Indicator cows

Farm Forum

When you have just enough cows to name them all, it’s easy to characterize them by appearance, temperament and some might even say personality. Kids like to find names to fit. Twister was one of ours 20 years ago, an outlier for poor docility that left no daughters in the herd.

Now with 100 or more cows to start each year, we are less likely to name them and none would sound like rodeo bulls if we did, but the occasional high-headed one still stands out. When she shows her wild side, we take note, check records and see if it relates to genetics.

Then there are the calm but adventurous types that test fences. They serve a purpose, alerting us that we waited a bit too long to rotate pastures in summer or suggesting the need to replace a fence that’s no longer dependable.

Our favorites are the quiet majority supported by records, pedigree and progeny performance.

I’ve been on places with 1,000 or more cows known for excellence throughout. Even among the most uniform there are standouts for eye appeal, though I don’t often see behavior that says “here is an indicator cow.”

As to the quiet core, managers sometimes use teleprompter ear tags to point out a few of their best. Once in Montana we found the top indexing cow on a computer screen, and then went out and saw her grazing on a slope. You would not have guessed.

Progeny records and the more recent genomic testing can open an unseen world for cowherd managers. Sure, an experienced eye can keep up a good set of cows and pick heifers that appear to represent the leading edge, but anyone can miss unseen opportunities.

We look for the indicator cows that appear much like their sisters but backed by a superior genomic score. We look for those with records showing they raised heavier calves that never got sick, that gained in the top 25% after weaning and qualified for a premium beef bonus.

Those are the foundation females that will build demand for beef and pay their way for the wider cattle community.

Consumers learn about outlier beef after just one experience. Very likely you know what I mean because you enjoy a great steak, burger or roast, too.

Beef has to be the preferred protein to maintain economic viability at its price point far above the competition. In that sense the old promotional line still holds: beef is king.

It can’t afford to be a royal disappointment. The couple out to celebrate may always remember the perfect dinner date and plan on many happy returns, or they may look for other bright sides and try to forget the beef.

The restaurant manager can’t afford many customers walking away to tell others to avoid their tables. Retailers can’t afford developing a reputation for the least dependable beef in town. That’s why the wait staff and meat case managers frequently interact with customers and ask about their eating experience.

They’re on the lookout for indicators that support their beef supply program or suggest a need for change.

Next time in Black Ink Miranda Reiman will consider how much can change in 10 years. Questions? Call 330-465-0820 or e-mail