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PRODUCERS SHOULD PUT EMPHASIS ON EFFICIENT GENETICS

by: Heather Smith Thomas

The cow calf rancher knows his heifer calves are his future, and tries to keep good replacement females that will be productive, profitable cows. But in the last few decades the beef industry has put so much emphasis on production that it almost lost sight of the most important aspect: profitability. There's a vast difference between the type of cow that can give you the most production raising the biggest, fastest growing calf (more pounds to sell) and the cow that gives you the most profit. The profitable cow is one that raises a good calf every year (but not necessarily the biggest) without coming up open, and does it with less feed cost than the higher producing cow. If that bigger calf cost more to produce, your profit is actually less (or non existant) than from the cow who raised a smaller calf that cost much less to produce.

Seedstock producers have put so much emphasis these past few decades on weaning and yearling weights, fast rate of gain and bigger cattle, that many cattlemen have found their base cow size has become a couple frame scores larger from saving those nice big heifer mates to those huge steers. And suddenly they find it's costing a lot more to feed fewer cows.

A number of concerned seedstock producers are now stressing the importance of moderate size cows, and some are breeding composite cattle to combine the best traits of several breeds (good muscling and gainability along with moderate size, good milking ability and other important economic traits) while gaining increased feed efficiency and fertility through hybrid vigor.

Kit Pharo, who ranches in Colorado and raises Angus, Red Angus and composites using these two breeds mixed with Tarentaise, says "Our cows must survive on the resources produced by our ranch, with very little supplemental feed. We want a cow that can support the ranch, instead of being supported by the ranch. We've discovered that our most efficient and profitable cows have a frame score of 4.5 to 5.5, and a mature weight of 1,000 to 1,150 pounds."

He says "Results of a recent survey by Cattle Fax confirm our belief that bigger cows equal bigger feed bills. According to this survey, cows weighing 1000 pounds had annual cost of $297. Cows weighing 1,000 to 1,100 had annual cost of $311. Bigger cows, that weighed 1,200 pounds, had annual feed costs of $332. Feed expenses make up a major portion of annual cow costs. With low calf prices, it's nearly impossible for larger cows to produce calves that are big enough to offset their higher feed costs." He wants small cows that wean large calves. "Last year our cows averaged 1,065 pounds, while weaning calves with a 205 day adjusted weight of 590 pounds."

He feels the philosophy in developing replacement heifers today is getting ranchers in trouble. "Last fall I read an article about heifer development that bothered me. The author said since heifer calves are the future of your operation, you should make sure you develop them to fullest potential that your goal should be to keep that heifer in the cow herd once you've invested money in her. The gist of the article was that success of a program revolves around nutritional development, meeting nutritional needs of the heifer. I disagree. As a rancher, my goal is to make a profit, not to keep that heifer in the herd. If I provide enough feed and supplements, I can keep nearly every heifer and cow in the herd but I can't afford this much feed; neither can any rancher."

He feels that this type of nutritional advice is an acedemic point of view, not an economic one. "Academically we know how to meet the nutritional needs of our cattle and we know it is possible to achieve pregnancy rates close to 100 percent, but academics often fail to consider the associated costs. There is always a price to pay. Often we get so committed to a certain breed, color or type of cow that we're willing to do whatever it takes to keep those cows in production and in the herd."

Pharo says, "Cows are not created equal. Some have higher maintenance requirements than others. You can't afford to feed your entire cow herd enough to keep hard keepers in production. I'm convinced you are overfeeding if your pregnancy rates are close to 100 percent. To be profitable, we must be producing cows that fit our environment, instead of artificially changing the environment to fit our cows." On his ranch he lets environment sort out the good ones that are able to reproduce and wean good calves with a minimum of input costs, showing no sympathy for the open, late or dry cows.

He feels some seedstock producers are so production oriented "they believe it's their duty to continually increase production and performance of their cattle, without any regard to the cost. They do whatever it takes to increase the growth and size, but in the process they give up several other very important economic traits." Pharo says at one time he might have been impressed by a bull calf with a weaning weight of 700 to 900 pounds, "but now I realize this is a result of nutrition instead of genetics. Cattle of this type won't be cost effective or profitable for commercial producers. In their pursuit of maximum levels of production, most seedstock producers have gone well beyond their optimum levels, and as long as they continue in this direction they will never produce cattle that can benefit the commercial cow/calf man."

"Your seedstock producer bull supplier plays a crucial role in your business. He is producing the genetics that affect your cow herd for many years to come. You can't afford to purchase a bull that moves your herd in the wrong direction." He feels that many of the high selling bulls are moving our cow herds in the wrong direction because their focus is primarily on size and growth instead of on profit. "Finding the right seedstock producer is a lot more important than finding the right breed. The right seedstock producer is someone that raises cattle the way you do. He plays by the same rules that you have to play by."

To elaborate, he says, "Most commercial cattlemen require their cows to breed in a short breeding season, with very little feed supplementation. They refuse to keep an open cow. They cull all cows that have structural problems, such as bad udders, bad eyes, or unsound feet and legs. They expect a lot from their cows and yet they will buy bulls from some big name seedstock producer that overfeeds, has an extended calving season, and rarely culls for functional defects. Many seedstock producers rotate their open and late bred cows back and forth between a spring calving herd and fall calving herd. Is that selecting for fertility, or infertility? It doesn't really matter what the breed is, if the bull was purchased from the wrong seedstock producer!"

Chip Hines, another Colorado rancher, has the same thoughts: "For years, I culled hard on udders, prolapses and cancer eyes, but I made very little progress. It finally dawned on me that these problems were still being passed on by my seedstock producers. Until they start culling for the same traits, I will never be able to make any real progress."

The traits a bull passes on to his daughters are the most important things to look for in a bull if you will be keeping replacement heifers. The rancher needs a bull that was produced by the right kind of cow. Individual weights, indexes and EPD's are important, but they don't show the whole picture. EPD's don't show fertility, feet and leg soundness, udder conformation, fleshing ability, longevity, disposition, mothering ability nor all the other important traits that determine whether or not a cow will stay in the herd and be profitable.

Dr. Gerald Stokka, extension cattle veterinarian at Kansas State University, says, "When purchasing a bull, it is essential to actually view his mother. The daughters of the bull you purchase will look very similar to the bull's mother." He suggests that the rancher ask these questions when looking at the mother of a herd bull prospect: How may calves has she had? Has she ever been open? What type of udder structure does she have? Disposition? What is her body condition under range conditions? It's always wise to look at the cow and the cow herd that produced the bull you are interested in, and look for breeders who are concerned about these important economic traits.

Dylan and Colleen Biggs, who raise Angus and composite seedstock near Coronation, Alberta, have this same philosophy. In the mid 1980's they became interested in holistic management, and as part of that program took a closer look at their cow herd's profitability. Dylan Biggs says that traditionally cattlemen have looked at weaning weights (bigger is better) and price received as the two most important aspects of cattle raising, "but in actuality weaning weight is a long way down the list. Stocking rate, pasture management taking better care of the grass cost of production and percent of calves weaned, are a lot more important." They started looking at their cow herd and seedstock production in a different light, and began raising more efficient, profitable cattle.

They don't pamper their young bulls nor their replacement heifers; they are roughed through winter on a minimum of feed, striving for genetics that can get as much gain on the cheapest feed. This sorts out the heifers and identifies the ones that can contribute the most to the genetics of the bulls they raise bulls that will sire fertile and feed efficient females.

The main criteria for all their breeding stock is what Biggs calls forage do ability, cattle that are able to perform on grass under harsh conditions. And when raising young bulls for sale, this is the first thing they are selected on. Then the good doing ones (that are feed efficient) go through a thorough physical and breeding soundness evaluation, rated for physical traits on a scale of 1 to 5. Dr. Jim Scott, a veterinarian from Great Falls, Montana, works with him on the evaluations.

Biggs explains the scoring system: 1 is best, 2 and 3 acceptable, 4 is questionable, and 5 is a cull. The bulls are scored on structure of feet and legs, capacity (strength of muzzle, spring of rib, depth of heart girth), muscling (degree of muscle expression they show in the lower inside round, loin, and forearm), secondary masculine character (cresting of neck a bull should look like a bull), spinal column (not sway backed nor humped up, but smooth and level), cleanness of prepuce and navel (no loose sheaths), shape and condition of penis, evaluation of left and right testicle, epididymal development and seminal vessicles, and scrotal circumference. "If a bull rates a high score on all these evaluations, then he is semen checked," says Biggs.

"The seedstock producer has to be able to combine practical management that selects for traits wanted, with the ability and skill to select for structural and soundness traits, and this takes some visual evaluation." And because he is raising maternal cattle he also provides his bull buyers with information on the bulls' mothers, "relative to her structural soundness and fertility, her age and weight at weaning of her calf, average nursing ratio, etc. We list the average birthweight of her calves, average calving interval in days, and udder score." The cows are all scored (1 to 5) on attachment and levelness of udder, teat length and size. Biggs says that 1 is perfect and 5 is a cull. "If a cow has less than 3 score on udder, her bull doesn't make it to the sale."

The cows are also scored on their feet. There can be no poor leg conformation, or her calf won't be selected. "The feet and legs have to be balanced to grow properly," says Biggs. If a cow spends her life on pasture without a chance to wear her hoofs, they must be perfectly balanced so they won't grow crookedly.

Any cow that cannot perform on what a ranch provides, or creates extra cost and labor for the rancher due to bad udder, bad eyes, prolapses, bad disposition, or has structural problems that reduce her longevity or ability to travel, is not the kind of cow you want to raise. Profitablity of a cow herd depends on many, many more factors than the weaning weights of the calves. The seedstock producers of "maternal" breeds who recognize this and strive for genetics that enhance maternal profitability are doing their customers a much greater service than the ones who are not.

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