Raising Cattle that Fit the Box

“Fit the box”.  I’m sure it means cattle that conform to a certain set of criteria but let’s take it literally as it will serve the rest of the post.  Cattle that fit the slaughter box.

Click image for source.

Mechanization requires standardization.  Anything that deviates from what is expected lowers the efficiency of production.  Cattle slaughter is, largely, a mechanical process.  You can see much of the detail on Youtube.  I’ll give you a link in a second but only click if you feel like you should.  There are some rough places in this video that are challenging to our modern cultural norms.  If you do click through, pay attention to how similarly sized every animal is.  They all look the same hanging in the cooler.  Again, don’t click this if you just ate breakfast (Jeff).  You should watch the whole video but the important part starts at the 5 minute mark.  Here’s the link.

I may not produce for the commodity market but it pays to produce what the most common buyer will consume.  The most common buyer wants more of the same.  (Because their customers want whatever they see pictured in the magazine.  I think this is because nobody knows how to cook…they just know how to follow instructions.  It has to look like it does in the book or they get lost.  That’s another discussion.)  To fit the dis-assembly line the packer wants generally the same size of animal.  If there is little difference from one cow to the next, there is little need for adjustment.  They may buy larger or smaller animals but only at a discounted price.  Imagine if a plant was set up for the 650-900 pound carcass and we brought them a monster 3,500 pound bull!  They wouldn’t want it.  It wouldn’t fit in the conveyor from the video above.  Similarly, if we take them a 600 pound steer…that’s too small.  It might turn around in their handling equipment.  They may be more willing to take the steer over the bull but either one will be sold at a discount.  It doesn’t fit their program.  It doesn’t fit the box.

So what prompted this post?  Why can’t you ship dexter cattle to stockyards?

The lower body weight of a dexter equates to a lower feed requirement for maintenance. That means you can pack more in per acre. But we run into a problem when we ship a frame 00 cow to a packer that is used to seeing frame 6 or frame 7 cows…nearly 20 inches of difference. Cattle typically slaughter at 65% of live weight.  That means a 500 pound frame 00 heifer will yield a 325 pound carcass.  An 1100 pound frame 6 heifer will yield a 715 pound carcass.  The smaller has half the t-bone…half the hamburger per kill!  The cuts themselves are smaller.  It may taste great, it may grow well, it may be feed-efficient raising more overall pounds per acre but…what do you do with the ones you don’t direct retail or sell as breeding stock? Here in Illinois I have to pay a fee (tax) per head of livestock slaughtered. The more pounds of beef I can divide that cost over, the lower the percentage cost. So, as a businessman and a grazer, I have to find that happy medium between an elephant cow that can’t eat enough forage to re-breed and a mouse cow that is fat, slick and fertile but won’t fit the box. I’m content to stay with frame 3-4 cows and keep looking for frame 2 bulls.

What is all this Frame Score nonsense?

I’ll let the American Angus Association take care of that as they were the first search result.  Look through the table and compare a mature frame 4 cow to a mature frame 4 bull.  The cow is 50″ at the hip, the bull is 54″.  Go down basically 2 inches on each and we’re at frame 3.  You understand?  So there’s a 4 inch difference between a frame 4 bull and a frame 2 bull.  Now, keep going down on the scale at this site and you’ll see where dexters usually come in.  Here’s an illustration of overall size differences between cattle (click the image for another, slightly different breakdown of frame scores by hip height).

Click image for source.

There is no way a frame 7 bull would last on fescue and weeds at my farm.  He would need more concentrated fuel to keep weight on.  Without concentrated feed the poor animal will spend most of the day just trying to ingest enough forage to maintain weight, robbing it of valuable time ruminating and digesting that forage.  It could be possible if I maintain very high quality forage in all paddocks but by doing so we’re giving up our unfair advantage…cheap grass.  At the other end of the spectrum are the miniature breeds.  They will quickly fill their rumen and lie down to work on digestion.

But, wouldn’t it be fun to run fifty 2,200 pound frame 7 bulldozers across my pastures!  It might also be fun to run 2 dexters per acre through a grazing dairy…if I could find appropriately adjusted attitudes.  But the most fun of all is paying my bills with cash to spare.  To come out ahead grazing, I need a cow that will raise a calf every year on minimal inputs, eating medium-quality grass and needing a minimum of labor.  The calf has to be sized to sell to the widest possible consumer base for the sake of price stability and market predictability.  The cowmen near me who have done this successfully for years suggest I should be shopping for frame 3 to 5 cows.  I’m inclined to take their advice.

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4 thoughts on “Raising Cattle that Fit the Box

      • And it is unfortunate that we have so little control over the paradigm. And doesn’t take into account that the old paradigm maybe better.

        Thanks for a great article.

        • Yeah, you know I think I mis-quoted my wife. “You have to produce to fit the current paradigm with an eye on what’s next.” We think smaller cows are the future…but smaller and tiny are different. Tiny may be the ultimate future but it’s too far off to be viable today.

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