Beef cow type: Then and now
Last updated 1/3/2024 at 11:10am
This month’s article isn’t so much a Mythbuster, but a retrospective on where we’ve been with cow type and the implications of the changes over time.
As I write these lines it’s only several days before Thanksgiving. It is the holiday season and in my line of work, it is really easy to find a lot of things to be thankful for and have hope for a great future in agriculture. I’m the eternal optimist, I also acknowledge that immense stressors are facing our agricultural producers. The holiday season is a great time to reflect on where we’ve been and where we are going for the future, and I have a challenge for you all: In the new year set aside time to do what really makes you happy. It’s a great way to reset and climb back into everyday life with renewed vigor. Make taking care of your personal well-being a priority.
There is reason for great optimism. First, producers understand the opportunities, and the barriers to success. Folks like me thrive helping producers navigate the way to success. Secondly, we are stewards of the most magnificent biological machine ever created—the cow. Estimates suggest about 47% of the earth’s surface can be categorized as rangeland. Ruminants, both domesticated and wild, provide a means to convert very low-quality feeds into useful foods and fiber. The cow is the factory for the work we do, and for that we can all be thankful.
Finally, those of us that have been around the block a time or two, have seen and experienced a great evolution in cow type. Many of our seasoned producers have observed and experienced this evolution firsthand. Alternatively, our younger producers can benefit from the knowledge of where we have been and how that affects cattle production today and to provide at least a modicum of insight as to where we are headed into the future. Cow type and size affects nutrient requirements and performance of beef cows. That reality will be key to finishing the story.
Before biotechnology, as we view it today, and the moral and ethical conversations that swirl around the topic, progress and change in beef cattle was a result of selection of “ideals” and matings of cattle that focus on the apparently most economically relevant traits of the day.
Dr. Harlan Ritchie (1935-2016), Distinguished Professor of Animal Science at Michigan State University for 47 years, was the authority on cow type. Let’s take a look at Dr. Ritchie’s cow type in the 20th century:
To summarize, the 1930s to 1950s was a period characterized by intense selection for early maturing, small-framed cattle. It was a time of new terminology: baby beef, compact, compressed, and dwarfism. From 1955 to 1960, the size of cattle stabilized. In the 1960s (I can remember these times) cattle were very small framed.
In 1969 the University of Wisconsin at Madison Hereford type conference charted the course for cow type into the future. Later type conferences for Angus and Charolais were held. These conferences set the stage for selection for increased cow size but was limited to the available genetics of the day. Identifying the “ideal” beef animal had many caveats, most importantly breed differences and adaptability to various environs. The advent of USDA Yield Grading in 1965 also played into the changes in beef cattle type demonstrating the need for cattle that were not overfat at market weight and Charolais were becoming increasingly popular with feeders and packers at the time.
Let’s look at some of the “ideal” cattle for their historical period. I’m using Herefords for examples because there are many great graphical representations of preferred cattle type across time in the Hereford breed, but other breeds were following a similar path. The figures that follow show the evolution of beef cattle type comparing the industry standard in 1960 with the visionary depictions of “ideal” that came out of the Madison Type Conference in 1969. It doesn’t take much imagination to identify the limitations of the 1960 animals in both reproduction and carcass characteristics. The beef cow envisioned in 1969 had been attained in many, but not all ways (by the late 1970s) and was foundational in how the industry changed in the late 1970s through the mid-1980s. The modern beef steer has evolved a lot since 1969, but similar depictions still exist today.
With the quest for type change came the search within the British breeds for new genetics (in the U.S. and Canada) and introduction of the Continental breeds. In the late 1970s (about the time I landed at Oklahoma State University) was a time when the industry was most concerned about getting the cattle bigger. Increasing frame was the overarching goal and in some cases at the expense of soundness. This continues through the 1970s and into the 1980s when structural soundness and lack of meatiness issues were acknowledged. However, the American Hereford
Association reported significant progress in moving the breed two full frame scores larger with 70 lbs. additional weaning weight, and an additional 100 lbs. of carcass weight. From then, prioritization was for the cattle to get “thicker.” I think the 1990s into the 2000s we recognized, not necessarily the error of our ways, but rather that maybe we have the propensity to go a little (or more) too far in one direction or another when we try to change our cattle. We can charge some of that to human nature. The 2000s also saw the prioritization of calving ease in the cow/calf sector while maintaining growth traits. EPDs were a great stride forward in how we selected our breeding animals with change in mind. We were not alone, we observed similar “pains of change” experienced in sheep and pigs during the late 20th century in their quest for increased size and meatiness. The difference with cattle is, it is a long time between breeding, birth, and the time offspring enter the herd and produce. It takes a good bit of time to change, and if we go too far, it takes a good bit of time to fix it! So back to present day cattle, are our cattle getting better? I hope so, and I think so!
I have briefly described 70 years of changes in what the industry considers the “ideal” beef animal, but what does that mean for today? Does it change our perspectives, and the way we manage our cattle to do what they do best? That is, supply high quality protein to a burgeoning human population? I think so to that, too.
This is a great place to transition the discussion: Next month I will examine how the changes in the beef animal have affected beef cattle management in the 21st century.
— Don Llewellyn is the WSU Lincoln County Extension Director in Davenport. He can be emailed at [email protected]