Cattlemen chasing more milk traits may be leaking profit |

Cattlemen chasing more milk traits may be leaking profit

Matching cows to the environment has a strong impact on profitability.
Photo by Teresa Clark

Producers selecting beef cattle for milk may be throwing away more than they are gaining, according to a University of Nebraska animal nutritionist.

Travis Mulliniks told cattlemen during the University of Nebraska Gudmundsen Sandhills open house that many breeds have selected heavily for milk since the 1990s. Compared to the 1970s Holstein, the Angus breed produces more milk now at a higher quality.

“We are chasing more and more milk in some breeds, but how does that impact cow-calf profitability?” Mulliniks asked.

Referring to a study out of Iowa and Illinois, Mulliniks discusses the two largest drivers of profitability in a cow-calf operation. Feed costs create a 50 percent variation in profit, and depreciation costs are 70 percent. At 5 percent, calf weaning weight is one of the lowest. “What that means is we are chasing output traits of that calf that are maternal traits, like milk, to increase survivorship greater than 50 percent,” he said. “But it doesn’t pay. Moving forward, we need to find ways to increase productivity and decrease costs. By selecting for milk, we may be doing the exact opposite. We’re increasing costs without getting that productivity out of them.”

Mulliniks also showed some data from 2015 surveying Nebraska and South Dakota ranchers for profitability. The study looks at the top 35 percent of producers and the bottom 20 percent of producers. Looking at cost of production, Mulliniks said the most profitable producers had $22 per head less in costs than the bottom 20 percent. The most profitable producers were weaning 50 pounds less calf, but are more profitable by keeping their cost of production down.

Integrated Resource Management data indicates the top five ways that low cost producers have reduced costs is by reducing supplemental feed costs, improving grazing management and using the right genetics. “They really all go together. If you improve grazing management, you can reduce your feed costs, and if you improve your genetics, you can reduce feed costs,” Mulliniks said.

Almost 70 percent of the feed energy needed to produce an animal from conception to slaughter comes from the cow-calf side in basic cow maintenance costs and body function. “There is a lot of energy we are putting in cows to get that slaughter animal,” he said. “It is an inefficient maintenance system, and we are selecting animals that are bigger and produce more milk that have even higher maintenance costs. That is why it is becoming more important to select cows that fit the environment.”


“Reproduction is the main limiting factor for production efficiency in the cow herd,” Mulliniks said. “It is five times more economical than growth traits from the cow side. It is more economical than selecting for calf body weight or milk production. Weaning that calf brings in a lot more money than selecting for traits to increase calf weaning weight by 5-10 pounds or milk production.”

Producers should consider the amount of milk produced by the cow and when she is producing it. There are a lot of calving seasons, and milk production will differ during those different seasons depending upon the amount of energy available to the cow when she is lactating. “The amount of nutrients available at that peak lactation time will differ depending upon the season. Producers should consider matching the genetic potential of the cow to the forage resources available at those time points,” Mulliniks said.

The nutrient requirements for a 1,200 pound cow producing 23 pounds of milk at peak lactation will be highest 60 days after calving when she is also trying to rebreed. Comparing a March versus May calving herd that milks 22, 26, and 30 pounds of milk at peak lactation, both groups are in a negative energy deficit going into breeding, which means they are milking more than the nutrients are supplying in the forage. In the May herd, even the cow that milks 22 pounds, which is considered low in today’s standards, is already in a deficit, he said. “The amount of milk selected for in a summer calving herd has to be much lower than a time point when we have much higher quality forage,” he added.

Mulliniks said high milk production and low quality forage were contributing factors to a low pregnancy rate amongst beef cows in 2018. “If you look at a cow that milks 10 pounds and one that milks 20 pounds a day, as forage quality declines, the forage intake needed to meet her requirements increases. We were trying to rebreed cows at 4-8 percent crude protein, so that cow milking 20 pounds a day has to eat 30-plus pounds on a dry matter basis to meet her requirements. For a cow that size, she is probably eating around 26-28 pounds. As forage quality declines, these cows that milk more can’t eat enough to make up the difference. She loses more body weight to make up that deficit,” he said.

“The other thing to consider is there’s a limit to the amount of milk production your environment can stand,” Mulliniks said. “Since 1972, weaning weight has increased, according to genetic trends. We are selecting for more and more growth in our offspring, but when you look at it in terms of phenotypic data collected since 1991, weaning weight has not changed in these data sets. There is a lot of potential for growth, but when you look at actual growth we are not getting it. Why? There are only so many nutrients in our forage systems to provide enough to achieve these growth potentials. We can select for more and more growth, but we can only get so much out of our environment. If you use weaning weight as a proxy for reproduction, reproduction in the U.S. has not changed in the last 30 years,” he continued. “Calf weaning weight is not changing, reproduction is not changing, but our costs of production are increasing. We have to consider what type of cows we have and are they fitting our environment?” ❖

— Clark is a freelance livestock journalist from western Nebraska. She can be reached by email at


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