Straddling the fence

Terminal or maternal: Which should I choose?

Too many ranches are trying to straddle the fence. Choose one or the other. Looking at profitability, a terminal program usually works best.

Just over a year ago, I wrote two columns presenting the pros and cons of terminal and maternal matings. My experiences and ranch visits since then have led me to again address the subject—reviewing some of the more salient points and adding a few others.

It is my (stronger than ever) opinion that most of the small ranches in the U.S. should be buying replacement cows, mating them to “high growth, high carcass” bulls and selling the entire calf crop—both steers and heifers—every year. If you sell open and dry cows and replace them with bred cows, you will easily be more profitable than by producing your own replacement heifers. Points to be made for this argument are:

  • Nearly every cow can produce a marketable calf every year.
  • The depreciation on the cows (difference between purchase price and salvage price) is an inexpensive substitute for heifer development costs.
  • For replacements, buy bred cows—not bred heifers. Why not bred heifers? Her toughest two years are still in front of her. In addition to being placed in a new environment, the heifer must be calved and rebred as a 2-year-old. In addition, her calf won’t fit with the others. That defeats some of the advantage of terminal mating.
  • Cows must be small to moderate in size or you give up one of the key advantages to terminal mating—higher stocking rate with smaller cows mated to high growth bulls.
  • Bulls should be selected for growth, marbling, yield grade, calving ease direct and calf survivability. Most of the breed associations have good EPDs for all of these traits except perhaps survivability. Well-proven genetic tools can be used to select bulls that will produce calves that can excel after they leave your ranch. Repeat buyers should become the norm.
  • In addition to simplifying breeding management and marketing, it also allows for improved operational efficiency and increased profitability. By placing all the cows in one herd, you make all aspects of management simpler. It also greatly facilitates good grazing management, which will add far more to profit than genetics.

I know several producers doing this. One is even a very large producer. They tend to buy the late-calving cows from herds in similar locations. Often the purchased cows are a little younger and will tend to breed earlier in the next year or two.

They purchase bulls that favor growth and carcass traits along with adequate calving ease. Most of these operators are calving on the range.

Quite often, the bulls are composite or hybrid bulls associated with a breed or organization that makes EPDs available. Since no heifer calves are retained, culling is somewhat easier. Cow culling is limited to open cows, dry cows and cows that are beginning to fail—bad udders, poor body condition, eye problems, lameness, etc.

On the other hand, herds using maternal matings to make good mother cows cannot be as profitable as terminal mating herds unless they are able to sell bred cows at a nice premium over cull cow price. If you are going to raise your own replacements and not sell a good number of bred cows, you will not be as profitable as you would in a strictly terminal mating situation.

Making maternal matings does not mean that you ignore growth and carcass, but they are not nearly as important as other traits. In cow herds, stocking rate, fertility and survivability are the most important determinants of profit that relate to genetics.

So, bull selection should be based on fertility, calving ease (direct and maternal), disease resistance and longevity, maintenance requirements and temperament. I would add adaptability; but, if cows have these traits in your environment, they are becoming adapted.

Some would add milk to the list, but I contend that milk is anti-maternal. The conversion from grass to milk to pounds of calf is a terrible conversion. If you reduce the milk, you can add to carrying capacity and improve conception rates.

I would use milk EPDs to put a limit on milk production as I would use hip height and mature weight EPDs to put a limit on cow size. I think there are not yet good, reliable EPDs for fertility, longevity, cow herd maintenance requirements and disease resistance.

Remember, herds producing their own replacements will not be as profitable as those buying replacement cows and producing “high growth, high carcass” calves unless you sell bred cows as a major profit center. To be successful as a maternal breeder:

  • Select bulls that won’t undo what you are trying to accomplish by culling. Actually, cow culling is accomplished by selecting which cows to market as bred cows. They are not bad cows—just not as good as you want yours to become.
  • For strong maternal traits, bulls should be selected only from cows that always calve as a result of first cycle breeding. There should be evidence in closely related females that the bulls you are purchasing have a high probability of siring females with good udders, structural soundness and good body condition with minimal supplementation.
  • Expose heifers to bulls for a very short season.
  • Maintain a very short calving season. I like leaving bulls with the cows for a long time and selling all the late bred and/or late calving cows. Be disciplined to not keep any late-calvers.
  • Without excuse, market every open, dry or late-calving cow. Market bad dispositions, mothers of poor calves and those that require individual handling.
  • If you strictly cull for these problems every year, you will soon not have many to cull each year for reasons other than being open or dry. And the numbers of opens and dries will diminish also. You will be selling far more pregnant cows than opens.

I know several herds where selling bred cows has become a significant enterprise. Well over 50% of their total livestock revenue comes from the sale of bred cows.

In several of these herds, only the very best cows are kept beyond 6 years of age. They are capturing the appreciation that occurs in the younger cow years and avoiding the market value depreciation that begins to occur at about age 6. Also, the steer calf or yearling steer by-product of this system can still be a very acceptable product in the marketplace.

It appears to me that too many in our industry are trying to straddle the fence and combine both terminal and maternal in the same herd. It doesn’t work. Because of the available and most popular EPDs, you end up selecting for too much growth and carcass quality and lose cow efficiency.

Everywhere I go, I see bigger cows giving much more milk. Stocking rates are falling and/or much more supplemental feed is being brought in. Conception rates are falling.

I know that it is not a scientific sample, but anecdotally I hear from the people who respond to these columns that they are having the problems just described and they are beginning to make changes to get profitability back in line. When bigger calves mean fewer total pounds sold and for a lower price, it isn’t really working very well.

For those buying replacement cows, don’t be afraid to pay a nice premium for good cows. Those selling them deserve and need the premium for breeding and calving heifers. Those yearling heifers take up space (feed) but don’t produce a calf that year. The one paying the premium for good replacement cows is making a low cost substitution of depreciation for heifer development costs.

Teichert, a consultant on strategic planning for ranches, retired in 2010 as vice president and general manager of AgReserves, Inc. He resides in Orem, Utah. Contact him at [email protected].

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