by: Wes Ishmael

Say this for historically high calf and feeder prices: the cost of products and technology used for management has never been cheaper on a percentage basis, and management decisions have never been more valuable.

That's true of fairly straightforward decisions like whether or not to implant calves as well as the bigger picture noodling that goes into breed selection and breeding systems.

“Recent appreciation in weaned calf prices provides tremendous financial opportunity for commercial cow-calf enterprises that can minimize and control their cost of production without sacrificing reproductive efficiency,” says David Lalman, extension beef cattle specialist in a paper authored by him and others at Oklahoma State University. (OSU). Lalman offered perspectives from the paper—Addressing Cow Herd Efficiency in a World of Mixed Messages to Producers: Matching Production Levels to Environmental Conditions*—at the recent annual meeting of the Beef Improvement Federation (BIF).

Unfortunately, Lalman and the OSU folks suggest industry cow maintenance costs may be increasing without enhancing production due to leading beef breeds' penchant for increasing weaning and yearling growth unabated since 1990—milk production in some of those breeds too.

Production Lags Behind Increased Maintenance Costs

“Selection for increased growth through weaning and increased milk should lead to increased weaning weights in commercial operations unless genetic expression for milk and growth is limited by the environment,” say the OSU folks.

OSU researchers point to Standardized Performance Analysis (SPA) data from the Southwest which indicates there has been no sustained increase in weaning weights for commercial operations.

Further north, Lalman says benchmark data from the North Dakota Cow Herd Appraisal Performance Software (CHAPS) program indicates a steady increase in weaning weights from 1996 to 2006 and stability since that time.

“Is it possible that genetic potential in cattle has surpassed the capacity of forage to provide increased nutrients that must accompany increased production?” the OSU folks wonder. “Although the cause is not immediately clear, we submit that the number of cases where this phenomenon is occurring may be growing in commercial cow-calf operations.

They offer this example.

“While reproductive efficiency in the CHAPS benchmarking data show weaning weights above 90 percent, which would be considered to be excellent, there is no indication of sustained improvement in that trait. Similarly, the Southwest SPA data suggests no improvement in weaning rates since the benchmarking program was initiated there in the early 1990s…

“Another important factor that is only occasionally acknowledged is the positive relationship between increased genetic capacity for milk production and year-long maintenance requirements in beef cows…Little advancement has been made in terms of improving rangeland or introduced forage characteristics from a nutritional perspective. Therefore, it is logical that continued selection for increased milk within breeds, whether these breeds are used in a straight or crossbreeding program with other high-milk breeds, may lead to excessive milk that could result in the expression of this trait being limited by the forage system and not by the genetic capacity of the cattle.”

Crossbreeding and Straight Breeding Succeed and Fail

“Planned crossbreeding is not the problem. Planned straight breeding is not the problem. Breeding cattle without any consistent plan is the problem,” Tom Brink told folks at the BIF conference. Brink is president of J&F Oklahoma Holdings, Inc. which feeds more than 1.6 million head annually through the yards of JBS Five Rivers Cattle Feeding LLC. He provided an overall perspective on what he sees in the spectrum of cattle his organization feeds, from the best of the best to the worst.

“Both crossbreeding and straight breeding can be done well or done poorly,” Brink explained. “The risk with crossbreeding is that while seeking heterosis the producer will bounce around from one breed to the next, buy a dozen crossed up cows from one location and another group from somewhere else. They end up with a lot of hybrid vigor and very little value and consistency in their calf crops. We see lots of cattle like this.”

On the other hand, Brink explained, “The risk with straight-breeding, besides giving up heterosis, or even if the correct breed is utilized (Angus or maybe Red Angus), the right genetics within the breed may not be employed. Effective straight-breeding with Angus requires the use of cattle with cow traits as well as elite growth and carcass genetics.”

The economic distance between the top and bottom cattle J&F feeds is substantial. Heading into the BIF meeting, Brink asked Five Rivers managers to quantify the performance of the top 10-15 percent of the genetics they feed and then compare that to the average—not to the bottom, but to the average.

Those top performing cattle gained 1.35 lbs. more per day with 0.75 lbs. less feed per pound of gain than the average ones. The top end made $85 per head on the grid compared to $20 for the average ones.

“At current market prices and production costs, the value of this better feeding performance is equivalent to a whopping $154 per head,” Brink explained. “There is an additional $65 per head difference in grid value. The total economic advantage for the top performing cattle is $219 per head. The leading edge of the U.S. beef industry's genetics is now able to create dramatically more value than we could have dared to dream about in the past.”

In fact, Brink offered an example* of how careful genetic selection and management within a straight-breeding program can offer net production value that runs head-to-head with crossbreeding. That's not a vote for or against either system, rather validation to his earlier point that both systems can work and fail.

In other words, substandard performance and less profit opportunity can be founded on using the wrong genetics within a breeding system, using a breeding system wrongly or both. It can stem from focusing on short term production gains rather than sustainable long-term production efficiencies.

Rather than debating the merits of either breeding system as some sort of either-or strategy, David Daly the associate dean of the college of agriculture at California State University-Chico told folks at the BIF meeting, “We can have outstanding straight-bred or crossbred cattle. I find it simplistic and a waste of time to argue that one is better than the other…”

Daley is also a fifth-generation commercial cattleman who manages him family's ranch, employing both crossbreeding and straight-breeding.

“In academia, it seems that we tend to want to make the simple complex,” Daley said. “The commercial beef business is faced with a very difficult challenge to maintain long-term profitability and viability. There are countless battles (unrelated to cattle breeding) in order to survive and be profitable in the long term. We need to keep cattle breeding simple. We have wonderful within-breed selection tools (EPDs). We have the ability to capitalize on breed differences and capture both heterosis and breed complementarity through crossbreeding. Designing simple, long-term breeding programs to capture direct and maternal heterosis, while capitalizing on maternal and terminal lines, is a significant step in attempting to maximize sustained profit.”

Hobbled to a point made earlier, the OSU folks concluded, “From a low to moderate input commercial cow-calf operation perspective, failure to effectively utilize planned mating systems to maintain moderation in the cow herd while producing desirable calves for sale within the beef value chain may be leading us to a cow herd that is more expensive to maintain, while actual production within the commercial sector may not be improving.

“Commercial cow-calf producers are encouraged to emphasize new selection tools designed to minimize maintenance requirements of cows while maintaining or improving reproductive efficiency. Additionally, use of mating systems designed to maximize cowherd efficiency while maintaining high consumer acceptability in beef should aid producers in managing risk and increasing profitability.”

All of this is worth extra consideration as producers likely begin growing the nation's cow herd this Fall.

*Find papers and insights from those mentioned in this column in this year's BIF proceedings at

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