Three out of Six

Last spring we bought 6 heifers off of a feedlot. When they arrived they had been on hot feed…a high protein, high energy ration plus a little hay. This was evidenced by the whole kernel corn that passed straight through them and stuck to their manure-covered tails.


But they were short, their mothers grazed-ish on fescue-ish (with a little corn) and I gave them a shot. I mean, heck. Nobody around me does grass-only beef so what difference does it make? I bought local. I rolled the dice. They were good heifers in every respect, just not raised on grass.

Fast forward 10 months. Turns out half of my heifers didn’t breed. Half.

There’s the tall, thin, tall and (did I mention) really tall Miss White (19). She is always on high alert with her head in the air. She is also the boss. Here she was the day I looked at the heifers. See that head up high? Should have walked away from that:


Here she is again. Always on high alert. She needs to go. Beyond that, she has a hollow leg. When everybody else is laying down with eyes closed chewing cud she’s still up eating. Always eating. She’s just too big for grazing.


There is the tall, tall, tall 27. Her attitude is good and you could park a truck on her wide back but she just kept growing after she came home. Up, up and away. Cows need fat to cycle. She and 19 were too busy growing up and couldn’t grow out so they didn’t cycle. Further, neither of them shed completely out last summer…and they were hot. They may simply have been off duty when the bull was on duty. Or, if they did cycle, maybe they didn’t stand. Whatever. Both are just over 2 years old now. I could understanding giving 27 another chance with the scarcity of heifers right now. We’ll see.

Then there is 70. I don’t know what 70’s deal is. She is short and looks thin but not bad…but no dice. Maybe she didn’t like the heat of August. But there really are no second chances. I don’t need lawn mowers. I need reproductive lawn mowers. And I’m not sure I have ever noticed her calling or riding or anything. Maybe she is sterile. Dunno. Will she get a second chance? Heifers are in short supply now. I’m dithering.


These really should all be fattened on spring grasses and shipped before the bull arrives again in July. I am sure we can find customers for these cows (could be you!) and turn a modest profit for our effort but that wasn’t the goal. We need calves! Fertility is the real key. I want cows that fatten quickly, sure. I want cows with a positive attitude. Sure. I want cows that bring a live calf to weaning. Sure. But before we can concern ourselves with any of that, they have to at least breed successfully! So we select for cattle that achieve fertility at an early age and breed back every year. These three cows don’t fit the bill.

But I can’t neglect that I need cows that can succeed with our native forages. Cows that succeed without supplementation…beef without the petroleum. 111 and 41 are enormous tanks and 76 isn’t bad at all. I need an army of their offspring. If they don’t get fat they won’t breed. They need to fatten quickly after calving or they won’t breed back again. Some of that is on me. Some of that is the genetic potential of the animal. There is nothing I can do about genetic potential except to select for it over time.

It stinks that I have to cull half of my herd this year but by biting the bullet now I avoid this pain in the future.

This is precisely why all of the advice from veteran grazers is to buy genetics with a proven track record on grass. It’s going to be expensive to breed away from teacup cattle. These girls have history going against them. I’m facing an uphill battle making these work on grass alone. I think the next generation should be good as the bull was developed on grass alone. Also, the next generation will be pre-disposed to my home pastures due to phenotypic plasticity. (Bring that up at your next dinner party. “Oh, yes. Suzy is doing very well in school. Probably a result of phenotypic plasticity.”)

Maybe the cows aren’t to blame. Maybe it’s me. I’ll get better cows and I’ll get better at managing cows. It will just take time. I bought two more newly weaned heifers at the end of summer last year. We’ll see what happens with them but I suspect it will be the same percentage. I’m going to have to get better…but selecting foundational stock now ensures that my cows are all easy keepers.

16 thoughts on “Three out of Six

  1. “I don’t need lawn mowers. I need reproductive lawn mowers.”… quote of the day…

    And as far as 3 out of 6 depends on how much you paid for the 6 in total? “Good grass genetics” after shipping and time is going to cost you at least $2000 to as high as $3500 a head (bred). And you also have to take into account the amount of NPK your “lawn movers” have put down for you for “freeeee.” Also don’t forget momentum.

    I spent A LOT of money last year buying “good genetics” and I’ll have no idea if it will pay of in the long run. One can only hope. But I’m in the position where I have more cash flow than time on my hands. I know it’s an odd “problem” to be in. But a problem none the less. So buying someone else’s time and hardwork is appropriate for me right now. It’s dynamic. It all depends on your personal preference and individual circumstances.

    I’ve been reading your blog for a while. And I have no doubt in my mind that whatever choice you make it is well thought out and attacked from every angle. You will go far sir.

    • Thanks Charles. Your approach is buying time. I have approached it by buying high-quality stock in volume and hoping for the best.

      This year’s calf crop, small as it is, should be great. I have high hopes. Next year’s calves will come out of the same bull and I think he’s a good, hard working boy who to this point has thrown consistently small calves. I would like to buy some of his daughters. I need to get over there soon…

  2. Good one. Good for me to hear talk like this. I can’t keep up on much reading on the cattle side and so this helps. How much did you pay for those 6? And what were they calling them, ‘red angus’ or just ‘red’ or what?

    • I paid $1500 for each heifer. They are registered (well, not currently registered) shorthorns. I think we’ll go ahead and register the three that bred.

      Shorthorns come in three colors. Red, White and Roan. You can find a book of that name from the 19th century for free online detailing the history of the breed.

      I like shorthorn for their shorthornness but they are often used in crossing. Lasater used shorthorn when crossing up the Beefmaster breed. Salatin said he used shorthorn early on in his herd.

  3. phenotypic plasticity. If I can just remember it long enough to bring out the next time out in public…
    I’ll probably be saying “when I was in NZ/Aus” for ages, but…in NZ, I was able to see in person that yes indeed, as I had read, virtually ALL of their beef and dairy is entirely grass fed. They use baylage in the winter, but their animals live out year round. Beef appeared to be mostly Angus or Hereford, some shorthorn. Dairy was mostly Holstein (they call them Fresians, but similar or same breed), plenty of Jerseys, and more than a few Ayreshires. It may have been wishful thinking on my part, but I thought the Fresian/Holsteins looked smaller than the same girls here. Grazing techniques are a whole nother topic – I suspect it’s a big issue in farming circles there, as they are badly affected by drought in some regions. When I commented on the grass fed thing, the farmer I was chatting with said no one could afford to raise beef there if they fed corn. So aren’t they lucky? Any poor sod of a farmer can buy cattle bred for grass, because that’s pretty much all the cattle in the country.

    • I think you judged them correctly. I found a study comparing North American and NZ genetics.

      “The NA90 strain had a heavier mature body weight, and their older age at puberty suggested either that they mature later or that, under pastoral conditions, their growth rate is limited by their inability to consume sufficient metabolizable energy as grazed pasture, with a consequent delay in puberty.”

      • Interesting study. From 2007 I noticed. Clearly practically no one in NZ is feeding grain in any kind of quantity right now, so was it decided to maintain rather than increase the body size as a result of these measurements? I read an article while I was in Australia commenting on a trend toward 3 times a day milking and using GM seed to increase pasture nutrition to make more frequent milking possible.

  4. On shedding – Pharo Cattle Co says “An animal’s ability to shed off early in the spring is another very good indicator of health and well-being. The late Jan Bonsma had much to say about this subject. Among other things, he said, “In selecting livestock for functional efficiency there is no single factor which can give such positive results as early hair shedding. Animals can shed their hair early in the spring only if they are well adapted to their environment, are in good nutritional status, and have the correct hormonal balance.” “

    Second strike – flighty cows do not gain as well as placid ones. You note that Miss White is often on high alert – this brings to mind Temple Grandin’s research on whorl pattern and temperament have you ever read any of her work on this or handling facilities? It is interesting. Smry diagram at I am curious if Miss White has a whorl on her forehead and how the whorl theory applies to the rest of your herds temperament.

    Culling can be a ruthless task and you have to keep the focus on your plan. I remember a story my ex told that shocked me. His family had a 7,500 acre ranch with 750- 1,500 cattle, mostly high priced purebreds back in the crazy glory days of the 70’s-80’s with tax write off’s of livestock creating insane prices (i.e. one of their top sales was a 50% share of a bull selling for $250,000). Like Dawn’s comment on No Corn fed down under, no corn really fed here because we are not warm long enough to grow it. Cattle were raised on grass with a bit of oats in the harsh Cdn prairie winter. They sold their cows, bulls, semen, and embryos throughout Canada, USA, South America and Aus/NZ. The ex enjoyed sales and traveling so that was his job and he made a cow delivery one time to Texas. As he pulled into the farm he noticed a cow calving in the field and having a hard time. He hurried to the yard to tell the rancher they needed to go pull a calf and the rancher grabbed his rifle and went and shot her on the spot. He did not want any cows in his herd that could not calf on their own nor their offspring.

    Fast forward from the ranch to culling in our next life on an Arctic Char indoor recirc Aquaculture farm – about ¼ million fish in various mrkt sizes. Brood stock manually stripped of eggs, fertilized and raised in incubators. Once the eggs are “set” you start culling eggs out through hatch. Swim Up Fry are then placed in troughs and once well established on feed they are graded 1/3 large, 1/3 medium 1/3 culls. Repeat in Fingerling stage, etc. You cannot waste your time, limited space of expensive fiberglass tanks or feed on stock that doesn’t fit your program whether a fish or cow. Cutting your losses is easier with fish in a way as you are spending money everyday on their feed and running state of the art water bio-filtration re-circulation systems with mthly power bills to remind you of the cost. Culling cows eating grass Mother Nature provides (now that winter is over) in fence that was likely paid for yrs ago with a bit of cost of minerals – not so in your face everyday though a necessary task.

    Back to your herd – these cows were not intended for the deep freezer but your foundation breeding stock. As Charles commented above we know you will examine this from all angles and act accordingly. Keep us posted on your thought process and result – it is always interesting to see the makings of foundation and development decisions – thanks!

    • I am familiar with both of your examples. To give it a little more, Greg Judy gives a full page of culling tips. I believe, though I can’t locate it, he says to cull anything that hasn’t shed by June. He’s only about 3 hours west of me so that must apply here.

      However, last year I was uncertain that they were fuzzy because of bad genetics or if that was the expression of a deficiency. Looking through Judy’s cull list again, they need to go.

      Steve, my milking friend/mentor suggested I bring home a load of holstein steer calves to bulldoze and improve my pastures while I’m building my herd genetics. That could be totally awesome…to have a herd of 1,600 pound black and white elephants out there! Talk about impact!

  5. For what it’s worth, I think you’re doing the right thing. We raise goats and never culled the herd even when we knew we should. And now we’ve got a herd full of bad genetics that we’re going to have to cull aggressively. From here on out no one stays unless they are naturally resistant to internal parasites, kid easily and have a good disposition. Over time our whole herd should have those qualities. I wish I’d just bitten the bullet in the early days and culled properly.

      • Knowing the longevity that is in YOUR bloodlines with a great aunt in her 90’s who still has cows, and with your passion for stewarding and fertilizing your farm – you could be at it for another 50+ yrs! Might be a good idea to get out the spoonful of sugar now, take your medicine and build on a good foundation lol

  6. Ouch! You would think if they were acidotic the pH would have been adjusted by breeding time. But who can follow around a herd of skittish heifers waiting for them to pee so you can check their pH?

    Sorry about that…I have found heifer to be a delicacy 😉 You’re in the beef business a little early is all.

    • Yup. That’s how we see it too.

      But I think there is more to the story. My own ignorance, the condition of my pastures, the heat and drought last summer…all of these play a part. Maybe I should have kept the bull for 90 days and sold springing heifers that didn’t calve by a certain date. Maybe there was nothing I could have done. I don’t know.

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