Cows aren’t profitable – business models are. That was the point Jordan Thomas, Ph.D., with the University of Missouri drove home with his “Profitability Isn’t Random” presentation at CattleCon ‘23.

“You can make a profit with poor animals and lose money with good ones,” he added.

While producers do sometimes get lucky, having a good plan and making good decisions is a better way to make money.

“How do we select heifers?” Thomas asked. “We tend to pick the biggest ones, the prettiest ones – so that means we’ve kind of got it backwards.”

He said that heifers are your employees. When finding new ones, use a “job description.” You want heifers that are structurally sound and not in poor health or of poor disposition. They should have a low likelihood of calving difficulty (with adequate pelvic area and bred to a calving ease bull) and conceive early in their first breeding season. They need high genetic merit for profitable traits and strong visual phenotype and conformation.

Heifer selection decisions also lead to producers’ replacement issues.

“A heifer has to conceive early in their first breeding season,” Thomas stated. “She then needs to go through postpartum anestrus (with the proper amount of fat on her back, the right food available, good lactation, et cetera). We miss something with late breeding – instead of an 82-day recovery, it would be much shorter if you stayed on schedule. Late breeding stretches out the profitability timeframe.”

Those cattle born early also tend to stay in the herd longer.

He pointed out that late-conceiving heifers tend to fall out of the beef herd faster – some as soon as their second calving season – but do they need to fall out? It depends on your business plan.

Profitability isn’t random

Dr. Jordan Thomas, assistant professor and state cow/calf Extension specialist with the University of Missouri, said that heifers are your employees. When finding new ones, use a “job description.” Photo by Courtney Llewellyn

The first thing to do when looking at an underperforming heifer is to consider your operating costs. Yes, feed is high, but so is cow replacement. “Losing 15% of your herd every year is the same as having 15% of your factory burn down every year and then having to rebuild it,” Thomas said. “You can do better than that.”

He continued that as a commercial producer, you should care about phenotype at the end of the day – how those heifers performed. Genotype feeds into that – but a cow’s environment drives so much of what we see (their food, water, barn and pasture conditions, etc.). Producers need to be discerning and follow a plan, not just their guts.

Thomas talked about an exemplary replacement heifer program in Missouri called Show-Me-Select. It has a research focus, such as looking at reproductive tract scores, as that scoring is repeatable and accurate for determining pubertal status. The scores are related to pregnancy rates to fixed-time AI, pregnancy rates by day of the breeding season and weaning weight of calves.

The program also uses pelvic screening to monitor for dystocia. “We want a larger pelvic area but we need to control two pieces of the puzzle – the other being birth weight,” Thomas said. “This is a screening tool, not a sorting tool.”

Check out for more information on how Show-Me-Select works.

Director of Commercial Marketing for the Red Angus Association of America Harold Bertz joined Thomas to back up his thoughts on how to maximize profitability.

“A framework for the industry could be very valuable,” Bertz said. “What’s extremely important is keeping it extremely simple.” At its basics, that framework would include a protocol for better genetics, for vaccinations and for pre- and post-breeding exams.

The RAAA launched Red Choice in October 2021 to promote improved heifer development, increase marketing opportunities for Red Angus females and create reliable sources of high-quality replacement heifers for cattle producers. It’s a program for a specific breed that could be adapted for others.

“There’s real opportunity out there to make our herds better and open up different business models,” Bertz concluded.

by Courtney Llewellyn