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Producers Say Ultrasounding Commercial Heifers Pays

Remember those old World War II movies? The ones where the Navy ships are trolling for enemy submarines and the only sound that cuts the tension-thick air is the "ping" of the sonar?

Remember those old World War II movies? The ones where the Navy ships are trolling for enemy submarines and the only sound that cuts the tension-thick air is the "ping" of the sonar?

While the technology is considerably more advanced and the "ping" is relegated to sound effects in old movies, Kevin Smith and Norman Stovall III are, in a sense, not unlike those old battleship commanders. Instead of a sonar screen, they stare intently at spreadsheets. Instead of launching depth charges, they redline heifers. But they're using the best technology available in an incessant search for an enemy that lies hidden beneath the surface.

Their enemy? Small ribeyes and scarce marbling. Their target? Cattle that consistently hit Choice and Prime on the rail. The bullseye? The higher value those cattle can and will return to the operation.

According to Smith, a commercial rancher and owner of Cimarron Commodities in Seymour, TX, his goal is to produce 50% Prime in his steers by his fifth year in the cow-calf business. Stovall, with Agri-Ventures Corp. at Graham, TX, is looking to improve the overall genetics on 1,200 commercial cows on his family-owned ranch. Both of them say ultrasound data will help them achieve their goals much more quickly.

Intense management for quality. Smith is no newcomer to the cattle business. He's fed cattle for 25 years and run 500-1,000 stockers for the past 12-14 years on both native and improved pastures and winter wheat. He had a bred-heifer operation for several years as well. Three years ago, after selling out the last of his bred heifers, he decided to add cows to the mix to enable him to use summer forage the stockers leave behind.

He figured he could handle around 100 cows. But with limited space and forage, his challenge was to make every one of those cows return the highest possible profit to the operation. That means finding the highest value signals in the market and producing calves to hit those targets.

"I think if you ask 100 people in the industry what the target is in terms of what the packer is looking for, they'd all tell you 70% Choice and mostly USDA Yield Grade (YG) 2s and 3s," Smith says. "That's not my target. My target is Prime."

He figures it this way -- based on the U.S. Premium Beef grid that he sold his steers on this year, Prime paid a $26.70/cwt. premium to Choice. "And if you're over 50% Choice, you're getting paid a Choice premium of $10.59 in addition to the Prime premium. So why not aim for Prime?"

He ultrasounds his heifers as yearlings at a cost of $10 each, using Casey Worrell with Rancher's Resource in Harper, TX to do the work. The first heifers he bought and ultrasounded are now three-year-old cows. They came from a group of 244 heifers that were top-end animals based on visual appraisal, but with no information at all on breeding and genetics. Using the ultrasound data along with another sort for conformation, he kept the best 50 head.

The second year, he bought 168 more replacements and did the same thing, keeping 61 head. He kept 22 heifers and 19 steers out of his first calf crop. The steers went to the feedyard. The heifers were ultrasounded and evaluated just as the other two groups.

The ultrasound data not only gives him solid information to use in culling, but it accelerates his timeline. "The reason I ultrasound is to save the years of feeding and testing to get information," he says. Smith's bull supplier, Rich Blair of Blair Brothers Angus at Sturgis, SD, encouraged him to use ultrasound and estimates it will speed up Smith's ability to reach his goal by 10 years.

Smith mines the ultrasound data for a couple of things. First, he concentrates on marbling, reported on the data sheet as IMF, or intramuscular fat. Since he's shooting for Prime, the higher the number, the better. An IMF of 5% equates to small 0 marbling, the bottom end of Choice. IMF of 8% is slightly abundant, the bottom end of Prime.

Then he looks at ribeye area, culling anything below 1 sq. in./cwt. And finally, he culls on visual appraisal, looking for an animal that's deep bodied with lots of capacity and bone.

While he says he's not at his 50% Prime goal yet, he's well on his way. His 19 steers came out of the feedyard averaging 1,341 lbs. and 85% Choice, with 35% qualifying for Certified Angus Beef(R). On a yield basis, 73% were YG 3 with a few 4s and no 5s. On average, they netted $107.15/head over what they would have brought on the cash market.

But that's only part of the story. "Look at the difference in value," he says as he flips through spreadsheets. "The three Select steers ranged in value from $1,068 to $1,284/carcass. The Choice steers, their value ranged from $1,260 to $1,477." From top to bottom, that's a $409/head difference. If he had any Prime carcasses, he would have netted an additional $200/head.

"What do I want with a cow that's producing a Select carcass? I have no use for her. You can run a good one in the same tracks that a bad one's in. Why not have something that will produce a calf that will pay you a premium?"

Improving the herd average. Stovall agrees. He assumed day-to-day management of the family operation two years ago and is working to improve the data on his cattle. "In order to improve my overall quality-based genetics, I'm utilizing every tool possible and I believe that ultrasounding is a very important one," he says.

Agri-Ventures Corp. runs Angus/Brangus cross cows on five different places, all bred to registered Angus bulls, and Stovall selects replacement heifers from all five herds. He also uses Worrell for ultrasounding his potential replacements. "Ultrasounding provides feedback on an average base of what each herd is producing. It is a small snapshot, but it provides data for informed decisions."

Stovall uses a combination of conformation, disposition appraisal, hip height and pelvic measurement, along with ultrasound data, to select his replacements. "I'll measure hip height at 10 months and appraise conformation and disposition as a first-round selection." At 12 months, he measures the pelvis and if the heifer passed the minimum, she is ultrasounded.

For pelvic size, his goal is to reach a 170-square centimeters (sq. cm) average. This past year, the minimum was set at 156 sq. cm and this current set of heifers averaged 164 sq. cm.

He uses ultrasound data in much the same way, aiming to improve each herd's quality average. In 2001, the first year ultrasound was used, the IMF score ranged from 2.0 to 3.5 with an average of 2.54 on 20 heifers. "Now, the range for 2007 yearling heifers was 2.9 as a minimum cutoff to the top heifer at 6.72, with an average of 3.95 on 140 head," he says. "I would like to produce an average of 5-6 IMF score as a minimum baseline on future heifers. We are working toward eliminating less than low Choice."

Considering all those traits and data gives him better options for culling decisions. Last year, he kept a heifer that had a 2.9 IMF score along with a minimum-sized ribeye area of 9.8 sq. in. (1.18 sq. in./cwt.). "She was a nice heifer that fit the hip height requirements and should reach a frame score of 6 at maturity. That size cow works well in our part of the country."

Since Stovall artificially inseminates all his replacements, he is able to select sires based on EPDs that match well with each individual heifer. For example, the heifer that had the 2.9 IMF and 9.8 ribeye area (REA) score was bred to a registered Angus sire with an IMF score of 8.95 and a 13.8 REA, thus improving two critical carcass traits in this heifer's first calf, he says.

However, both Smith and Stovall caution that it's important to make comparisons within contemporary groups, due to year-to-year differences in forage and environmental conditions. "The fly in the ointment is, if you stress these heifers on a nutritional or health basis as they are developing (4 to 8 months is the critical age), marbling during that stage can be greatly impacted," Stovall says.

This year, Stovall kept and bred 140 heifers from last year's calf crop. "I would like to increase that number to 200, accelerating the quality of cattle I'm raising and accomplishing my goal of having ultrasound data on each cow standing."

Until that goal is realized, Stovall has been able to make better-informed herd sire decisions by utilizing herd average ultrasound data, thus improving the overall quality and consistency of his calves.

Stovall hasn't fed any steers recently, but still sees a premium for the quality genetics he produces. This past spring, he sold steer and heifer lots over Superior Livestock Video Auction and buyers responded very positively to the quality genetics, backed by hard data.

"Ultrasounding is not new technology and I am surprised that more commercial producers aren't utilizing it," he says. "When there is an $8-$10/cwt. premium available for quality cattle, it makes sense to incorporate an ultrasound program into the management plan in order to know what you're producing."