Maurice Boney is worried about the beef business. He says the U.S. cow herd is too diverse, comprised of too many breeds and too many gene-trait combinations, to ever produce consistently high-quality products for consumers.
So he's spent much of his life trying to do something about it. Boney, who ranches near Johnstown, Colo., has been developing a linebred breed of cattle called Irish Blacks and Irish Reds for nearly 40 years. The breed, trademarked by Boney and marketed under an exclusive contractual agreement to a select but growing group of producers in 22 states, is gaining attention from cattle feeders, packers and restaurateurs as an answer to many of the industry's most pressing concerns. Derived primarily from Friesian genetics and a small amount of Black Angus genetics (35 years ago) from the old “Revolution” line, the breed has been close-herd line-bred for built-in genetic predictability to transmit quality genetics for fertility, production attributes and superior beef quality.
“The genetic make-up of a large portion of today's beef herds is highly heterozygous,” explains Boney. “Because most cattle in the U.S. cow herd are heterozygous – instead of homozygous — for important production and carcass traits, they've lost their ability to transmit desirable genetics for carcass quality and fertility to their offspring.” The result of all this heterozygosity, explains Boney, is genetic instability, inconsistency and diminishing beef quality.
“The extremely broad and ever-expanding gene pools of today's cow herds will only ensure beef's quality continues to decline,” he says. “That's why we have concentrated on producing a highly concentrated, small genetic pool of cattle for correcting many of the problems the industry faces today. Less than two percent of cattle attain the Prime quality grade. The percentage of Choice-quality carcasses falls every year. Our program is built on correcting those problems by producing cattle with heightened predictability to transmit superior, proven genes to their offspring.” Boney's efforts trace back to 1971 when he began implementing a linebreeding program built on the teachings of Dr. Jay Lush, a professor at Iowa State University and world-renowned geneticist.
In doing so, Boney bred a 18 heifers back to their sire. He then bred 16 more of the same heifers to a son of their sire (sister X sib matings). By breeding related animals to each other, he was able to ensure his foundation genetics were pure, free of genetic defects and diseases. During the ensuing four decades, he's stayed with the same bloodlines and the same breeding philosophy. And with each generation — layer upon layer, year after year — he's concentrated the union of genetically identical genes of his genetics for traits like fertility, marbling, muscling, and built in greater genetic predictability for all of these traits by doing so.
“Over the past 25 years, 75 percent of the people using our blood have never paid us a visit to see our herd,” Boney says. “The bulk of our new customers during this time frame have been neighbors, relatives, or friends of those that are using our blood. Our cattle are doing exceptionally well in 22 states. The demand for our genetically dominant blood normally exceeds our supply.”
Testing for genetic superiority
To confirm the superior carcass attributes of the Irish Blacks, Boney along with his business associate, Guy Gould, who owns and operates Gould Ranch of Fort Morgan, Colo., began ultrasounding all of their bulls and heifers more than a decade ago.
The ultrasound research has helped confirm many of the superior carcass attributes of the cattle, says Gould.
Recently, a pen of Irish Black bulls averaged 11.5 months of age. They had 0.19 inches of backfat, 12.91-inches of ribeye with an average marbling score of 5.74. One of these bulls had 0.18 inches of back fat, a 12.75-square inch ribeye and an astounding marbling score of 7.27. This same bull had a 65-pound birthweight and an actual 205-day weaning weight of 675 pounds.
“Typically, Irish Blacks and Irish Reds score two to four scores higher in DNA
gene testing for these traits than any of the other
breeds have been able to achieve,” says Boney. “Most breeds would be happy with
a marbling score of 3.5. Our bulls averaged 5.74.”
In another example, an Irish Black bull and his dam had the highest possible score for both marbling and tenderness on the Igenity test. Needless to say, it's cows like this one that have made their way into Boney's embryo transfer program.
A shared vision
Perhaps the key to the Irish Black breeding program is the working relationship between Boney and Gould.
The former is big-picture focused, while the latter is rooted in real-world production.
Boney concentrates on the breeding and genetics decisions, embryo transfer and AI work. Gould develops the bulls and females for sale and manages the cattle at his ranch.
“It's a match made in heaven,” says Gould. “Maurice is the brains. I'm the shovel and wheelbarrow guy.”
Admittedly, Gould is a commercially focused producer. He grew up a commercial man, and even though he's transitioned to seedstock production in recent years, he adheres to the belief that none of the 350 Irish Black and Irish Red cattle receive special treatment or pampering.
“This is a working cow-calf operation,” Gould says. “To run our cattle this way is the best way to prove them out.”
Interestingly, the two met in the early 1980s when Gould approached Boney about using Irish Black bulls on his cow herd.
Gould had tried several other breeds, but wasn't achieving the results he was looking for. With some breeds his weaning weights were good, but he gave up ground in fertility and calving ease. When he fixed calving problems and fertility, his weaning weights crashed.Surely, he thought, there's something out there that can balance these traits.
“I remember Maurice said to me: ‘These Irish Blacks will put 100 pounds on your calves at weaning, and all you'll need is two bulls to breed your 140 cows,'” recalls Gould. “It was a little hard to believe. But he didn't just say it, he guaranteed it.'”
Gould traded a tractor for one bull and bought the other. Boney promised to return his money if the bulls didn't settle all 140 cows and the calves didn't weigh 100 pounds more than the previous year's calf crop. Sure enough, the two bulls bred all the cows – and the resulting calves weaned off their mothers weighing 104 pounds more than the previous year's calf crop.
Needless to say Gould was hooked, so hooked that the two began building a business relationship that continues today.
Reasons to consider Irish Blacks and Reds
Both Guy Gould and Maurice Boney believe there are six fundamental reasons for commercial producers to use Irish Blacks and Irish Reds: First, genetic purity. The breed has four decades of disciplined line-breeding behind it. It has had no other breed's blood introduced into its small gene pool, which has been the case in many “pure” breeds in the United States.
“It's most important to understand that a percentage bull cannot, and will not, reproduce himself,” says Boney. “Simple arithmetic bears this out: calves sired by a halfblood bull only possess 25 percent of the blood that one is trying to make improvements with. Then consider one's chances when using a percentage bull whose gene pool is made up of several different breeds. The result of such matings will produce a broader more diverse gene pool with hundreds of different gene trait combinations.”
Adds Boney: “The big bonus for the commercial producer in using our purebred bulls is the resulting heifer calves. These F1 heifers should be retained and then bred back to our purebred bulls. The 75 percent Irish Black feeder calves have been achieving 90 percent Choice or better quality grades, 1,300 to 1,400 pound finished weights, and dressing at 65 percent to 69 percent. Their feed conversion is 5.1 pounds of grain per pound of gain. The halfbloods have been making 80 percent to 90 percent Choice, with feed conversions of 5.3 pounds of feed per pound of gain. It is a proven fact that the higher the percentage of Irish Black blood the higher the performance and carcass cut-out values will be.”
Second, concentration of desirable genes. Unlike other breeds that have concentrated on expanding their genetic makeup, the Irish Black and Red breed is built on concentrating levels of “homozygosity” of genetic traits rather than the “heterozygosity” of genetic traits. By doing so, the ability of the Irish Blacks and Reds to transmit desirable genetic traits to their offspring is much greater than bulls of other breeds.
Third, fertility. “Our first experience with the cattle – when we used just two bulls to breed 140 cows – holds true today,” he says. “We see the same results in fertility – in both our bulls and females — today that we did then.”
Fourth, carcass quality. Irish Blacks and Reds consistently score extremely high for desirable carcass genetics, particularly in tenderness and marbling.
Fifth, marketing flexibility. “The advantages of owning these cattle gives you so much versatility. There is nothing we've found that will do as well as these cattle will as productive females. And there is nothing that will do better on feed than these cattle. They possess superior performance and outstanding carcass quality. “I've fed a lot of these cattle,” says Gould. “Their cut-outs, yield grades and quality grades are far superior to industry averages.”
Sixth, environmental flexibility. Today, breeders of Irish Blacks and Irish Reds can be found in every production environment in the United States. The breed is resistant to high-altitude sickness, and won't succumb to “brisket” disease when turned out on high-altitude rangeland. The cattle are also being successfully produced in such faraway regions as Canada, Mississippi, Florida and Texas. “I'm not aware of a climate anywhere where these cattle won't acclimate and do well,” says Gould.
“The cattle have hair enough to withstand winter, yet they slick off to handle
Together, Gould and Boney market about 80 bulls and 80 females to a select group of clientele in 22 states. To ensure the genetic purity of the breeding program for the future, commercial customers must sign an Trade Mark License agreement that requires them to castrate all bull calves sired by Irish Black bulls.
“Our customers appreciate the years of investment we've put into this breeding, and understand that it's in everyone's best interest to ensure only the genetically purest Irish Blacks and Red – not crossbreds – get perpetuated as breeding stock.
“We have a couple of important goals that we'd like to accomplish with this breeding program, and they understand that it's in everyone's best interest to ensure only the genetically purest Irish Blacks and Reds – not crossbreds – get perpetuated as seedstock,” says Gould.
“We want people to understand that there are some genetic options out there that they can use to straighten out some of the problems they've faced in using other breeds or breeding programs.
“Most of the people who see these cattle tell us that Irish Blacks and Reds are the best-kept secret in the beef industry,” he says. “That could be. The most difficult challenge that we face is simply getting people to take a look at them. Once they do, and we show them the performance and the cut-out data, they are sold. We very rarely have anyone show up who doesn't end up buying some of these cattle.”
Adds Boney, who has spent most of his life building Irish Blacks and Irish Reds into pre-eminence:
“The demand for quality beef that is tender, well marbled and tasty far exceeds our industry's ability to supply it,” he says. “It has been proven that people will pay the added price to get a consistent source of such supply. We look forward to visiting with those who recognize the true value of genetic investment we have made in this breed, and understand what the true value of these cattle is to today's marketplace. That would not only make it more profitable for the people producing registered Irish Blacks and Irish Reds seedstock, but also for the commercial producer who deserves a more clear-cut opportunity to raise high-performing, profit-making, fool-proof cattle that excel in beef quality.”