are assigned to each cut, and total retail value of the carcass is calculated.

A regression analysis was performed using the carcass measurements to develop an equation to predict total retail value. The result of this analysis showed that hot carcass weight, back fat, rib eye area, and kidney, pelvic and heart fat explained 86 percent of the variation in total retail value. From a statistical standpoint, this is an accurate equation. Once we knew the retail value of a carcass, we then subtracted all of the production costs (feeder purchase price, feed cost, yardage, processing and slaughter) to determine profit.

Figure 1 shows the influence of hot carcass weight on profitability. There are two things we can take away from this figure. First, there is tremendous variation in profitability, even though these cattle only represent five farms. The range in profitability was -$388 per head to +$265 per head. Clearly, there is a lot of work to do in increasing consistency. The second point is that the heavier the carcass, the more profit it generates.

Producing heavier carcasses requires bigger cows or moderate-sized cows bred to a large-frame bull in a terminal cross system. While our resources can support heavier cows, there is a limit. Single trait selection on carcass weight expected progeny differences (EPDs) will result in larger calves, but if replacements are retained, the weight of the cow will increase over time to unacceptable levels.

Even for the direct marketer, who may want smaller carcasses to satisfy their customers, profitability will increase with carcass weight within the limits of market specifications.


1. In feed-abundant environments typical of the northeastern U.S., biological efficiency favors the larger biological type – Continental x British.

2. Crossbred dams (Angus x Hereford or Continental x British) were more profitable than straightbred dams due to higher production (pounds weaned per cow exposed).

3. When measuring the system from calf to finish, the British x British and Continental x British crosses were most economically efficient.

4. If profit maximization is the goal, use intensive rotation with high-producing cows.

5. Continuous grazing is not a bad word, and can be profitable when correctly stocked.

6. All things being equal (reproduction and pounds weaned per female exposed), carcass weight trumps other meat quality factors.

7. Optimize production for the market being targeted.

8. Finally, if you just like black cows against a backdrop of white fence, accept that profit is not a motivator for your farm and enjoy the scenery.