In the last issue we took a hard look at some issues that have been raised by many cattle breeders. The primary question to be answered was: “What do I as a breeder or we as a breed need to do in order to be competitive in today's cattle industry and that of tomorrow. As was alluded to in the last issue the answer to this question is very simple but at the same time extremely complex: “give the consumer what they want.”
The beef industry in recent years has spent million's of dollars researching what it is that the consumer wants. Fortunately, much of this may be paying off for the industry in general with greater demand and subsequent improved beef prices. But how does this translate back to the smaller cow/calf operator and more particularly to the purebred breeder?
In the last issue we discussed some of what the industry as well as the various breeds need to shoot for in terms of meeting the demand for beef as related to quality and performance. We took a somewhat broad view of the basic concepts with which every cattleman should be at least somewhat familiar. Let's take some time here to discuss some of the more specific factors of these arguments and how they relate to a given breed or operation.
Using the Tools We Have
One thing we have to make very clear is that in order to make the kind of changes in a herd or breed, we have to accept the fact that it is going to take time. Depending on the trait or characteristic we need to change it may take
significant time to bring these about. Before we can determine which path to follow, we have to know where we are at this point in time and create a bench mark.
A. Keeping Records
As I stress to clients on a regular basis keeping accurate records is probably one of the single most valuable practices any cattle breeder can implement. Unfortunately, many breeders do not keep the records they need and in some cases none are kept at all with exceptions of receipts that are used for tax time. In other cases I've seen detailed records that document everything down to the color of an animal's eyes! I think somewhere in between these two is probably the most practical place for the average breeder.
Some of the records that I recommend keeping include:
· Individual Animal ID's
· Birth Weights
· Weaning Weights
· Yearling Weights
· Other Weights (18 and 24 month weights if replacements are developed and marketed)
· Average Daily Gain/Gain per Day of Age
· Breeding Performance
* Bull used
* Breedings per conception (especially in A. I. situations)
* Breeding interval (time from calving to rebreeding)
· Calving Percentages
· Weaning Percentages
· Body Condition Score - at calving, breeding, late summer, mid-winter
· Bull Performance including how well bulls handle the breeding period
· Expenses and income
Obviously this will generate a tremendous amount of data. It will also provide information needed to accomplish several items including: 1) determining where you stand at a given point in time, 2) provide a picture of how the herd is performing, 3) help you identify key areas that need changing, 4) help identify animals that are excelling in performance or that are not pulling their weight, 5) help you develop a long-range plan to accomplish the herd and breed improvements we've been discussing.
This data can be entered into the calculation of Expected Progeny Differences (EPD's). Most purebred breeders are very familiar with EPD's and how they function in the herd and how they can be used to identify animals that work and those that don't.
Expected progeny differences (EPDs) have been available for use in beef cattle selection programs since the early 1970's. Advancements in computer technology and breed registries collecting vast amounts of pedigree and performance information has made the production of EPDs possible for virtually every animal within a breed. With the cost of beef cattle production continually rising relative to cattle market prices, producers are using every available piece of information to increase their bottom line. Understanding and implementing the use of EPDs in beef cattle selection programs allows producers to have more control in developing the product they have to market. However, gaining an understanding of EPDs and how they can be successfully used is no trivial task.
By definition an EPD is a prediction of how future progeny will perform compared to all other animals evaluated. It is based upon the concept of breeding values. A
breeding value is the genetic value of an animal as a parent. Each parent gives a random half of its genes to any one offspring, so an EPD is half the animal's breeding value.
How are EPDs calculated and where do they come from? Usually, twice a year, a breed association will gather all of its pedigree information and performance records and send them to one of several U.S. organizations that routinely run National Cattle Evaluations (NCE). The more of this information that is available and the more accurately it has been collected, the more reliable are the results from the NCE. The EPDs from any NCE are only
comparable to other EPDs from the same evaluation.
Producers have two major responsibilities in the calculation of EPD's. First, the trait must be measured, whether birth weight, yearling weight, etc. Secondly, records must be grouped correctly.
Contemporary groups should be correctly designated for a successful NCE. Minimally, all animals in a contemporary group should have had the same opportunity to perform. If an animal was sick or preferentially treated, then that animal should be designated with a different management code. If first calf heifers are developed on a higher quality forage during gestation, then their progeny should not be grouped with remaining progeny of mature cows. Each breed association has other additional constraints they impose, such as sex, birth year, season, etc. However, it is the sole responsibility of breeders to make sure that management or contemporary groups are correctly designated. This takes us back to the original discussion in this section -- you have to keep accurate records.
Another valuable tool that is gaining more widespread use is that of ultrasound measurement of yearling cattle. Ultrasound use in cattle performs a similar function to it's use by obstetricians - it provides a non-invasive look at what's going on inside of the body. In the cattle industry it has become increasingly valuable in measurement of rib-eye areas and other carcass characteristics. The reason it is so valuable is that it saves us significant amounts of time. Now, instead of having to wait until a given animal is slaughtered and hung on the rail to measure carcass characteristics. Additionally, we can measure a bull himself instead of having to wait for his offspring to be fed and slaughtered.
Measurements should be collected and interpreted by ultrasound technicians certified by the Animal Ultrasound Practitioners Association (AUP) only. It should be pointed out that not all technicians are certified for all carcass traits, when collecting ultrasound data the breeder must be sure the technician is certified for the trait or traits that you are interested in. Ultrasound data should be collected on all calves in the yearling contemporary group and data should be collected on yearling cattle between 330 and 430 days of age. All cattle must also have a weaning and yearling weight taken at appropriate times as we discussed before. It has been a common practice to collect ultrasound measurements only on bulls as an aid to selection and breeding. However, for the purpose of genetic evaluation, ultrasound data on yearling heifers may constitute as much or more to the evaluation as the data collected on yearling bulls. One of the most important facts here, however is that it allows us to identify those animals which have the necessary carcass characteristics to help us move forward in developing a herd and breed. As the use of this tool and other selection tools increases we will find that a lot of animals that in the past were used as herd sires, etc. will become culls.
From a Beef Production Perspective
As we discussed in the last issue, one thing each breeder has to remember is that we are not producing just cattle - we are producing food. The value of a given animal, herd or breed is dependent on it's ability to meet the demands of the various stopping point's along the road to the end consumer. Remember that from the time a calf is produced on your operation it gets scrutinized by a whole list of consumers. They can include:
· Other purebred or seed stock breeders - breeding animal buyers -- back into purebred herds.
· Commercial cattlemen -- breeding animal buyers, predominantly bulls - back into commercial herds.
· Buyers at the auction, order buyers, etc. -- weaning cattle buyers -- on to grass to growing operations.
· Feedyards -- cattle feeders who will buy these cattle for finishing.
· Meat Packers or Processors -- fat cattle buyers for processing and meat yield.
· Wholesale meat buyers -- purchase meat for resale and distribution.
· Retailers -- grocery stores, restaurants, etc.
· Consumers -- the person who will actually eat this product.
There may be other middlemen in this chain but more than likely at least eight other “consumers” will be viewing your product in some shape, form or fashion. The ability of your product to meet the needs of these consumers will dictate it's value. In other words, will the cattle you produce be considered an asset or a detriment to the various consumers along this path. In the day and time we live in, the market for a given animal, herd or breed is dictated much more by the end of this chain (the actual meat industry). This trickles down and in the process picks up influences from other producers that view these cattle from their perspective and the ability these animals have to contributing to (or detracting from) their bottom line. If a given animal, herd or breed is viewed as a detriment, obviously they will not be in as great of a demand.
In the next issue we'll view the subject from a cattle feeder's perspective. These operations have a huge effect on what is now transpiring in the cow/calf segment. This makes their input very valuable as we follow this path.
Dr. Steve Blezinger is a nutritional and management consultant with an office in Sulphur Springs, TX. He can be reached at P. O. Box 653 Sulphur Springs, TX 75483, by phone at (903) 885-7992 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.