While it may seem obvious, it takes a mother cow to create a calf that will become beef. But when you are trying to raise the best beef in the most efficient way possible, you’ve got to take your time to select the best female calves (known as “heifers”) to be mothers. A crummy mother will give you a crummy calf.
So how does a rancher go about selecting a good mother cow? While everyone does not go about it the same way, there are a few major considerations in selection.
1) Is she fertile? A cow is only useful if she raises a calf. A cow that does not raise a calf every year is wasting resources, which increases a ranch’s environmental footprint and decreases its profitability. At a basic level, we check all our replacement heifers to make sure they aren’t an infertile “freemartin”, which is a heifer born twin with a bull that is naturally sterile. Then we only allow them two opportunities to mate with the bull (which means the heifers are with the bull 45 days). If they can’t get pregnant that quickly, they are out. This means only the most fertile cows stay on our place.
2) Is she fertile? This point cannot be overstated. No baby=no money and wasted resources.
3) Is she structurally sound? We want heifers that are going to last for a long time in our herd (beef cows can live for 10-14 years, though they are less efficient with resources after 10). This means they have to be put together well, with no deformities. In addition, they should be about two years old when they calve, and be 55 to 65% of their mature body weight by the time we want to breed them.
4) Does she fit the environment you raise cattle in? This goes back to using resources efficiently. Where you live and how you manage your cows makes a huge difference in what they should look like. Cows that live in the lush pastures of southern Iowa have ample grass in a small area. Consequently having a bigger cow works there. However, if the cows will live on a ranch in southwest Wyoming, grass is sparse and so is water. Because cows have a long ways to travel, they need to be smaller. This is one of a host of examples where cows will be different from ranch to ranch.
5) Does she have a nice demeanor? If you’re going to have a cow around for 10 years, you want her to NOT have a burning desire to gore you into the ground like a child’s heel over a big black ant on the sidewalk. Cows can be very, very mean and are 6 to 8 times bigger than people, so it is essential that they have a good disposition. Otherwise, you might get killed (which sadly happens every year).
This is certainly not an all-inclusive list. It doesn’t even include some of the factors we use on our ranch to select heifers for breeding. But it does illustrate how each cow is on a ranch because she is one of the best females that we raised the year she was born. And by holding our cows to these standards year after year, we continuously improve our herds to make them more efficient and therefore more profitable.