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Publication #AN233

Managing Beef Cow Efficiency1

T. D. Maddock, G. C. Lamb, and D. D. Henry2


Optimizing the efficiency of beef cattle production can be complicated because of the many variables going into the equations that attempt to effectively represent breeding herd efficiency. Efficiency basically measures the inputs needed to create a desired output. In the case of a beef breeding herd, the output is generally regarded as the pounds of calf marketed, whereas the inputs are resources such as feed and labor. Thus, the goal of producers should be to attain as many pounds of calf to market utilizing the least amount of resources possible. The two factors that contribute to beef cow efficiency are reproductive efficiency and feed efficiency. Beef herds that reproduce efficiently will have more pregnant cows, which will result in more calves and thus more pounds available to be marketed. Feed is the largest expense in beef production; therefore, cows that have greater feed efficiency will produce more pounds of saleable calf at less cost.

There are several factors that will affect both reproductive efficiency and feed efficiency in cows, and most of these are related to nutritional demands, diet, and body condition.

The mature beef cow will prioritize dietary energy use as follows (Short et al. 1990):

  1. Basal metabolism (feed for maintenance)

  2. Physical activity (walking to water, grazing, etc.)

  3. Growth (especially in younger cows)

  4. Supporting energy reserves (body condition)

  5. Maintenance of pregnancy

  6. Milk production

  7. Adding to energy reserves (measure by body condition score change)

  8. Estrous cycle and initiating pregnancy

  9. Storing excess energy

The dietary requirements of the cow are dependent upon maintenance needs, stage of pregnancy and lactation, and body condition score. Reproductive performance is directly related to meeting these nutritional needs, or the cow may not cycle on time, resulting in cows that become pregnant later in the breeding season or cows that fail to become pregnant at all. In order to successfully manage beef cow efficiency, it is important to consider several key points.

Cow Weight

Cow weight is a very important consideration when discussing beef cow efficiency. This is covered extensively in the EDIS publication Relationship of Cow Size to Nutrient Requirements and Production Management Issues ( (Hersom 2009). Briefly, as a cow's weight increases, the amount of feed she must consume for maintenance also increases. If she is unable to eat enough for maintenance, she will start losing weight, usually in the form of body condition. At this point, feed supplementation is necessary or reproduction can suffer. Either scenario results in decreased profit. In a mature cow, for every 100 pounds of additional body weight 500–550 lbs of additional dry matter (DM) intake per year is required. Table 1 illustrates daily DM intake requirements based on stage of production along with the estimated yearly DM intake totals compared to a 1200-pound cow.

Using these numbers and making some assumptions, annual feed cost differences may be estimated. Assume that: 1) hay is valued at $140 per ton at 88% DM; 2) supplement is valued at $260 per ton at 90% DM; and, 3) mineral supplements are valued at $830 per ton. In addition, assume that over the course of the year the as-fed diet will consist of 90% hay and 10% supplement and cows will ingest 4 ounces of mineral mix per day. This example demonstrates differences in the cost of feed among differing cow sizes.

Feed, in this example, would cost $152 per ton and contain 88% DM. This calculates to $172.73 per ton of DM or $0.086 per pound. Mineral adds $0.11 per day to the cost. The yearly feed costs for cows of differing weights are shown in Table 2.

As previously stated, feed costs are the largest variable cost in beef production. Table 2 illustrates that as cow size increases, feed costs do as well. In this example, the 1400-pound cow had 10% greater feed costs than the 1200-pound cow. While the $36 difference may seem inconsequential, it becomes more significant across 100 or 300 cows, and could be the difference in a cow returning a profit, breaking even, or losing money for the cattle enterprise.

In order to make up for the increase in feed costs, larger cows must return more income, either by being more reproductively efficient or by weaning heavier calves. In times of abundant feed, larger cows generally will return more pounds of calf at weaning. In times of limited feed supplies, however, such as a drought, the larger cow can actually wean a smaller calf compared to her lighter-weight contemporaries. This was demonstrated in two herds at the University of Florida North Florida Research and Education Center in Marianna (Figure 1). Herd 1 had cows that weighed approximately 100 lbs less than herd 2, yet the weaning weights of herd 1 were greater than herd 2. In addition, the percentage of calf weaned compared to the weight of the calf’s dam (weaning efficiency) was greater in herd 1 than herd 2. The net result was that calves from herd 1 realized a value of $510 at weaning compared to $450 for calves from herd 2.

Figure 1. 

Cow body weights and calf weaning weights in two herds at the University of Florida North Florida Research and Education Center, in Marianna, FL.

[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Figure 2. 

Weaning efficiency (percentage of calf weaned compared to weight of the dam at weaning) and value at weaning of calves weaned in two herds at the University of Florida North Florida Research and Education Center, in Marianna, FL.

[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

It is possible that the nutritional requirements of both cows and calves were not being met with the available forage, and reductions in milk production may have adversely affected calf performance, more so in the larger cows. These data demonstrate that larger cows do not always wean heavier calves, especially in times of limited nutritional resources. Based on earlier assumptions, the heavier cows at this location were certainly less efficient than their lighter-weight contemporaries.

Milking Potential

Milk is an important consideration in evaluating the efficiency of the beef cow. Milk production is highly correlated to levels of feed intake. Table 3 reflects DM intake requirements for cows of different milking levels according to the NRC (2000).

Based on the data presented in Table 3, a high milk producing cow will need about 703 pounds more DM per year than the low producing cow. Many producers will select for greater milk when choosing herd sires and replacement heifers in order to maximize nursing calf gains. Early calf growth is affected by cow milk production (Clutter and Nielson 1987), but Ansotegui et al. (1991) found that calf gain after day 60 of lactation was as much a function of calf forage intake as dam’s milk production. If available feed is not adequate to meet lactation requirements, the cow will begin to use body condition to meet her energy needs. The result can be sacrificing future reproductive activity and, ultimately, stopping lactation, which can have an adverse effect on calf performance. Consequently, producers who select for high milk production should have abundant feed resources available.

Using the data presented in Table 3, a feed cost example can be calculated. Using the same feed costs presented earlier (90% hay and 10% supplement) that was valued at $68.03/ton of DM, the high milking cows feed would cost about $24 more per year than the lower milk producing cow.

Body Condition Score

Body condition score (BCS) may be the most underutilized tool in the beef producers' toolbox (Kunkle et al., 1997). Assessing the herd average BCS relative to stage of production and feed availability gives producers useful information about how to nutritionally manage the beef breeding herd. Both reproductive efficiency and lactation are affected by the cow’s body condition. Cows that are thin at calving can suffer due to the subsequent demands of lactation. This can lead to reduced milk production and will often extend time to rebreeding or can result in a failure to become pregnant. Conversely, a cow herd that has excessive BCS may have access to an abundance of feed, and the producer may be able to better manage feed resources, reducing feed costs.

Table 4 presents the results of a study where spring-calving cows were assessed for BCS immediately prior to calving and the percent of those cows that cycled during the subsequent breeding season. The data is broken into early and late calving groups. These data simply illustrate the influence of body condition on post-calving reproductive performance.

From an efficiency of production standpoint, it might be best to change BCS in cows during the period immediately following weaning. This stage of production is when cows are at the lowest plane of nutritional need, and will more easily gain body condition and can do so using lower quality feedstuffs. Producers who target an average BCS of 5–6 at calving should assess BCS at weaning and make the necessary adjustments to the diet at that time to bring cows to the desired BCS at least 2 months prior to calving. Trying to increase body condition in cows during late pregnancy requires a diet higher in energy and will be more costly. According to the NRC (2000), in order for a 1200-pound, non-lactating cow in early- to mid-pregnancy to gain one body condition score in 60 days, that cow will have to consume daily 21.8 pounds DM, 12.6 pounds (58%) TDN and 1.38 pounds (6.3%) of CP (DM basis). Conversely, to increase one BCS in 60 days during late pregnancy, the same cow will require 23.5 pounds DM, 13.9 pounds TDN (59%) and 1.74 pounds CP (7.4%; DM basis).


Optimizing long-term beef cow-herd production efficiency is important to profitability in any beef cattle operation. In Florida, where feed and forage availability can be variable, matching cow size and milk to the available feed resources is important to the profitability of the beef enterprise. Understanding the importance of BCS in relation to stage of production could potentially result in more pregnant cows, return more pounds of calf at weaning, and lower feed costs. Increasing long-term beef cow-herd production efficiency will result in more profitable years and increase the value and sustainability of the beef cow herd.

Literature Cited

Ansotegui, R.P., K.M. Havstad, J.D. Wallace, and D.M. Hallford. 1991. Effects of milk intake on forage intake and performance of suckling range calves. J. Anim. Sci. 69:899-904.

Clutter, A.C. and M.K. Nielsen. 1987. Effect of level of beef cow milk production on pre- and post-weaning calf growth. J. Anim. Sci. 64:1313 -1322.

Hersom, M.J., 2009. Relationship of Cow Size to Nutrient Requirements and Production Management Issues. UF/IFAS EDIS Pub. AN226.

Kunkle, W.E., R.S. Sand, and D.O. Rae. 1997. Effects of body condition of productivity in beef cattle. UF/IFAS EDIS Pub. SP144.

NRC. 2000. Nutrient Requirements of Beef Cattle (updated 7th ed.). National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.

Pruitt, R.J., and P.A. Momont. 1988. Effects of body condition on reproductive performance of range beef cows. SD Beef Rpt. CATTLE 88-11. Department of Animal Sciences, South Dakota State University, Brookings.

Short, R.E., R.A. Bellows, R.B. Staigmiller, J.G. Berardinelli, and E.E. Custer. 1990. Physiological mechanisms controlling anestrus and infertility in postpartum beef cattle. J. Anim. Sci. 68:799-816.

Related Literature

Hersom, M.J., 2007. Basic nutrient requirements of beef cows. UF/IFAS EDIS Pub. AN190.

Kunkle, W.E., J. Fletcher, and D. Mayo. 2007. Florida cow-calf management, 2nd edition – Feeding the cow herd. UF-IFAS EDIS Pub. AN117.


Table 1. 

Daily dry matter intakes (lbs) of beef cows of varying mature weights1


Stage of Production




Yearly Total

Compared to 1200-lb cow

Cow Weight


































1 Adapted from NRC (2000)

Table 2. 

Comparisons of yearly feed costs between cows of different weights1

Cow Weight


Intake (DM)

Yearly Cost


to 1200-lb cow

















1 Assumes a feed that is 90% hay at $140/ton, 10% supplement at $260/ton, and 4 ounces of mineral/day at $830/ton.

Table 3. 

Daily DM intake (lb/day) of cows across varying milk production levels1


Stage of lactation






Yearly difference

from 20













1Based on NRC (2000)

Table 4. 

Effect of body condition score on percent of cows cycling in the subsequent breeding season1


Percent of Cows Cycling


Early Calving Cows

Late Calving Cows

BCS in March

(prior to calving)







< 4





















> 7







1Adapted from Pruitt and Momont, 1988



This document is AN233, one of a series of the Department of Animal Sciences, UF/IFAS Extension. Original publication date February 2010. Revised April 2013. Reviewed May 2016. Visit the EDIS website at


T. D. Maddock, former post-doctoral research associate; G. C. Lamb, professor; and D. D. Henry, graduate research assistant; Department of Animal Sciences, North Florida Research and Education Center, Marianna, FL.

The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) is an Equal Opportunity Institution authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function with non-discrimination with respect to race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations. For more information on obtaining other UF/IFAS Extension publications, contact your county's UF/IFAS Extension office.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, UF/IFAS Extension Service, University of Florida, IFAS, Florida A & M University Cooperative Extension Program, and Boards of County Commissioners Cooperating. Nick T. Place, dean for UF/IFAS Extension.