Last month I talked about culling the right cow. You should cull cows to keep your herd cleaned up and managerially efficient. This minimizes the time required for doctoring, calving problems, taking care of the wild ones and the labor requirement for a strung out calving season. It also reduces the number of animals that are hard to market. In the process, you will also have a positive effect on herd fertility, health and adaptation to your management and environment.
Bull selection can result in rapid change. However, change may not always result in progress or improvement. In fact, I will suggest that a lot of our so-called “improvement” in cattle growth rates has been more than offset by reductions in stocking rates, conception rates and herd health.
The result has been more time spent doctoring cattle, lower conception rates and/or higher feed bills, and fewer pounds produced per acre. Because the calves that are produced are bigger, they bring less per pound. Therefore, we now sell fewer pounds per acre at a lower price per pound.
We are now seeing research on this. In only one case have I seen calf weaning weights higher as cow size decreases. Usually calf weights decrease as cow size decreases, but not proportionally. So, when stocking rates are adjusted to fit cow size, enough more cows can be run that, in spite of lighter calves, more pounds are weaned per acre.
On many ranches, the number one determinant of profit is the ratio of grazed feed to fed feed. Once you have gotten over doing a lot of feeding, stocking rate becomes the number one determinant of profit; and stocking rate is determined by cow size and milking ability along with grazing and pasture management. Next comes herd fertility. Then, in a group, come marketing, cows per person ratio and herd health problems.
Therefore, let’s take all of that into consideration as we make bull selections. Here are five tips:
Cull the right cow: Why would I want to buy a bull born to a cow that I would have culled at my ranch? Go through your cull criteria and ask if the mother of “that” bull would still be in your herd. I firmly believe that, if you have reduced feeding to the bare minimum, have selected good, moderate-sized bulls and have culled cows as I described last month, you have some very good cows. Those are the kind of cows that should be mothers of bulls.
Size and milking ability: If you want cows that can graze most of the year and get pregnant early in the breeding season, and if you want to wean more pounds per acre by running more smaller cows with less milking ability, you will want to select bulls with less mature size and lower milk EPDs.
I’m sure there is room for some difference of opinion here, but to maximize pounds produced per acre and at the same time keep supplemental feed cost at a minimum, I want cows to be as small as they can be and still produce a feeder calf that will be acceptable at the market place.
I know the feeder and packer seem to want them bigger and bigger. But you need to stay in business first. There is information indicating that producers are using bulls with higher and higher EPDs for milk and for weaning and yearling weight. But actual weaning weights on the ranches have not changed in recent years. However, cow size has.
If your attempts to produce bigger and bigger calves are robbing you of conception rate and good herd health, are costing you more in feed cost and supplementation and reducing your stocking rate, you should reconsider your breeding priorities.
Heterosis: Carcass traits are quite highly heritable. Growth traits are moderately heritable. Milk is less heritable and fertility, health and longevity are considered to be the least heritable.
But, because carcass traits are highly heritable, they don’t respond much to heterosis while other traits do. The rest of the traits respond, with the more highly heritable having a smaller response and the less heritable having a greater response to heterosis. Optimum heterosis is most likely different for each situation, but I want a significant level of heterosis in every cow.
Heterosis will significantly enhance fertility and health while slightly increasing milk and growth. You can’t expect selection to do what heterosis does nor vice versa.Parenthetically, I think that some aspects of fertility—first cycle conception as a yearling and calving interval—are more highly heritable than heritability estimates would suggest.
Disposition: As an industry, we have made great progress across many breeds on disposition. I think every bull should be carefully scrutinized for disposition. It is refreshing and encouraging to see herds of cows in breeds with reputations of poor disposition that have wonderful dispositions.
Growth and carcass: Improving growth rates and carcass traits is desirable as long as the negative consequences don’t overbalance the positives. When you make sure that the bulls you purchase will produce the kinds of cows you want, you then need to move carefully and cautiously to get the desired results without undoing much of the good you have accomplished.
I think it can be done, but carefully and slowly. Genomics and heterosis, if they can become compatible, could help move growth and carcass forward faster without undoing progress in the other traits. Currently, a number of genomic tests only validate in high percentage Angus cattle. When those tests are valid across a number of breeds and crosses, much progress could be made.
Perhaps the best breeding decision a commercial producer will ever make is the choice of a seedstock provider. Find someone whose breeding objectives mirror your own, who operates in an environment similar to yours, who can help you benefit from heterosis and can understand your objectives and help you select the right bull.
P.S.—I continue to maintain that about 40% of the cows in America should be bred to terminal-cross bulls. Producers choosing that option should buy cows (not heifers) from producers who cull cows and select bulls as I have described. They should then select bulls with high growth and carcass EPDs for use on those cows—not the moderate EPDs that I have suggested in this article for those producing replacements.
Burke 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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