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Black Ink: Keep the mild, Cull the wild

Whether you have two cows or 2,000, there is a top and bottom half of your herd. The top half is above average in some way, the kind you want more of. The trouble is, a cow is often above average in one trait and below average in another. Sometimes the meanest cow in the herd weans the biggest calf.

If you cull strictly on disposition score, she’s gone. But her calf was 40 lb. heavier than any other in the herd and she hasn’t actually hurt anybody yet. Still, to paraphrase a credit card commercial, not having to rebuild your corral or worry about injury every time ol’ “Twister 245” goes through: priceless.

Research in Iowa and Colorado during the last decade has begun to justify culling for disposition as more than a convenience trait, when you consider the strong temperament link between cow and calf. Thousands of steers fed in Iowa during the 1990s and scored from mild to wild, show the calmest steers made $61/head more in the feedlot than their high-strung counterparts.

Colorado work backs up those feed efficiency and gain correlations, and shows 25% of the wildest scoring cattle end up as dark cutters, compared to less than 5% of other cattle. Dark cutting carcasses may be discounted by $300 or more.

Just one or two wild acting calves can excite more of your calf crop and cause the whole lot to make a bad impression on potential buyers. Worried about poor gains and discounts, they may choose not to bid. You could lose in the long run by holding onto wild cows that wean heavy calves, because your reputation is at stake.

You need a way to look at your cows that considers several relevant traits. Economically important traits must lead the way, but some, like temperament, will always be a judgment call.

The simplest approach is to work the bottom end of the herd, culling on a “strike” rule. For example, any open cow gets a strike. If you have a lot of replacements coming up, one strike might be all you allow. Producers must weigh the investment in her development, and all other traits, against the annual $300-$400 cost to keep her with no return.

Many producers elevate non-pregnancy to the level of two strikes, also culling for any combination of two other strikes. Those may be decided by such criteria as poor udder, mothering ability, thin condition, low weaning or yearling weight of progeny, multiple grid discounts of progeny, unsound feet and legs or, again, unmanageable disposition.

Of course, any one trait can get so far from optimum that you have no choice but to cull.

There are five- to seven-point rating systems devoted to most of these individual traits, from body condition score (BCS) to temperament. Using these can help you see the difference between a foul tip and a strike, but you can’t see the big picture.

The concept of a multi-trait selection index was developed as a decision-making tool more than 60 years ago. If you have dairy management experience, you’re more familiar with the idea, but even there, it is mostly associated with bull selection. Indexing does work great for choosing bulls from among various breeds, involving dozens of expected progeny difference (EPD) numbers.

But for those with individual cow-calf records, indexing the cowherd could help identify and build on the overall best cows in your herd. A computer program will help, but it takes time and effort to devise an index that fits your production scenario and goals.

Look at all the cow traits that are of economic importance to you. If you like something but it doesn’t affect profit, leave it out of the index because it will only dilute relevance and progress.

Canadian research provides the Ellerslie Index (search for it on “Ropin’ the Web at Its formula, “100 + (% of weight weaned - herd average) x 2 + (BCS - herd avg.) x 6,” uses the five-number Canadian BCS system, so U.S. producers would need to make some adjustments.

If you weigh cows and calves, and assign BCS numbers each fall, you could calculate such an index. In theory, most other traits relate to it, but you would need to add or subtract for disposition and postweaning value of calves. Still, these concepts can be applied to generate a single number for each cow in the herd so that ranking top to bottom will identify the best and worst.

Grazier: The Value of Education

A lot of farm and ranch kids growing up in the '70s and '80s were told by their parents to “get an education” and find a better job than farming or ranching. Lack of profitability and too much daily drudgery drove most of my generation off the farms and ranches where they grew up.

Kids continue to leave and go to better jobs in the city. A lot of them would like to come back and try their hand at managing the old home place. Some have successfully made that midlife transition.

“Getting an education” can mean different things. One kind of education is going off to college and getting a degree. I've met a wide array of farmers and ranchers — some with college degrees, many without. Some of the best managers I know have nothing more than a high school education.

The real difference I see in farm and ranch managers' success isn't in their high school or college education, but in how they have continued to educate themselves after entering the working world. I've met men and women graduates of ag schools 20 years ago who are still trying to implement and apply what they learned in those classrooms, but they have never attended any kind of workshop or school since then.

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Sage seedstock advice: Keep it real

Breeding seedstock provides genetic leadership to the industry, but it comes with some responsibility. Temptations are plentiful; so it’s good to frequently remind ourselves of the needs and expectations of commercial cattlemen and focus on those traits. Here are some temptations to be wary of:

1. Single-Trait Selection. Years ago when the seedstock business was in a frame race, the frame advocates justified their selection because the seedstock industry needed to run ahead of the commercial industry to provide change. But why did the elephant chasers provide such leadership only in a single trait? For instance, if the industry needed Choice, YG 2 cattle, why weren’t their cattle capable of producing Prime YG 1’s? Why weren’t their cattle more fertile, faster growing, etc., etc., than the industry norm. Now that would have been leadership!

Profitability lies in the middle of the road in a lot of traits. Cows that reproduce annually, are trouble-free, wean a good calf, produce steers that gain in the feedyard, carcasses that can garner grid premiums and avoid the discounts. Concentrate on the total package.

2. Making Excuses. We all remember what she looked like as a heifer; the kids had her at the county fair and the judge loved her. But weaning three calves in seven years, that’s not too much to ask of a good cow, is it? He was a bit heavy at birth, but dang he looks good at weaning…let’s put him in the bull pen.

Commercial beef production is challenging. Few producers can afford to reproduce your mistakes, so do your part to provide seedstock that will keep them in business. Cull critically, especially in fertility.

3. Providing an Artifical Environment. Successful merchandising requires that you develop bulls and heifers that you intend to sell. When the temptation spills over to the cowherd it can lead to trouble. Take a look at your commercial customers. How do they manage their cowherd? Your herd should be well managed but not to the point of getting too far out in front of your customers. I can cite more than one example of seedstock producers who have a reputation for over feeding their cowherd…coincidentally, they have also gained the reputation that their cattle are ‘hard-doing;’ hmmm, I wonder why?

4. Follow the Same Old Selection Program. When I was in graduate school we visited a western South Dakota seedstock breeder who told us that he always sold his very top performing heifers rather than keep and breed them; I thought he was insane.

Then another producer told me about a visit he made several years ago to a reputation Hereford breeder and was impressed with the uniformity of the cowherd. He asked the breeder how he accomplished that; the breeder responded that he selected his replacements out of the middle of the heifer crop. I’ve come to appreciate that.

Certainly not all, but many seedstock herds have adequate growth in their herd. Those breeders have the luxury of not following the traditional selection scheme and focus on other traits. EPDs are a great tool to keep things balanced or they can be misused to chase and maximize a trait. Become a student of the antagonisms that occur between traits. Seek the middle of the road.

One last story. A breeder who was involved in the early days of another continental breed shared this story with me. As things started to cool in that market, one of the disenchanted investor-type breeders joked, “I’d just make them into commercial cows if they were good enough.” Something to ponder.

Wayne Vanderwert is executive director of the American Gelbvieh Association. Contact him at [email protected] .

Range Science 101: Avoid Damage to Pastures during Fall Grazing

A little extra rain this fall and cooler temperatures have stimulated many cool-season pastures with smooth bromegrass, Kentucky bluegrass, wheatgrasses and needlegrasses to provide some extra growth compared to the past several years. Extra fall regrowth is always welcome but as we move towards the end of the growing season, try to avoid grazing off every green blade.

Although it is tempting to keep livestock on these nice green pastures as long as possible, grasses need the opportunity to rejuvenate their energy reserves and root systems in the fall to allow for vigorous growth next spring. Grazing off a little regrowth just before winter could cost you a lot of spring growth next year.

To help pastures reach their growth potential for next year, be sure to leave at least 2 to 4 inches of green leaves if you live in Western ranges and 4 to 6 inches of green leaves in pastures in the Midwest at least two to three weeks before the average date for the first killing frost of the season. Typically, a killing frost is considered to be 3 successive nights of less than 20º F. Temperatures like this will ensure complete perennial vegetation dormancy.

These remaining leaves will allow the plant to continue photosynthesizing, producing energy needed for root growth and nutrient storage. Having a healthy reserve of stored energy will help vegetation avoid winter kill. Next spring, these reserves will be used by the plant to establish the first flush of green growth before the plant is able to start photosynthesizing on its own.

Leaving a little grass on your pastures this fall will put more grass in pastures next spring.

Cow Numbers, Beef Demand Or Washington D.C.?

In the past, if you asked me which factor is the most important in determining profitability in the cow/calf sector, I would have said supply and demand. If asked the question today, I would probably answer it the same way, but with hesitation. I certainly wouldn't call it a positive development, but the role of government is becoming increasingly important.

The impact that government decisions have on our business is growing at a phenomenal rate, while at the same time, rural, agricultural and beef industry political clout is diminishing relative to other political demographics, many of which are in opposition to our industry. It's to the point now that, while it is great to talk about supply and demand constraints, the most critical thing to know may be what will play out in the beltway. Certainly, it's still correct to talk about increasing the efficiency of production and improving the quality of our product, but what happens in D.C. may be the biggest determinant in the future.

Look at several issues that Congress is working on. This week a coalition of ag groups, including NCBA, the American Meat Institute and National Meat Association, sent a letter to Congress asking them to take a cautious approach to the Renewable Fuels Standard (the current one expires in 2012, a new standard is expected to be included in this year's farm bill). The ethanol subsidy has already reshaped the underlying economic principles this country was built upon, and government mandates in regard to renewable fuels could have as much impact on the beef industry's long-term prospects of profitability than anything else.

This week also saw continued frustration over the reopening of the market in South Korea. Not only is the Korean/U.S. Free Trade Agreement hanging in the balance, but so is our inability to get other nations to follow international standards as well. We have stopped the slide in domestic beef demand, but in the long-run, the U.S. is a mature industry. Future demand growth will be dependent on the other 96% of the world's population adhering to scientific-based global beef trade.

Then there are outside factors ultimately influencing beef demand, such as tax policies, disposable income, inflation and other economic drivers. Food inflation is currently running at twice the rate of other inflation due to ethanol subsidies and higher energy costs. Long-term, we know this trend cannot continue.

The weakening U.S. dollar has been great for ag, leading to more exports and less imports, but, as with budget deficits, there are numerous cause-and-effects, such as exporting of inflation to economies like China. China has become the primary economic driver alongside the U.S. in the global economy. Regulatory rules and dictates on environment, animal welfare and the like are constantly adding costs but without any subsequent increases in value. Cost of terrorism... the list goes on.

This is the time of year when ranchers are preconditioning, weaning and preg-checking. Maybe calls to our congressman, attending state and national cattlemen meetings and donating dollars to our industry's PACs will be just as important on our planning calendars.

Al Gore Nobel Peace Prize Winner!

If you ever needed proof of the public relations campaign being waged over global warming and the environment, all you have to do is look at the recent list of awards garnered by Al Gore.

Some political pundits dismiss the attempts to make Gore's efforts look heroic despite the lack of scientific foundation as merely left-wing activism. They point out that two major criteria to winning the Nobel Peace Prize in recent years is to be anti-Bush or anti-American and liberal in one's political leanings. Recent winners have far less to do with peace than they do in representing a certain ideology and worldview. I would argue this goes far deeper than just political correctness run amok.

Al Gore's Academy Award for best documentary was also based on political agendas, and demonstrates the extent to which the environmental movement has moved beyond protecting the environment to a larger, more in-depth movement. It doesn't take a conspiracy theorist to see the economic philosophy the movement has embraced (anti-market, anti-capitalism and very pro-socialist), its view on government's proper role vs. individual choice, global trade and rights of individual countries.

The bottom line is that advocates of this political movement do not want to conduct this debate on a scientific or intellectually honest basis. They want this to be an argument based on emotion. Like so many of these mass movements in the past, those who support it are heroic, those who oppose it are villains, and any marketer in the world will tell you that emotion trumps logic every time.

Those of us who support a more reasoned and scientific based approach to protecting the environment best come to the realization that while scientific studies and economic analyses are great, they are not nearly as powerful as a polar bear looking forlorn as it floats away on a piece of ice.

Are You Collecting Information Or Just Data?

One of the first questions Harlan Hughes asks producers is: Are you collecting data or information? Hughes is a farm business management guru and monthly "Market Advisor" columnist for BEEF.

"Data are just raw numbers collected in some fashion. Information, on the other hand, is data that is used to make management decisions," he says.

Hughes believes most ranchers collect data but fail to convert it into information. Computers make that transition much easier.

"One of the key benefits of computerized records is that data can be sorted in so many different ways," Hughes says.

David Lalman, Oklahoma State University (OSU) Extension beef specialist, agrees. He uses "queries" to rapidly sort through records in a number of different ways. "You just can't do that if they're in written form," Lalman says.

An example is sorting records for all two-year-old cows that weaned calves at 50% of their bodyweight.

Sorting cowherd records was useful to Lalman and OSU researchers last year, when drought forced them to cull cows.

"That's the time to know the cows that are highly productive, very efficient, have short calving intervals, never miss a calf, and so on," he says.

But before producers can get to the stage of running queries and year-end-analysis, the basics of recordkeeping must be done.

Recordkeeping 101. Data collection for computerized herd records works just like any other database -- animals must have a unique identifying number or tag to attach data to.

"If you're going to have individual animal ID, you might as well utilize that information to improve your cowherd," says Lalman. "That's what herd management software can do for you."

Kris Ringwall, a beef specialist at North Dakota State University's Dickinson Research and Extension Center and point person for the Cow Herd Appraisal Performance System (CHAPS), estimates that only 5% of producers have a recordkeeping system tied to individual cow ID, even though 60-70% of calves and most cows are tagged in the U.S. He bases this off of the National Animal Health Monitoring Service (NAHMS) study conducted 10 years ago. The 2007-08 NAHMS study gets underway this fall.

"I refer to most of them as 'earrings' because they really aren't doing anything with the tags," Ringwall says. "If you want some real information on change, you've got to look at the individual animal."

In order to do that, Ringwall and Lalman say it's crucial to determine herd inventory. By doing so, reproduction can be better gauged by knowing how many cows are open, bred and exposed.

"It's just like a store; you can't manage a store without knowing what your inventory is."

Perpetual inventory paints a picture about the operation, such as replacement and culling percentage, and if the herd is stable or increasing in size. This naturally brings up such questions as stocking rates and wintering numbers, or what Ringwall calls "the details."

"Successful cattle operations deal in detail, and it's those details that answer questions," Ringwall says. Hughes confirms that high-profit managers pay attention to details.

What to collect. Producers can collect a plethora of information, and commercially available herd management software is designed to accommodate every detail.

"It's almost overwhelming for most people to start out by importing every bit of data they've got into a new software package," Lalman says. He suggests producers begin with their current calving information, such as ID, birth date and sire (if known).

Ringwall boils it down to collecting: birth date, cow number, calf number, and calf weight in the fall (weaning). A stumbling block to producers is birthweight. If they aren't collecting it, they think they can't keep individual herd records.

"Birthweight is never required," Ringwall says, but it can be another data point. He cautions that data points can get out of hand when producers set their expectations too high wanting to know, "what pasture this calf was in in June?" or "what did this calf weigh after one type of grass before I moved him to another type of grass?"

Ringwall says CHAPS and other programs will allow producers to do a lot of that tracking, but these are intermediate measurements.

"You've got to remember not to get so bogged down in the details," he explains. "Records can't interfere with your day-to-day processes because they have to co-exist."

Choosing new software. After receiving numerous phone calls inquiring about herd record software, OSU researchers compiled data on eight commercially available software programs to aid producers in selecting a herd management program right for them. The report provides extensive detail on each software program in regard to: cow, sire, calf and herd information, along with computer requirements and additional considerations. To view the March 2007 report, visit:

Most software programs studied need a Windows 95 Operating System or newer, with the exception of Red Wing Cow/Calf and Cow Sense programs, which require Windows 98 or newer versions. Minimum RAM (random access memory, or data storage space) needed for programs is 16 megabytes (MB), with 10 MB of hard disk space available.

Software costs range from $75 on the low end, to $695 on the high end, varying among commercial, seedstock and herd size. Ringwall notes that the CHAPS program has a one-time cost range of $30-$80.

"If available, start with the simple version of the software," Lalman suggests, noting that most companies allow upgrades to more complex versions.

It's also important to consider support availability and cost of each software program. This acts as a users' helpline in terms of understanding how the software works. Help is offered in a variety of ways, including phone, e-mail, Web-based and workshops.

OSU researchers conclude that every cow-calf producer must determine how much time to devote to practical recordkeeping and weigh this commitment against software costs, data entry features and desired summary reports.

Once software is chosen, producers should identify who will be responsible to operate it. Lalman says the best candidate is someone who is detail-orientated and comfortable with a computer.

"It's not going to be the guy who rushes from one project to the next," Lalman says. "It won't get done. And it won't get done accurately. If it isn't accurate, it isn't useful, and can actually be misleading."

Data also needs to be consistent, such as recording cow weights at the same time each year for year-to-year comparisons.

Ringwall suggests producers take their time compiling data.

"Check for errors and make sure everything's right, because data that isn't checked isn't worth anything," Ringwall says. Most producers utilizing the CHAPS program will wait until the winter months to analyze their cowherd records because the information isn't meant for chute-side decision making.

Once everything is properly entered in the database, it's important to keep a backup, just in case of computer crashes or glitches. Ringwall encourages producers to keep hard copy records as well.

"You've got to be realistic with your time expectations, because records shouldn't take that much time," and when producers are overzealous, other things get forgotten, Ringwall says. Bottom line, he says, "Quit procrastinating and just do it."

Plan To Be In Omaha Nov. 7-8 For BEEF Quality Summit

Almost overnight, the ethanol juggernaut has reworked the U.S. agricultural landscape. Driven by ever-increasing, government-mandated production levels, almost 5 billion gals. of ethanol were produced in 2006, and Congress this fall will consider a Renewable Fuels Standard that could require as much as 36 billion gals. of renewable fuels be produced in the U.S. by 2012.

It's been a boon to struggling rural communities, but U.S. livestock producers, traditionally in lockstep with crop farmers, are torn. Cattlemen who stand to benefit from the growth of the biofuels industry -- either as grain producers, investors, or because of their proximity to the abundance of cost-effective co-product feeds -- generally are in favor. Meanwhile, those farther from the production plants, or without easy access to the co-products and facing the prospect of inflated feed-grain prices, are opposed.

Regardless of your personal view of biofuels, they appear to be a fixture on the landscape of U.S. livestock production for the foreseeable future. Now the industry is wrestling with what the phenomenon means, not only to the future of the U.S. livestock industry but the application and management of its feed co-products.

That's the basis of the 2007 BEEF Quality Summit planned for Nov. 7-8 in Omaha, NE. Set for the Holiday Inn City Centre, the two-day conference is themed "Beef Quality In The Ethanol Era" and is designed to provide attendees with the background, knowledge and tools to garner more value from their cattle in this new ethanol-driven paradigm.

Throughout the meeting, there will be ample opportunity to network with experts and other producers to discuss increasing cattle value.

The meeting kicks off Nov. 7 with a keynote panel discussion on the topic "Are we filling the demand for quality beef today?" The panel features top U.S. meat executives and researchers. Included are:

  • Jeff Hubling, Ruth's Chris Steakhouse.
  • Larry Corah, Certified Angus Beef® LLC.
  • Angelo Fili, Greater Omaha Packing Co.
  • Jeff Savell, Texas A&M University.
Over the next two days, a list of presenters representing the industry's top producers, marketers, researchers and academics will delve into the topics of:
  • The ethanol effect on beef quality.
  • The ethanol effect on the beef industry.
  • The ethanol effect on your operation -- How will you survive and thrive?
A new feature of this year's BEEF Quality Summit is a one-on-one opportunity for attendees to meet with representatives of various value-based marketing alliances in attendance. Another special feature is the introduction of this year's BEEF Trailblazer Award winner, along with the winner of this year's National Beef Stocker Award.

At $150/person, which includes the two-day conference, one breakfast, two lunches, an evening reception and a dinner, it's an educational event not to be missed by any cattleman concerned about his operation's future. Check out the agenda or register at: Or call 800-722-5334, Ext. 14710.

How To Properly Clean A Syringe Gun

An article in the September BEEF titled "Are You Vaccinating Calves...Or Shooting Blanks" raised a few questions and a few eyebrows. Some readers were offended that their vaccine protocols should be called into question, while others appreciated the advice. However, one reader raised a question that wasn't addressed in the article -- how to properly clean a syringe gun.

So we went back to John Peirce, veterinarian for AzTx Cattle Co. in Hereford, TX, for his advice. Here's what he told us:

  1. Never use disinfectants.
  2. Use hot water. It does not have to be boiling, just very hot tap water.
  3. Disassemble as you are cleaning and allow to air dry. We allow ours to dry on a clean, white towel.
  4. When dry, lubricate the plunger using glycerin, Vaseline or even cooking oil. You don't have to use a lot, just appropriately applied.
  5. Store clean syringes in large zip lock bags allowing you to differentiate one syringe from another.
  6. Every syringe should be labeled using permanent marker or engraving tool. I usually write "viral" (for the IBR, BVD, PI3 and BRSV) on one, "Endo" (endovac bovi) on one and "BL" (blackleg) on the other. Just always use the same syringe for the same vaccine every time.
  7. I have now gone exclusively to a 25 cc pistol grip syringe. In the summertime (warm day) I only half fill it. I want as little vaccine as possible exposed to the ultraviolet rays of the sun and the warm environmental temperature.
  8. Between every calf, replace the loaded syringe back into an ice-filled cooler. Develop the habit of snuggling it down into the ice packs each time.
  9. The gun should remain very cool to the touch during the entire vaccination process.
  10. Shade is extremely helpful. If not working under a roof, use a cardboard box, for example, to create shade for the cooler.
  11. As you initially place the vaccine into the cooler, also place your syringes into the cooler as well to pre-cool them.
  12. Don't mix up the first bottle until they are actually loading the calves. Don't mix up more than you will use in one hour. Keep the vaccine bottle pushed down into the ice packs.
With just a little time and patience you can develop a routine that allows you to process calves at an efficient rate. Our vaccination protocol is based on handling and administering viral vaccines. They are very fragile. We handle all vaccine (including killed products) the same way, though it is not really necessary for the killed products. For most people it is just easier to have one protocol.

Focus on job quality, forget speed. Process each calf to the best of your ability -- a cool, fully viable dose into every calf, delivered from a clean syringe and through a sharp needle.

The Borrower-Lender Relationship: A Two-Way Street

One of the most critical decisions a business person makes is choosing a lender. Because the agricultural industry depends on the sound use of credit to finance real estate, production assets, and operating activities, a good relationship between borrower and lender is important for business success.

The borrower and lender have similar goals in that they want to ensure the long term viability of their businesses. The borrower and lender should each have high expectations for what the other brings to the relationship.

Here, John Gates with Farm Credit Services in Billings, MT, shares some tips for making that relationship work from both sides. First, from the borrower's side of the relationship, What should you look for when selecting a lender?

1. Choose a lender that has a good understanding of your industry and its people.
2. Look for a lender that has the capacity to meet all of your borrowing needs.
3. Look for a lender with competitive loan products and quality service.
4. Choose a lender that has a stable staff with experienced employees.
5. Look for access to the decision maker.
6. Choose a lender with a long term presence in your industry.
7. Your lender should have up to date knowledge of credit principals and how it pertains to your industry.
8. Select a lender that treats you as more than just a transaction and is interested in a long term relationship.
9. Do business with a lender that values trust, confidentially, and ethics.
10. Look for a lender that can process your requests in a timely manner.
11. Select a lender that communicates rates, terms, and conditions up front in a clear manner.
12. Look for a lender that is willing to share their analysis of your financial information and discuss the trends they see developing.

Now, look at the lenders side of the equation. How can the borrower be a valuable partner in the relationship?

1. As a borrower you should expect to provide your lender with accurate and complete financial information. A good relationship is built on a mutual understanding of the business and it's financial condition.
2. Provide an annual business and marketing plan to your lender.
3. Maintain an honest and ethical relationship with your lender.
4. Perform a personal consumer credit check on a regular basis.
5. Maintain open and regular communication with your lender.

A successful relationship between a borrower and lender requires cooperation and professionalism by both parties. Like a chain, the relationship is only as strong as the weakest link. Gates emphasizes that this list is certainly not all inclusive and each situation will have other requirements, such as the lenders willingness to visit and learn the operation. Bottom line is that the relationship must be beneficial to both parties.

Next Tip: Grazing corn stalks? Here are some ways to add efficiency