From the dry plains of the Southwest to the steamy Gulf Coast, raising cattle in the Southern U.S. presents a challenge – the heat is hard on animals.
Producers in those areas have found a heavy influence of Bos indicus is the answer. Loose skin and floppy ears provide greater surface for heat expulsion, and sweat glands in the skin offer additional relief. Plus, they thrive on limited forage and have a high resistance to insects.
But Bos indicus cattle aren’t traditionally known for superior carcass traits. Thus, they don’t generally perform well on a value-based marketing grid, which limits profit potential for Southern producers. Only around 20-30% of cattle with significant Bos indicus influence grade USDA Choice and Prime.
That’s where the Southern Carcass Improvement Project (SCIP) comes in. Launched in spring 2009, the study set out to determine how much progress could be made – and how much value gained – in one generation by introducing quality Angus genetics into the typical Southern herd.
“Adaptability in that geography is a big deal,” says Mark Gardiner of Gardiner Angus Ranch, Ashland, KS, and host of the project. “No one is saying there’s no need for Bos indicus cattle in the South. They’re needed for heat tolerance and disease resistance. But we sell enough bulls into the Southeast to know there are sometimes problems with the end results. If you can’t make money on the product, it doesn’t do you much good.”
Gardiner stresses: “We’re not trying to change Southern cows. We’re trying to change Southern carcasses.”
So Gardiner selected three proven Angus bulls and set out to breed them to “typical Southern cows.” What makes SCIP unique is its scientific approach to quantifying the difference by using a control group. For that, Gardiner and his cohorts needed “typical” Southern bulls. They turned to bull studs, which supplied high-quality genetic semen from a variety of popular breeds.
The cows for the study were purchased by order buyers familiar with the area and Southern market. And the research design resulted from collaboration with scientists from Kansas State University and Virginia Tech. Among them was geneticist David Notter, a Virginia Tech professor emeritus of animal and poultry sciences.
“I was involved early in developing the experimental design,” Notter says. “It was designed for control, with the only difference being the Angus bull. We wanted to compare apples to apples.” The use of embryo transplant further solidifies the dam side of the equation.
A total of 22 beef cows from Georgia, Mississippi and Texas, representing Bos indicus-influenced genetics most often found in the South, were alternately flushed and bred to proven Angus sires and Southern sires.
The Angus bulls were chosen from the Gardiner stable for their carcass traits and performance records. The Southern bulls represent nine different breeds with varying percentages of Bos indicus influence. All have seen use as AI sires in their respective breeds, with semen selling in the $10-$40 range.
The calves resulting from the Angus sires make up the test group, while calves resulting from the Southern sires are the control. The project produced a total of 59 calves – 35 Angus-sired, eight Red Brangus-sired, seven Simbrah, three Braford, three Brahman, two Senepol, and one Santa Gertrudis.
The calves were born in spring 2010 and spent their first months grazing pastures together on the Gardiner Angus Ranch. The calves left the Gardiner Ranch early this year and were placed on feed in adjacent pens at Triangle H Feedyard in Garden City, KS. The experiment is designed to compare how the two groups perform under industry-typical management all the way to the packing plant.
“They were fed a normal finish ration,” says Sam Hands, Triangle H Feedyard manager. “And the Angus-sired calves out-consumed the Southern-sired calves.” He says on average, the Angus calves ate 5 lbs./day more feed than their Southern counterparts. “And, generally, if an animal eats more it should gain more.” Of course, Hands adds that doesn’t necessarily equate to better feed conversion. “We won’t know that until we get all the final data,” he says.
The Kansas feedlot conditions are typical of those experienced by Southern-bred cattle. Most calves produced in the South are shipped to western Kansas, Texas and the Oklahoma Panhandle for finishing. “They had a mild winter, and the last 50 days of their life were over 100°,” adds Gardiner, emphasizing the Bos indicus advantage.
From the beginning, the Angus influence was apparent. Angus-sired calves had shorter gestation lengths – an average of 8.3 days less – than the Southern-sired calves. And they had lighter birth weights, by an average of 9.6 lbs.
They began to gain on the Southern-sired calves by weaning time, showing average weaning weights 6 lbs. heavier than their counterparts, although that difference isn’t statistically significant.
Appropriate statistical adjustments were made for gender, and by the time yearling weights were taken on May 2, the Angus-sired calves showed a clear advantage. Angus-sired steers averaged 1,160 lbs., and heifers averaged 1,084 lbs. Southern-sired steers averaged 1,097 lbs. and heifers averaged 1,028 lbs. That’s a 60-lb. advantage to the Angus-sired test group.
The first draft of 29 calves, 18 from the Angus-sired test group and 11 from the Southern-sired control group, were harvested June 30, at 15 months of age, at National Beef. Harvest data on the first slaughter group appears to prove the hypothesis.
Of the Angus-sired group, 67% graded Choice, and 33% Select. The average USDA Yield Grade was 2.4. Meanwhile, all in the Southern-sired group graded Select, with an average yield of 2.3. In addition, the Angus calves outscored the Southern group on marbling, 423 to 348.
“That’s a premium difference of $35/head,” Gardiner says. “That’s real money, and it’s rewarding to see the results are what we anticipated. In one generation, we got calves from typical Southern cows that grew and consumed more like cattle that we are used to designing.”
All calves will be slaughtered and final data, including feed conversion, should be available by early October, he says.
For validation purposes, a second crop of calves is grazing the pastures at the Gardiner Ranch. Growth data is being collected, as will harvest data next summer. The second class will be handled exactly like the first.
The SCIP results are no surprise to Cooper and Katie Hurst. They’ve been living the experiment for over a decade.
“I’m just a commercial producer from southwest Mississippi. Nobody probably cares much what I’m doing,” Cooper says. “But I knew what they were going to see.”
The Hursts were managing their commercial cow-calf operation near Woodville, MS, built on F1 Braford cows, when they realized they had to make some changes if they wanted to realize added value.
“We were grading around 35% Low Choice or above,” Hurst explains. So they started adding Angus genetics, and saw some interesting results.
They compared one crop of calves from Braford cows with a group of Black Baldies, expecting a big weaning-weight difference. “It wasn’t there,” Cooper says. “The weight difference was small.” But post-weaning, the calves with the Angus genes caught and surpassed the others. The Hursts were sold.
Customers of Gardiner genetics for more than 12 years now, Cooper says their 2010 crop graded 95% Choice, and 50% Certified Angus Beef® (CAB). They retain ownership of their calves and sell them through U.S. Premium Beef.
Those involved in the SCIP project are hoping the data will show producers they can make a difference and be paid for improving herd genetics.
Larry Corah, CAB vice-president of supply development, agrees the potential is there. “This is a real opportunity to make genetic improvement, with tremendous potential to add value to a number of operations in the Southern U.S. It’s interesting and exciting to see the impact genetics can have on these kinds of herds and cattle,” he says.
For CAB, it means increased supply. “With the declining herd size, we’ve asked ourselves, ‘Where will our supply come from in 2020 or 2030?’” Corah says. Currently, only 23-25% of black-hided cattle qualify for CAB. “We’re dependent on more cattle meeting CAB standards, and projects like this demonstrate how that can be accomplished. There’s tremendous opportunity here for a huge impact on product quality – ultimately what the consumer wants – and the economic benefit that comes with it.”
That’s what Gardiner hopes.
“This is first and foremost a value-creation project,” he says. “If Southern cattle feed and grade better, that’s good for the whole industry. And if we can do that in one generation, that’s even better.
“Cattle have to fit their environment,” Gardiner continues. “If SCIP proves what we think it will, we can add value to a herd no matter where it is.”
Gardiner Angus Ranch
Gardiner Angus Ranch, Ashland, KS, is an enterprise long known for its contribution to genetic improvement.
Mark Gardiner’s grandfather, Ralph, was born on the Kansas land his parents homesteaded. He began putting together the present Gardiner Ranch in the 1920s and chose the Angus breed, according to family legend, because “he was a contrarian and everybody else had Herefords.”
He and his son, Henry, started the registered herd in 1947 and showed the Grand Champion at the Kansas State Fair that same year.
The ranch is now operated by Henry and sons, Greg, Mark and Garth. They raise around 1,500 bulls/year on 49,000 acres of Kansas prairie.
Mark says that, in the days before carcass data, Henry struggled with herd improvement. But once the business became data-driven, Gardiner quickly learned to use it to develop one of the top Angus herds in the business.
These days the ranch uses data and technology to full advantage.
“In 1964, our calves had a 523-lb. average weaning weight,” he says. “Now, it’s in the upper 800s. The only thing we’re doing different today than in 1964 is the improved genetics.”
Ultimately, it is those Gardiner genetics that are being put to the test in the Southern Carcass Improvement Project.
“Gardiner is to be commended for his identification of the need for this project, as well as his attention to the scientific process,” says Notter.