ProfitABILITY’s Biggest Denominator of For A Cow/Calf Operation

“We wean off 600-pound calves.” It is said with pride, listeners should be impressed. Or should they?


Weaning 600-pounds can be impressive, but it is commonly mistaken as a measure for success. An operation that weans off 600-pound calves is presumed to be better than an operation that weans off 500-pound calves. 600-pound calves bring in more total money, right? Calves sell by the pound, it takes more 500-pound calves to bring in $20,000 than it takes of 600-pound calves, right?

But how much does the operation with the 600-pound calves spend to get 600-pound calves? I’m not talking about creep feed, enhancers, or anything like that. I’m talking about the most basic of expenses, the one major expense-creator that is required for a sellable product. No, not that bull that the operation spent many hours comparing EPDs and pouring over catalogs for. I’m talking about the commonly forgotten cow.

Without the cow, there would be no calf. There can even be a calf with no bull—A.I. allows that. Cows are typically in a herd for years. Regardless of what the cost is to maintain that cow, it is a required expense every year to produce a sellable product—a calf.

Because this is a set cost (can vary from year-to-year, but is going to be something), it must be incurred to produce an income. So what is the biggest expense incurred by a cow? Feed. No ifs, ands, or buts, the biggest cost is feed.

But they eat grass! Grass is free! Dream on! Grass is not free. Nothing is free. Plus, if that cow is supplemented with anything: hay, silage, grain (OMG!), anything, those costs go up even higher.

That operation weaning off 600-pound calves, may have to spend a lot more to get their calves to that weight.

Here’s the math:

Assumptions: Cows eat 3% of body weight in dry matter (hay) per day. Hay @ $100/ton. All other expenses considered equal.

600-pound Calves 500-pound Calves
Income @ $2.25 $1,350 Income @ $2.25 $1,125
1,500 lb cow expenses $821.25 1,000 lb. cow expenses $547.50
Profit Per Calf $528.75 Profit Per Calf $577.50


So the next time you hear someone brag about how big their claves are, just remember, it could be they are bragging about something that doesn’t even matter. It’s not about how much money comes in, it’s about how much you get to keep (to put where you want to, not where you have to).

One thought on “ProfitABILITY’s Biggest Denominator of For A Cow/Calf Operation

  1. Jim Gerrish

    It’s actually a little better than this when you consider the 500-lb calf will bring more per lb than the 600-lb calf. Reduce the sale price on the 600-lb calf to a more realistic $2.15/lb & the sale value of the big calf drops by $60/hd.

    Add in the probability that if the cow exists on only ranch grazing resources, the smaller cows are almost always going to show a consistently higher breeding %. If the herd of smaller cows consistently weans 5% more calves, that will add about $6,000 more calf income each year per 100 cows in the herd.

    Oh, let’s see. Longevity is generally greater for smaller cows compared to larger cows, so we don’t have to keep as many replacement heifers which gives us more calves to sell. That also contributes to the black on the bottom line.

    Jim Gerrish

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