Take a walk through some feedyards and look at the different shapes, sizes and colors. There's practically no way to count the numbers of breeds that fill the pens.
Some say too many breeds create too much variation in the beef supply; others say there's a place for every one. That aside, it's the management of a breed, or type within a breed, that makes it a success or failure in the feedyard.
John Hough, chief science officer for EPD International, a beef cattle information management company in Statham, GA, says most problems with breed variations occur when cattle aren't fed according to their genetic potential.
"There is tremendous variation in all breeds of cattle and it's not appropriate to categorize an entire breed into one stereotype," Hough says. "Even the 'right' genetics managed in the 'wrong' environment can cause big problems."
Sorting traits related to genetics or environment will create a more efficient pen of cattle, and that's where Expected Progeny Differences (EPDs) can help. Put simply, EPDs measure the difference in performance that can be expected from future progeny of an individual compared to other similarly bred cattle.
Bruce Gordon, Minneapolis, MN-based beef sire selection manager for Alta Genetics, says using past performance records on like groups of cattle can often be the best guess as to what future performance will be.
"If you combine past performance of cattle with EPDs, you'll be able to sort out the traits that are genetic and factors that are related to the environment," Gordon says. "But, it's not always possible to know EPDs of every head on the truck."
That said, Gordon says it's still helpful to know the origin and makeup of the cow herd, the genetic crosses in a group, health records and other performance characteristics to determine the appropriate feeding program.
Identify Genetic Factors Despite knowing as much as possible about a group, there can always be questions when it comes to optimum feeding. Matching genetics to management or vice versa isn't always easy.
Once a foundation is laid however, Hough says developing feeding regimes gets easier.
"Using EPDs, producers can identify the growth potential, maturity rate, carcass composition and carcass quality genetic potential of their cattle," he says. "If they can accurately determine these genetic factors, matching feeding and management procedures will come easily, based on experience. Obviously, proper management and preconditioning will have a large, non-genetic bearing on how they perform."
He adds that the more you compare slaughter data to EPDs, the better you can fine-tune the feeding program.
Tweaking a ration for a specific pen isn't possible in all feedyards, though. Ted McCollum, Extension beef specialist with Texas A&M in Amarillo, says some variation can be managed by reading bunks correctly, getting cattle to a proper ration level quickly and feeding adequate amounts of protein so they gain well.
"Even though a customized ration may not be available for specific animals, EPDs are worthwhile to determine feeding plans," McCollum says.
He adds that EPD information is useful to determine which implant program to use, based on how the cattle may grade. For example, if a sire has a heavy yearling weight EPD, an implant program may be selected to avoid heavy carcass discounts.
If no EPDs are available, experience can guide you, Hough says. If a customer sends cattle without EPDs, but from the same background, a couple or more years' worth of data will show how best to manage those groups. But, just because two groups may look similar doesn't mean they can be managed the same way.
Hough cites near-identical looking Angus and black Limousin or black Simmental steers. Though they may look almost identical at an in-weight stage, they will likely have significant differences in days on feed, gain and grading.
If EPDs are available, Gordon suggests focusing on the yearling weight EPD or the adjusted yearling weight of a bull's progeny when compared to the breed average. He adds it provides a strong indicator of feedyard growth and performance.
With or without EPDs, matching feeding to potential is the challenge at hand.
"Matching your management feeding programs to a pen's genetics is the most important aspect in getting the most out of the cattle," Hough says. "If you feed and manage the cattle absolutely correctly, many types of genetics can end up with the same type of product. Even supposedly 'good' and 'poor' cattle can produce nearly the same end product if managed right."
Differences in genetic potential require different feed and management, according to Hough. Some are best fed as calves, others as yearlings. Some need high-energy rations while others need lower energy diets. And, some may never reach the desired grade endpoint, so they should be marketed earlier to reduce feeding costs.
He and McCollum agree that genetic shortcomings can be managed in the feedyard, especially if a group of cattle are consistent and genetically predictable.
"EPDs are the best tool for cow/calf producers to make guided decisions on what kind of sires they use on the cow herd," McCollum says. "More importantly, EPDs are a proven marketing tool that offers information about growth and carcass traits to buyers."
Existing EPDs will be improved over time as incentives build.
"Better, more diverse and more accurate EPDs need to be developed," Hough says. "These may include tenderness, consumer acceptance and feed efficiency. There's also potential for developing health and disease related EPDs."
And, the incentive may come soon. Hough estimates matching feedyard management to genetics may be worth $25 to $75 or more per head.
Getting There Quickly With an incentive of that amount, you'd think the industry would be blazing a trail toward genetic improvement. According to Roy Wallace, vice president and chairman of beef programs at Select Sires in Plain City, OH, some producers are improving genetics. Some of those are doing so at the encouragement of feedyard management.
"One of the biggest problems in the feedyard is that we have so many small groups of cattle," Wallace says. "That alone is hard enough to manage. Then you add in the numerous health challenges - some being preconditioned while others aren't - along with lack of an EPD profile, and it's a hard job getting any uniformity at all.
"With larger groups that have an EPD profile of the bulls that sired the calves, or the artificial insemination (AI) bull, you can more accurately predict what those calves will do," Wallace adds.
Genetics is only part of the equation, however. Managing calving seasons is an area where feeding customers can improve their profit positions.
"Calving seasons are simply too long. The easiest way to increase uniformity is to have a short calving season where more than half of the calves are born the first week," Wallace says.
A shorter calving season gets more calves to weaning weight earlier and into the feedyard as larger, more uniform groups that are easier to manage.
When it comes to improving genetics, Wallace says some producers object to labor and synchronization costs. He counters by demonstrating a plan that produces AI pregnancies, including synchronization and labor costs, for less than a $2,500 natural service bull.
Whether through natural service or AI, there are options for genetic improvement. Universities, breed associations and seedstock companies can develop specific plans for feeding customers.
"Follow the end product and make selections and adjustments from there," Gordon says. "And be very aggressive. Get rid of the poor performers."