mating for terminal cattle

Should you make maternal or terminal matings?

In most cases, it’s not practical to have both a maternal cowherd that produces replacement heifers and a terminal program that sells market cattle.

For the last 30 years or more, most American cattle producers have been making terminal sire matings. It first started with crossbreeding, but for the last 15 or so of those years, the matings have been within one breed.

Let me explain that rather blunt statement. In the early 70s, when cow size and milking ability were reasonable, the “new breeds” were beginning to become popular with American cattlemen. Many started to use Simmental, Gelbvieh, French Charolais, Limousin, Saler and other breeds in an attempt to make our Angus, Hereford and Shorthorn cattle better and to capture some heterosis. At the same time, the USDA Meat Animal Research Center (MARC) began its Germ Plasm Evaluation (GPE) work which continues to this day.

The “new breeds” were bigger (in some cases significantly bigger) than our domestic cattle. I have no problem with the idea of infusing new germ plasm into our domestic cattle production, but I do have a problem with the race to bigness that began when the new breeds showed up.

This has gone to the point that now the biggest breeds in America are Hereford and Angus. And by biggest, I don’t mean the numbers of cattle, but bigger in hip height and weight. The original concept of terminal crossing was to mate a moderate sized cow to a bull from a larger breed (complementarity) to get a big calf from a moderate cow and thereby gain some production efficiency by keeping cowherd maintenance requirements reasonable and maintaining stocking rates while weaning bigger calves that would grow faster in the feedlot.

However, we simply kept breeding bigger bulls to the cows we had and to the heifers we were retaining from those matings. Weaning weights increased, but so did cow size and milking ability. We liked the big weaning weights and didn’t pay much attention to the antagonistic results in cow size and milk production along with increases in feed requirements, poorer conception rates and lower stocking rates on our ranches.

I lived through and experienced every bit of this starting in 1971 or 1972 when our family ranch started to breed moderate sized Hereford cows to Simmental bulls. I could persuade Dad to try that because he thought the calves might closely resemble Herefords. In our attempts to grade up toward purebred Simmental, only low percentages of the ¾ Simmental heifers got pregnant.

We then knew there was a problem. So, we started to breed the ½ Simmental heifers to Red Angus bulls which made a real nice cow, but we were caught in the race too—always finding the highest growth bulls of whichever breed we were using.

We were all making terminal matings. Someone should have been selecting for fertility, maintenance efficiency, herd health, environmental adaptation to a low input environment, etc.

From then until now I have made a lot of changes in the way I breed cattle. Thankfully, I wasn’t alone. Others were seeing the light also and we could have a good exchange of ideas and share personal observations--such as, you can have too much growth and size, you can have too much milk, and it’s not easy to get enough heterosis.

Now I am to the point where I recommend that you make a choice:

  1. Make your own replacement heifers that are highly fertile; moderate in size and milk production; healthy and functional in a low input environment; calve unassisted and raise acceptable market calves.
  2. Buy replacement cows from those breeders who make the kind I just described, mate them to terminal sires and sell all the calves.

Most ranches are not large enough to have one herd designated to make cows and another herd for terminal crossing. I have managed large ranches and know the logistics of two breeding programs are not simple.

If you have two centers of operations or you can have two large adult cowherds, you may consider having a replacement cow program and a terminal program; but, in most cases, I would recommend one or the other. It is difficult to be truly good at two things and most ranches will have a comparative advantage for one option or the other.

If you can’t find or develop a market for bred cows, or breeding and calving first calf heifers presents problems, you may have a comparative advantage in buying replacement cows and terminal crossing. I think most small ranches should buy cows, terminal cross and sell all the calves.

This will greatly simplify operations and generate a good marketable product while achieving a good stocking rate. When terminal crossing, every cow has the potential to wean a calf if all the open cows are sold and replaced with pregnant cows after weaning.

I think most large ranches should make their own cows. Start by exposing a high percentage of your heifer calf crop for a very short breeding season—not longer than 30 days. Sell all late calving and late bred cows to someone who needs replacement cows.

On one of the large ranches I managed, we were selling all the cows that had not calved in the first 30 days after the due date. Remember that a good number of cows calve before the due date. These were good cows for a terminal cross program.

The ranch that breeds and calves more heifers to enable a significantly shorter calving season will need to sell bred cows to be as profitable as a terminal crossing ranch. Those bred cows should be worth a premium to incentivize the keeping, breeding and calving of extra heifers.

In the meantime, the terminal crossing ranch can afford to pay a premium because every cow has the potential to wean a calf. There is room for good win-win relationships in this concept.

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