If you believe the penultimate measure of genetic merit in the beef cattle industry is profitability in the commercial sector, then these past seven years or so have been the bee's knees.
After all, profitability in the cow-calf business has been higher and more sustained than at any time in recent history. Last winter Cattle-Fax reported the top third of its members averaged $166.37 per cow for 2000-2005. Even the bottom third averaged $47.62 per cow.
More recently, Kris Ringwall, beef extension specialist at North Dakota State University, pointed out that producers participating in that state's Farm and Ranch Business Management program have averaged $128.51 net return for seven years.
Unfortunately, recent cow-calf fortunes obviously have lots more to do with supply and demand fundamentals, and management, than production improvement stemming from genetics.
“Reproduction has not changed as beef production has increased. The increase in beef production is a result of feed yard cattle fed to heavier weights and slaughtered at a younger age.” James McGrann, professor emeritus of Texas A&M University and pioneer of Standardized Performance Analysis (SPA) in the beef industry made that observation in 2002.
In fact, McGrann analyzed 20 years worth of USDA inventory data and discovered that the implied calving rate—calves born divided by the total cow inventory—served up an average calving rate of 90.2 percent (a range of 88-91.5 percent). Use the age-old rule of thumb that 90 percent get bred and 90 percent of those wean a calf and you end up with an 80 percent weaning rate per cow exposed, a figure that McGrann corroborated with Southwest SPA figures.
Increased pounds of production per cow come from more pounds, not more pounds weaned per cow exposed.
That's not saying that seedstock producers have not made tremendous genetic improvement over time. Flip open any breed sire summary and genetic trends run in the desired direction at healthy rates. But these improvements and the way they have been subsequently applied in commercial breeding systems haven't necessarily translated into greater net production per input.
Adapting to the Stress of Change
Do you know why corn yields—bushels per acre—have increased so significantly over time? It's not more ears or more kernels per plant or any of the reasons that you might suspect. It revolves around the fact that corn genetics have been created to be more adaptable. Specifically, corn genetics have been engineered to thrive amid the increased stress of denser plant populations. In other words, more yield is coming from more corn plants per acre.
Steve Radakovich, a long-time seedstock producer from Earlham, Iowa shared that observation with folks attending this year's Beef Improvement Federation (BIF) Research Symposia in June. He learned it through a chance meeting with one of the grand pooba geneticists from one of the corn seed kingpins.
“The future of beef production will be determined by ruminants' ability to adapt to limited solar-produced forages and agricultural co-products,” says Radakovich. “The one big injustice of the seedstock industry is evaluating and supplying over-managed, over-fed, fossil fuel-dependent bulls to cow-calf producers forced to survive on solar energy and low-cost production…The seedstock industry has historically given the cow-calf producers what they have needed in excess.”
Consequently, Radakovich says more time is being spent with corrective matings aimed at bringing balance back into the equation. That's no small task, given how quickly industry dynamics are shifting based on competition for feed resources.
According to Mike Kasten from the Kasten Ranch at Millersville, Missouri, also at this year's BIF meeting, “The beef industry is going to have to answer the question, ‘How are you going to change your genetics to adapt to higher feed costs that commercial producers are incurring and will continue to incur because of the ethanol industry?'”
Whether it's ethanol or some other force beyond traditional agriculture, genetic merit in the future may have more to do with how effectively they allow commercial producers to quickly adapt to input shifts.
“High return, low cost producers have several things in common, most notably their ability to optimize production by reducing costs in places that don't adversely affect the productivity of the cowherd.” Cattle-fax pointed out that during an insightful Cattlemen's College session at this year's annual National Cattlemen's Beef Association meeting.
More specifically, they cited 11 habits shared by the highest return producers: Below average annual cow costs; Lower than average calf breakeven prices; Lower feed costs; Lower interest expense (less debt); Lower general operating expense; Higher average weaning weights; Higher conception rates; More pounds weaned per cow exposed; High quality bulls with strong genetics; Preventative herd health programs; High-quality pasture (maintain nutritional requirement of the cow).
With the exception of interest rates, every one of these high-return tendencies has a genetic component to it, be it feed efficiency, inherent immune function, growth, or reproductive efficiency.
Choosing a Genetic Future
Just a decade ago or so it seemed like the hottest topic of industry genetic discussion was which breeds would survive. With the benefit of time, the answer seems as obvious as the question is now moot. Angus and Red Angus account for roughly half of all beef breed registrations. Six other breeds (Hereford, Charolais, Simmental, Limousin, Gelbvieh and Brangus) account for about 75 percent of the other half of the registrations, according to numbers from the National Pedigreed Livestock Council.
Though some of these breeds have been later to genetic evaluation than others—and plenty of range exists in the information provided and how it's provided—it seems more than coincidence that each of these has emphasized developing tools for both seedstock and commercial producers to more accurately sort genetic differences and make selection decisions.
Moreover, the likeliest breed growth, arguably and if any, will come from breed combinations in the form of composites and hybrids, rather than from individual breeds per se, assuming the genetics are accompanied by meaningful genetic information. At least that would be the hope if genetic diversity and adaptability account for anything.
On a producer panel at the BIF meeting, Chip Ramsay of the Rex Ranch in Ashby, Nebraska explained, “The commercial cow-calf producer needs to know the truth. We need to know with as much accuracy as possible what that bull is going to do for us in our herd. We need accurate whole-herd reporting in the seedstock industry, accurate across-breed EPDs, accurate estimates of heterosis benefits, etc.”
As important, commercial producers need seedstock suppliers who can help them figure out how which genetics in which breeds fit together in a particular breeding scheme to offer the desired progress relative to available resources.
All of those are the type of questions commercial producers should be posing to their seedstock suppliers, and that seedstock suppliers should be posing to themselves.