by: Wes Ishmael

“Anytime the matter of cow efficiency becomes overwhelmingly complex, we should revert to the basics.”

That's a statement made by the late Bob Totusek, an animal science icon at Oklahoma State University. Matt Spangler, University of Nebraska (UN) beef genetics extension specialist shared Totusek's observation as part of his presentation about the future of genetic selection, at the recent Cattlemen's College sponsored by Zoetis.

“If we want to increase the efficiency of the cowherd we need to have more calves,” Spangler explained in basic terms. “By simply increasing the number of progeny per dam through selection, heterosis from crossbreeding or better management, we increase the efficiency of production.”

Yet, much of the industry continues to underutilize or ignore basic, proven opportunities to increase efficiency via these channels.

Crossbreeding serves as a sterling example. Never mind the 16 lbs. of weaning weight and 29 lbs. in yearling weight from direct heterosis. Maternal heterosis accounts for 600 lbs. more cumulative weaning weight through a cow's lifetime production because she remains in the herd longer. Spangler offered those examples based on classic research from the 1990s.

“People try to tell me those differences have eroded, but that's not the case,” Spangler says. If anything, recent research suggests advantages from heterosis have grown in some areas.

“What has dissipated is the other advantage of crossbreeding, which is breed complementarity,” Spangler explains. Breeds have become more like one another rather than accentuating their unique differences.

In fact, Spangler pointed out the need to understand breed performance currently rather than relying on rules of thumb developed decades ago. For instance, in one of the recent cycles of the ongoing germplasm evaluation at the Meat Animal Research Center, F1 British crossbred cows were the largest in terms of mature cow size; they were the smallest in the 1970s.

Pick a particular dataset or method for estimating the average mature weight of commercial cows, the average mature weight continues to increase, while the non-supplemented environment remains fairly static, ebbing and flowing between drought and forage abundance.

Spangler shared an often-used guide of cow biotypes and production environments assembled by Jim Gosey, who was a legendary UN extension beef cattle specialist.

“If feed availability is limited and environmental stress is high—probably a majority of our production environments—we need cows that are conservative for lactation and moderate in size,” Spangler says. “By and large, we (the industry) have problems with both of those.”

In basic terms, abundant feed and low to moderate environmental stress supports the higher production requirements that go along with large mature weights and high milking ability. Generally speaking, the opposite is true.

“We do have a problem in some environments with cows that are too large,” Spangler says. “What concerns me, though—and it's somewhat hidden—is that we have cows that milk entirely too much. Cows that milk a lot require more nutrients when they're lactating, and they require more nutrients when they're dry. They have increased maintenance energy requirements because their visceral organs are larger. So, heavy milking cows can be a detriment, particularly when feed resources are limited.”

Paradoxically, while only a minority of commercial producers utilizes Expected Progeny Differences (EPDS) as their primary selection tool, it seems some seedstock producers continue to key on increased milk production when it may be in excess.

The continued lack of EPD use continues to disappoint Spangler.

“Survey data suggests only about a third of producers use EPDs as their primary selection criteria in choosing bulls,” Spangler says. “All of those involved in poultry, swine and dairy production utilize this technology.”

In the case of calving ease, for instance, Spangler points out birth weight accounts for only about 45 percent of the genetic variation in calving difficulty. Calving ease EPDs incorporate birth weight with other factors that account for a large amount of the difference.

Spangler also cautions against mistaking management for genetic selection.

“Culling open cows is not selecting for fertility,” Spangler says. “It is a management decision, not a genetic selection decision.”

Efficiency Matters Beyond the Ranch Gate

Aside from leaving money on the table, such opportunities take on added urgency, as increased efficiency seems to lie at the crossroads of converging consumer realities.

First is the need to produce 60-70 percent more food globally in the next 35 years in order to feed what is expected to be a global population of around nine billion people, compared to about seven billion currently. Much of that will have to come from producers blessed with the resources capable of such accelerated production, such as those in the United States.

At the same time, consumers make it abundantly clear they will not accept just any sort of production.

“Research tells us American consumers are increasingly interested in the social, economic and environmental impacts of the beef they purchase,” says Nicole Johnson-Hoffman, vice president of Cargill Value Added Meats and interim chair for the newly established U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (USRSB).

Utilizing the definition for sustainable beef recently released by the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB), the USRSB will develop sustainability indicators relevant to the various beef systems in the United States, as well as a means to verify sustainable progress in a transparent manner that can be shared. Similar to GRSB, the USRSB will not mandate standards or verify the performance of individual beef value chain participants.

“For the first time, the entire U.S. beef value chain, including representatives who raise cattle and produce, market and sell beef, in addition to representatives from the NGO community and allied businesses, are coming together to establish metrics and criteria that will be used to benchmark the present and help measure improvements in the sustainability of American beef going forward,” Johnson-Hoffman explains.

“The United States is a world leader in beef production and will play a key role in meeting the global challenge of feeding the world in a sustainable manner that allows future generations to thrive,” says Cameron Bruett, head of Corporate Affairs and Sustainability at JBS USA and president of the GRSB. “With the establishments of regional multi-stakeholder beef sustainability roundtables in Brazil, Canada, Mexico, Colombia and now, the United States, it is clear that the international commitment to sustainable beef enjoys tremendous momentum.”

Incidentally, the USRSB is being directed by an interim board of directors that includes representatives from Cargill, Beef Marketing Group (BMG), Texas Cattle Feeders Association, Micro Technologies, Merck Animal Health, JBS USA, McDonald's, Walmart, World Wildlife Fund (WWF), The Nature Conservancy, Noble Foundation and the King Ranch® Institute for Ranch Management.      

“American cattlemen and women are proud of our efforts to provide safe, affordable and sustainable beef on the plates of millions of American and global consumers every day,” said John Butler, BMG chief executive officer. BMG is a cattle marketing cooperative located in Kansas and Nebraska. “We stand ready to collaborate in this effort of continuous improvement across the social, economic and environmental aspects of beef production. Working together with members of the U.S. beef value chain, American producers are eager to add the next chapter to our long-standing heritage of stewardship and great-tasting beef.”

None of this will be any easier than it is to embrace, breeding, genetic selection and management changes that make a difference. It's more than possible, though, with discipline and commitment.

Ignoring 600 lbs. of cumulative weaning weight per cow. Foregoing proven tools to select genetics most suited to a particular environment. Aiming for production levels that cost more than they return. None of that is consistent with increasing efficiency or fast-approaching reality.

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