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Picking the Michael Jordans

Consider this — 1 lb. of gain from less than 4 lbs. of feed on a dry matter (DM) basis. A feed-conversion rate of the future?

Don't bet against it if you're talking about offspring from the 120-year-old Gardiner Angus Ranch, Ashland, KS. Mark Gardiner, brothers Greg and Garth Gardiner, and father Henry have exceeded expectations before.

Mark Gardiner sees a less than 4:1 conversion rate occurring before 2010. “In addition to being efficient, those cattle will be gaining 6 lbs./day more during their time on feed,” he contends.

A seedstock man with confidence to spare, Gardiner and his family have been part of a system whose offspring's influence may be apparent in close to 40-50% of the nation's Angus herds.

Grandfather Ralph, and great-grandfather Henry Clay, hoed the first rows toward one of the nation's most successful breeding programs. It was Mark's dad, Henry, who helped pioneer the use of artificial insemination (AI) in the 1950s, and the ranch has used it exclusively since 1964. Henry also helped start Certified Angus Beef® (CAB) in 1978.

The ranch, located in the central High Plains, receives about 18 in. of rainfall annually. Of course, that can range from 10 in. one year to 30 in. the next. Along with native grasses, wheat grazing with irrigation is essential to the program.

“We have a total AI program,” Mark says. “We use five to six main bulls a year, selected from strict expected progeny difference (EPD) studies. No cleanup bulls are used. We started an extensive embryo program in 1987. We currently breed more than 2,200 females/year and perform 2,500 embryo transfers (ET)/year. Every animal on our ranch is the result of AI or an ET.”

The Gardiner performance program has been measured precisely since 1964. The family has watched the weaning weights of male calves increase steadily while conversion rates have decreased.

In 1980, calves weaned at 10 months of age weighed 523 lbs. By the mid-1980s, average weaning weight had jumped another 200 lbs. By 2000, they were 850 lbs., and reached about 900 lbs. last year.

“In 1980, our average daily gain (ADG) was 2¾ lbs. on bulls fed an average of 7.48 lbs. of feed on a DM basis,” Gardiner says. “Now, our ADG is 5.7-5.8 lbs. from 4.2-4.3 lbs. DM.”

That advance in production has all been done with genetics, and by selecting what Gardiner calls “the Michael Jordans of the Angus breed.”

The Michael Jordan formula

Virtually all breed associations have a large database of information on their male and female breeding stock. Having the knowledge and ability to access that information, and then use it, is essential, Gardiner says. According to him, finding the Michael Jordans of the Angus breed isn't that difficult, thanks to the wealth of data available through the American Angus Association (AAA).

He contends the “secret” to the Angus business is the breed boasts “the world's most powerful, accurate information source — the sire evaluation report.”

Sire EPDs offer various traits one breeder may want over another. Producers then decide which is more important to a particular operation — growth or carcass weight, calving efficiency, etc. Every operation can have a different goal for each trait, Gardiner says.

“We try to breed for as many pounds as possible, assuming we can produce them in the correct package,” he says.

The Gardiners use 18 EPD traits and seven dollar-value indexes to select bulls.

“We put a lot of selection pressure against birth weight,” Gardiner says. “Most of the bulls we use are in the 1.5-2.5 range or less for birth weight EPD. We also put a lot of selection pressure against mature size, selecting sires in the bottom 10% for the yearling hip height EPD, and below-breed average for the mature daughter weight and height EPDs.”

After applying its selection criteria, the Gardiners select bulls with as much yearling weight as possible, followed by a milk EPD usually in the 20-28 range. For ranch customers who operate in regions of less rainfall, bulls with a lower milk EPD may be selected, Gardiner says.

Ultrasound EPDs are next. Sires must be positive for marbling and negative for fat EPD. A positive scrotal EPD is usually sought, but some bulls with negative scrotal EPDs are also used.

“We use the $Value indexes to make our selection,” Gardiner adds. “All the indexes are important to us, but we generally only use bulls ranking in the top 1% of the Angus breed for the $/Beef index. We only select sires that fit the (mentioned EPD) criteria and are high-accuracy bulls for these EPD traits. They must be progeny proven.”

Building a marketing program

Since the beginning of the Gardiners' AI program, heifers have been given 30 days to conceive or be culled. Cows have been bred on a 60-day breeding season.

“Since 1964, our pregnancy rate has been 95% or greater,” Mark Gardiner says. “We didn't have to compromise reproduction to achieve genetic improvement.”

Of course, getting paid for better genetics has been the family's goal since initial AI and ET programs began. Not so long ago, the packer-buyer priced the entire pen of cattle based on one set. That was good for the poorer cattle, but didn't add value to the better-performing steers or heifers.

That convinced Gardiner to join five other Kansas producers to help form U.S. Premium Beef (USPB), which has since spawned many other value-based grids.

“We believed in value-based marketing,” he says, “and USPB has put more money into our pockets, and our customers' pockets, than any other factor.”

USPB pays more than $20/cwt. (rolling market based) for each 800-lb. Prime carcass, or $161/head more than conventional marketing. It pays more than $4/cwt. for every CAB carcass, or $35/head more, he says.

“Overall, USPB has put more than $100 million into the pockets of cattlemen, and $1.85 million in Gardiner Angus Ranch customers' pockets, or about $62/head over the cash market,” Gardiner says.

Gardiner Ranch customers see added value through various sales. Through the Superior Video auction, for example, producers selling cattle with Gardiner-influenced genetics have averaged $5-$10/cwt. above market for various classes of cattle.

Gardiner would like to see better carcass traits overall for cattle trying to reach CAB standards.

“The biggest reason CAB still struggles with supply is because carcass traits of Angus cattle haven't been good enough,” he says. “Barely 17% of all eligible Angus cattle meet CAB minimum requirements.”

He expects the number to increase because of greater use of ultrasound.

“Ultrasound is more accurate than carcass data because we can measure more animals on a live basis to contribute to the database. The AAA records over 100,000 ultrasound measurements/year, where actual carcass data gathered is more limited,” he says.

Gardiner expects more improvement in the Angus breed for carcass traits in the next five years than in the previous 30. And if his prediction of a less than 4:1 conversion rate comes true, there should be some additional money in the pockets of a lot of folks.

Larry Stalcup is a freelancer based in Amarillo, TX.

Producers want checkoff changes

A Gallup Organization survey of 8,002 beef, dairy and veal producers nationwide from Oct. 4 through Nov. 21, 2006, found 72% either strongly approved or somewhat approved of the beef checkoff program.

The survey was conducted with oversight by USDA and as part of a settlement between the Cattlemen's Beef Board (CBB) and the Livestock Marketing Association (LMA) following the May 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision that ruled the Beef Promotion and Research Act constitutional. Some highlights include:

  • 66% of respondents strongly approve or somewhat approve of the CBB contracting directly “with any entity, including businesses, university researchers, advertising and marketing agencies, and other consultants.” Less than 25% would disapprove of this move.

    Currently, the Beef Promotion and Research Act requires that CBB contract only with “established national nonprofit industry-governed organizations … to implement programs of promotion, research, consumer information and industry information.”

  • 82% strongly approve or somewhat approve of a periodic referendum on program continuation.

  • Almost 92% strongly agree or somewhat agree that “if it were possible, all or at least some portion of beef checkoff dollars should be used to promote only U.S. born and raised beef.” Currently, because importers pay into the program at $1/head on live animal imports and a $1/head equivalent on beef products, the program promotes beef in general. In total, importers account for a total of $8 million, or 10%, of total checkoff assessments collected.

USDA officials say such a modification would entail a change to the authorizing law. Visit to view all the results by clicking on “Beef Checkoff Program Survey Results - PDF file.”