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(And why we need her)

By Chip Hines

Agriculture, both farming and ranching, is facing an upheaval of the status quo and replacing it with lessons learned from nature that brought us to this point in time. The emphasis on soil health is rightly so the most important thing facing agriculture in this country and around the world. Man now has the knowledge to begin regenerating soil health even as more is learned of the process from our successes, failures and ongoing research joined with producers willing to apply their private initiative.

Ignorance caused the destruction of soil health as well as making the cow dependent on her master. The cow became a target of assumptions based on bigger is better with no factual research backing the claim. To make it worse, and it did, was the failure of academia to see it was not working for the cow calf segment.

Since the cow is an integral part of regenerating grasslands, she should be of a type that fully compliments the program instead of a cow raised in artificial environments. The natural cow will fill that purpose.

What is a natural cow?

A natural cow is one that can exist on the forage a ranch grows, with minimal hay and supplementation and still maintain a reasonable breed up. A cow that is nearly labor free. A cow, that when combined with proper management, has a yearly cost well under the industry average. How can this be? By fully understanding the DNA she carries and using it to full advantage.

In the wild, cows were refined by natural selection. Like all wild animals their only purpose was to “survive and reproduce.” That is all except, if being prey for a predator is added. Her total DNA package was dedicated to those two items. Nothing else. Her DNA was set for light birth weights to ensure both she and offspring make it through the birthing process. A cow with low milk production that does not infringe on energy requirements to build fat reserves for breed back. A cow that is knowledgeable at selecting a diversity of forages that contain the nutrients and minerals essential for survival.

Cattle have sensors in the rumen that detect whether the plants eaten contain certain amounts of protein and energy which is sent to the brain which indicates palatability. If there is a large selection of forage plants to choose from, the animal can balance out the protein and energy to keep the rumen functioning efficiently. Cows also eat some toxic plants (Which also are nutritious and may be tap rooted to bring up minerals from a deeper source) for the secondary compounds their systems require and also self-medication. If there are sufficient nontoxic plants to mix in with the toxic, the animal is safe.

A natural cow has the proper skeletal structure for calving, walking long distances to water, and when attacked, to escape predators. A cow that could make it through extended droughts. A natural cow has a DNA base for disease and parasite resistance.

The natural cow had no need for big weaning weights, nor lots of milk, or a big rib eye, a fast weight gain, or to look a certain way according to some judge. These were man’s desires that began steering the cow away from her long path to near perfection which is never reached as changing environmental conditions dictate a slow, never ceasing, adaptation to remain a survivor.

The high cost farms and ranches, within reason, are following university research which culminated in a “university” cow. Since very few, if any, university cow herds were supposed to make a profit they had the best of everything; grass, hay, supplements, minerals etc. This created a cow dependent on a caretaker. She lived in an artificial environment instead of a natural world. This was compounded by the performance era theory, spread by universities, government research stations and especially by seedstock breeders, that bigger is better. In the seedstock industry ever larger numbers became the purpose of proving an animal’s worth to the commercial producer.

The high-performance era (1970 to present) urged producers to breed for larger weaning weights and carcass qualities. It was an assumption by universities and breed associations that since calves were sold by weight, bigger calves would be more profitable. What they did not know (or never understood the effect of) was that as calf weights increase, the selling price per pound decreases (weight-price slide is always present, occasionally severe), and must be part of management planning. In 1979, 500-pound calves were only bringing about $10 a head more than 400 pounders. What did it cost to put on the extra 100 pounds? The promoters of larger weaning weights never sat in a sale barn and watched how the real world operates. The natural cow (1,000 to 1,100, low milk production) can produce a 400 to 450-pound calf that sells at near the top of the price range before the downward price slide takes off very many dollars per head.

A friend sent this about 2016.” I was watching a couple of minutes of the Superior livestock sale going on today. I couldn't help but think of you when I saw three different lots sell almost back to back. These are all steers. Here were the results: 625 lbs. X $1.40 = $875.00…..475 lbs. X $1.70 = $807.50…..385 lbs. X $2.20 = $847.00.” Severe, but dollaring out the different per animal values even in a normal (?) situation should be done to keep in mind how little may be gained and the cost to be covered.

Though it was not known at the time, increasing weaning weights, tied in with carcass qualities made the range cow into a large, slab sided, inefficient cow. These inefficient cows did not carry enough backfat for breeding back, especially in dry times. In all, the industry lost at least 45 years heading down a dead-end trail and the seedstock industry is still refusing to accept it as fact. If they do see the truth, how do you back out carrying all the baggage accumulated while telling the commercial man they had to follow their lead for profits?

The natural cow is what now would be called a “self-starter.” In other words, “let a cow be a cow!” She knows her job well. Stand back and let her show you. Her yearly cost, with corresponding grazing management, will be dramatically lower than the university cow through lower hay and supplement needs, less labor, improved breed back, and fewer parasite chemicals.


Fred Provenza

Professor Emeritus Utah State University

“Epigenetics is the study, in the field of genetics, of cellular and physiological phenotypic trait variations that are caused by external or environmental factors that switch genes on and off and affect how cells read genes instead of being caused by changes in the DNA sequence. Hence, epigenetic research seeks to describe dynamic alterations in the transcriptional potential of a cell.”

“We've just completed studies (Exact year?) showing that calves exposed in utero to high fiber diets both consume and digest high fiber foods such as wheat straw better than calves exposed in utero to low fiber diets. Greater digestible dry matter intake is important for pregnant cows and their offspring that winter under extensive conditions on dormant forages where their energy requirements are only marginally satisfied for many months. Those cows and their offspring are likely better adapted to using dormant forages during winter.” Fred Provenza

Think about this. You, through your management, have the power to make genetic changes for better or for worse. By following or continuing nature’s tough regimen the cow can regain much of what man, through ignorance, took away.

Adopting epigenetics in cow management will set up the offspring to more likely get by with what grows on the ranch. Let’s turn the above research upside down. If the cow is wintered with high quality feeds such as alfalfa or grass hay put up at optimum time, the resulting heifer will need the same. The heifer will grow into a cow that cannot compete with a natural cow in best of times and certainly not when drought or low prices dictate a cut in costs of which hay surely will be in line by either less fed per cow or of lower quality. Cows can be conditioned to tougher times by making it a fact of life by setting her up beforehand. None of this is trying to “starve” a profit out of her as some contend. Body condition scoring will become a regular task.

While we are on the topic of making a cow more self-reliant, how about pulling chemicals used for parasite control? Chemical parasite control is lessening the natural ability of all cows in a herd to fight off parasites. Before chemicals were first used to combat parasites, cows would have had a strong response to an attack. By treating the whole herd, the cows less able to genetically combat the scourge naturally, are saved by the chemical. Heifers out of those cows pass on that liability and build numbers in the herd leading to the necessity of treatment for all. This can be undone by eliminating the chemical treatments and let the susceptible show up through lower body condition or failure to breed back and are culled. Research performed in both the United States and Australia proves there is DNA present to naturally combat stomach worms. Lice and flies are the same. Your decision.

Every time an input is used on a cow that bypasses her natural strengths, it is making her and you, a captive to that input and the Big AG Company selling it. And guess who is paying the research costs to produce a new product when the first no longer works? You are playing their game and they control the board.

It is claimed, and may be truthful in certain instances, that trying to change several traits at the same time will slow down progress. This might not be true when tying together the traits that make a natural cow. These are natural traits long embedded in her DNA that may work together when applying pressure. These may come much faster as a package if beginning with smaller type cows that were never pushed for performance. The smaller frame cows typically carry more backfat, one of the necessities for breed back.

Natural selection

“The process whereby organisms better adapted to their environment tend to survive and produce more offspring.”

Survival of the fittest

“The continued existence of organisms that are best adapted to their environment, with the extinction of others.”

“For the commercial cattleman, it has been determined that the reproductive traits are five times more important than growth traits and ten times more important than carcass traits,” (Brinks, et l., 1983b

For the cow calf producer this has not changed!

Cow Cost

Yearly cow cost is more important than cattle prices. Cattle prices are a moving value. Cow costs are a stable target with known properties. At the present time there is a wide range of cow costs across the country. What factors are involved in cow costs? Land costs, environmental conditions, land taxes, amount of precipitation, hay feeding, land type, private lease, Forest Service or BLM permits, depreciating equipment, and last but not least is management. Yes, management is the actual determiner of cow costs within a common range of environmental conditions. Two ranches located next to each other may have large differences in cow costs that can be related only to management and nothing else.

Average cow costs are now rising above the $700 to $800 mark (How high is above average?). If this was lowered to $500 how much could you stick in your pocket? Two hundred per cow x number of cows run on the ranch will get your attention. One known instance in a good environment is crowding $400. How many more could do this? Shaving $200 would be the easiest money you ever made.

Management is the key, available to anyone with incentive to move out of the status quo rut. Doing the same thing year after year with no improvement in profitability has to change. It’s up to you. Management is the process of evaluating each segment of an operation and applying different procedures than what has been followed.

Everything centers on the cow.

The first step is to tie calving time to grass green up for safety of the calf and also the natural spring weight increase benefitting her cycle of birth and breed back which is more cost effective than winter calving.

Eliminate all or as much winter hay feeding as possible. If you think it cannot be done where you live you are wrong. If ranchers in the Dakota’s can eliminate much of their hay feeding, what is your excuse? Learn how to furnish grazeable forage year around and eliminate hay altogether. If you travel the country it is common to see hay feeding in places that will make you wonder. Or if you have been told a cow needs high quality hay in the winter that is not true. Seven to eight percent protein is sufficient. Quantity is more important especially in drought times

An old cowboy said “I don’t care what it is as long as it makes a turd. If that isn’t enough, I’ll add a little protein.”

Next is grass management to assure a sufficient supply of forage during the different seasons of the year, especially winter stockpiling. Take a class and learn how rest-rotation grazing management can improve the carrying capacity of your ranch by building plant and soil health.

Discontinue making hay on your land. Graze your hay ground instead and buy in your hay needs. Sell the swather and baler that set there depreciating 10 months of the year. Let someone else pay for the fuel, repairs, and suffer the downtime and labor cost. The increased acreage of hay land will let you stock more cows which is always a goal.

The slow increase in cow size has reduced profit per acre while lessening the efficiency of her internal systems. The amount of forage required to run 100 head of 1,400-pound, heavy milking cows is sufficient to run 137 1,000-pound low milk production cows. More calves worth more per pound. Can you find anything wrong with that? Oh, yeah, you are worried that the feedlots and packers will not like your smaller calves. It is time to take care of you instead of subsidizing the feedlot and packer.

“Since high milking cows require more feed for maintenance even when they are NOT lactating – those in the stocker business DO have to be concerned about milk production and maintenance costs. A steer calf out of a high-milking cow has the same engine as his momma. He will require more feed for maintenance BEFORE he can start gaining weight. High-milk genetics are expensive and inefficient in all segments of the beef industry.” Kit Pharo.

“A University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) study compared three groups of cows of similar size and growth rate but different levels of milk production (low, medium and high). The 494 calves out of these cows were fed to a common endpoint based on marbling. Energy requirements for calves in the high and medium milking groups were 11% more than calves in the low milk group.”

“Wisconsin researchers (Davis et al.,1983) have shown that smaller cows can wean more pounds of calf per pound of feed than larger cows. This is significant in light of efficiency and the total amount of energy expended.”

“It is not how fast you go, but how smooth you go! “ Chip Hines

Fertility, bred in, not fed in, is the number one trait to increase when building a herd of natural cows. Keep back more heifers to breed than you will need. Breed them for one heat cycle and those that have all systems functioning are most likely to breed. These heifers will also have more time to recuperate for a second breeding than a heifer breeding in the second heat cycle thereby keeping a higher percent in the first cycle. (Another quandary; do you keep a heifer that breeds in the second heat cycle the second time she is bred? Or do you sell her?)

If you have more bred heifers than required, they have appreciated in value and will usually make a good profit. The opens from the first breeding can be sold according to local demand. To further the making of good cows leave the heifers on the cow and let her wean the calves while monitoring cow condition and pull all calves when a set minimum body condition score is reached. The calves grow up watching what mother eats, follow her to protection, water and so forth. Raising replacements in the same environment and management in which they will live is much cheaper than the university/seedstock, system (Expensive care) and will show up on the bottom line.

Many (Most?) animal scientists, and the majority of seedstock breeders, think they have to be making a cow do more (produce more weight in less time) instead of putting emphasis on strengthening her valuable natural traits to cut costs.

More worrisome are the scientists playing with gene manipulation which is completely unneeded as the cow only needs enlightened management to fully comprehend the power of her present genetics and how to get the full benefit of her inherited traits. Scientists tinkering with one thing may well upset something else.

A young Australian over here on a nine-month work visa was less than impressed with our lax cow culling after working on three ranches. He said “in Australia we own cows. Over here you are married to them and nearly have to go to divorce court to get rid of them!”

It has been said that 90% of your problems come from 10% of your cows.

The cost of inputs such as labor, fuel, machinery, fertilizer, parasite control, pharmaceuticals and vehicles have increased several times faster than the price of beef. The only way to get out of this rut is to at least minimize these expenses or better yet eliminate them entirely by relying on nature to do the work.

A ranch revolves around the cows and their efficiency and resiliency. They are the stars and will carry the workload if you let them. Instead of inefficient university/seedstock EPD cows, fill your ranch with natural cows that will make a difference.


From this day forward I pledge to support my tractor, pickup, hay machinery, chemical, feed and pharmaceutical dealers through good times and bad, through drought, blizzard, flood, low prices and high interest, till bankruptcy do us part. Chip Hines