Since my article of two months ago, I have received numerous comments and questions regarding the question, “Should I make maternal or terminal matings on my ranch?” Let’s see if we can get some additional answers or clarification. Let’s take the easy one first.
The main purpose of a terminal mating is to take advantage of breed traits or sire/dam complementarity to mate cows of small or moderate size to bulls that excel in growth and carcass traits. It is obvious that some people have let their cows get so big that there is no production advantage to terminal crossing. So, that is the main objective—moderate or small cows mated to high growth, high carcass bulls.
When you make true terminal matings for your entire herd, there are several considerations:
- All replacement cows (not heifers) are purchased rather than raised. They should be pregnant when purchased.
- Small to moderate cow size is highly important to the efficiencies that can be achieved. They must also be highly fertile and adapted to your environment.
- Nothing is more important to profit than stocking rate and herd fertility. You can run more cows on the same land if they are smaller; and they will usually be more fertile, especially if they are crossbred cows. Then when mated to high-growth, high-carcass bulls, you can expect higher weaning weights and better performance in the feedlot and on the rail.
- A ranch can be run very simply when only terminal matings occur and all the offspring are sold. Every cow has the potential to raise a calf; and the rancher has the potential to sell a calf from every cow. However, this never quite happens. All the animals can be run in a single herd making them much easier to tend.
- It is my opinion that many ranches in the U.S. should be doing this—especially the small farms or ranches.
There are different considerations for maternal matings:
- As in terminal matings, herd fertility and stocking rate are very important to profitability. Because of an increased stocking rate, smaller cows will wean more pounds of calf per acre than larger cows and they also will be more fertile.
- With my emphasis on small to moderate size, fertility, health and environmental adaptation, I am not suggesting that we ignore growth and carcass traits. However, I am suggesting moderation—keeping a lid on cow size and making sure herd fertility, calving ease and other maintenance traits don’t suffer as you apply selection pressure for more growth and better carcass.
When using selection pressure to increase growth and carcass traits, carefully watch what happens to cow size and conception rates. Don’t let cow size creep up, as we did for many years, and make sure your females can get pregnant with minimal supplementation.
- The main reason I suggest that maternal matings should happen on larger farms and ranches is because some age group segregation is usually needed to properly allocate grazed feed and supplementation resources to each age group. Yearlings, two-year-olds and cows have different nutritional requirements and they also have different abilities to compete with herd mates.
In my Nebraska experience, we were able to have separate, large herds of yearling heifers, two-year-olds, three-year-olds, cows and grandma cows. The ranch was quite large and so were the herds. Remember, labor is much more efficient when cows are in large herds.
- On moderate sized ranches, I would do some age group combining in order to maintain large herd sizes. However, care needs to be taken to make sure that movement from one age group to the next is done at a time that will minimize the reproduction and economic effects of having two age groups together.
I have seen weaned heifer calves combined with pregnant yearling heifers and separated at calving time or even after one cycle of breeding. I have also seen two-year-olds and three-year-olds run together; and I have seen grandma cows (the old ones) run with two-year-olds. It has been well thought out trying to optimize the advantages of larger herd size with the nutritional disadvantages of mixing age groups.
- The greatest potential advantage of producing your own replacement heifers is to make the kind of cows you like—if you are good at sire selection. Remember, poor sire selection can undo everything you do with female selection and culling.
I would look for bulls whose dams are very much like your most desirable cows. I think most herds have some very good cows. They always calve early, require no help or handling from you and always raise an acceptable calf. The advantage of making the kind of cows you like, by itself, will not offset the economic advantages of terminal crossing.
- Another potential advantage is to sell bred cows to those who terminal cross. When a market for bred cows is developed, the combination of making the kind of cows you like and developing a good market for bred cows should easily create enough advantage to compete with terminal crossing. The pricing of replacement cows needs to be mutually beneficial—to both buyer and seller.
- On the Nebraska ranches, we were keeping and breeding a high percentage of the heifer calves. The bull exposure period was usually 30 days. Open heifers were sold as feeders and the pregnant heifers were moved into the cow herd. This allowed us to sell a good number of bred cows each year and eventually sell every cow that didn’t calve in the first 30 days of the calving season. When you get to that point, you sell very few open cows. The bulls were left in the cows a long time but not in yearling heifers.
By the way, I have heard of suggestion that the industry should have a few cows to produce replacement females and many should be bred for terminal calves. You don’t have to play with the numbers very long to understand that it will take about 600 cows to make enough early bred replacement heifers for 1,000 cows if you cull for a few things in addition to reproduction, such as opens and dries. That means that 600 cows could replace themselves plus 400 cows for terminal crossing, or maybe 500 if conception rates and calf survivability are really good in both herds.
I know a number of smaller ranchers who would like to buy uniform cows from a single source as replacement cows. I also know several larger ranchers who are doing a good job of making cows but can’t find buyers. It’s too bad you guys can’t meet.
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.