The outlook for several years of high calf prices signals expansion decisions for ranchers with adequate feed resources, and at the same time, they have an opportunity to boost the productivity of their cow herds and value of their calves.
Heifers and cows entering breeding herds today are perhaps more valuable than ever, but that value is based primarily upon the calves they will produce. So genetic decisions with regard to maternal traits, and in some cases carcass traits, become even more critical for cow-calf profitability. University of California-Davis Extension beef specialist Alison Van Eenennaam, PhD, says a variety of factors can influence which traits contribute to profitability in beef cows, but reproduction is the No. 1 profit driver. Reproductive traits of greatest economic value include age at first calving, reproductive success and replacement rate.
Research suggests most cow-calf producers should have a relative economic emphasis of 47 percent on reproduction, 24 percent on growth and 30 percent on carcass traits, she says. For producers who retain ownership through finishing and market into programs that reward carcass quality, the emphasis should shift to 40 percent on carcass, 29 percent on production traits and 31 percent on reproduction.
Pick the right females
Unfortunately, reproductive traits are sex-limited, lowly heritable, and some are expressed quite late in life. Lacking reliable genetic tools or measurements for predicting reproductive efficiency in beef females, producers rely primarily on pedigree and phenotype to select replacement heifers.
One sound strategy, she says, is to select heifers based on their date of birth, adequate weaning weight, and maturity to breed and calve as 2-year-olds. Heifers born early in the calving season, and thus conceived early in the breeding season, serve as indicators of fertile dams. Those born late in the season are more likely to come from dams that failed to conceive at first breeding, and those heifers might be too small and immature at breeding, so they are candidates for culling. So by retaining heifers born early, producers indirectly select for more fertile cows.
Charamie Viator, marketing manager for Silver Spur Ranches, agrees, saying Silver Spur increasingly selects for heifers conceived and born early in the season. Silver Spur is one of the nation's largest ranching companies, with operations in Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico and Wyoming.
Viator stresses, however, that birth date is just one of many criteria she uses in retaining or purchasing females. "As producers begin to expand or repopulate herds, we have an opportunity to implement genetics that have greater profit potential. With higher input and feed costs it will be vital for us to identify genetics that can survive, breed and grow in a forage-based system," she says. "In our lifetime, we will see a paradigm shift in our production system to where cattle spend more time on forage and less time on concentrate diets. This means these cattle will need to have a maturity pattern that is in synch with forage development.
"I am not advocating ‘puds" or extremely small-framed, slow-growing cattle," she adds. "Instead, I believe we have and will continue to identify genetics that are more efficient at how they convert and utilize forage. Additionally, these cattle will need to have enough muscle that we do not find yield-grade problems on the rail."
Rancher Scott Bachman relies on some of the same phenotypic measures, while also including modern genomic tools in his selection process. Bachman runs commercial and registered cattle on his family's operation, Bachman Cattle Farms near Chillicothe, Mo., and is working to improve the genetic merit of both herds as he expands. His spring-calving herd consists of about 100 cows, primarily commercial Red Angus, with some purebred Gelbvieh cows. Over time, he plans to increase the Gelbvieh influence in the spring herd, producing F1 Balancer hybrids. His fall-calving herd, also about 100 cows, is primarily registered Red Angus along with some commercial Red Angus females.
Bachman recently purchased neighboring farmland that will provide an additional 600 acres of grazing to the current 550 acres used in the operation. As he transitions the property to pastures over the next three to five years, he plans to add females and eventually double his herd size, while sticking with Red Angus and Gelbvieh as his genetic base.
Bachman sells steer and culled heifer calves from both herds as feeder cattle and keeps the best heifer calves as replacements. He recently has begun selling some bred replacement heifers and plans to expand that part of his business. "We're putting emphasis on marketing replacement bred heifers rather than bulls," he says.
Bachman maintains pedigree records on all his heifers, along with birthweights, weaning weights and other performance data. He recently began employing DNA testing to augment those records, using Igenity's genomic profile. He currently tests all females in the commercial and registered herds, focusing on multiple traits including calving ease, heifer pregnancy rate, stayability, gain and carcass quality. He uses a custom weighting system to place primary emphasis on maternal and reproductive traits. He places 55 percent weighting on the Igenity HPG, STAY and MCE traits, 30 percent weighting on the carcass-oriented traits and the remaining 15 percent weighting on the gain-disposition traits. Bachman says he desires good, reproductively sound females with balance in the other traits.
He culls females based on reproductive performance, and says that while he places value on DNA testing, he stresses the importance of backing genomic data up with production records. So, he looks at phenotypes along with the genomic scores, with an emphasis on maternal traits. A low genomic score for a critical trait could lead to culling even if the animal meets his physical criteria. On the other hand, if a yearling heifer has great genomic scores but an inadequate pelvic and reproductive tract score based on physical measurements, she won't enter the breeding herd. By sticking to high-accuracy calving-ease sires, breeding females with around 180 square centimeter of pelvic area and Igenity scores of 6 or better for maternal calving ease, he keeps calving problems to a minimum.
He manages replacement heifers to meet the requirements of Missouri's Show Me Select heifer program and will sell a set of Red Angus bred heifers on April 21 through the Red Angus Association's sale in Springfi eld, Mo. In the fall, he'll be selling Red Angus heifers from the commercial herd and crossbred heifers that could be registered as Balancers. The operation's website, bachmancattlefarms.com, lists each heifer's pedigree, critical measurements and Igenity DNA profile along with detailed medical history for each animal.
Pick the right bulls
Van Eenennaam advises producers to focus primarily on bull selection for genetic progress in the cow herd. Proven bulls with accurate EPDs can significantly improve the productivity of replacement heifers and the value of feeder calves. Particularly for breeding first-calf heifers, using timed artificial insemination with semen from proven sires can provide reliable calving ease along with other economically important traits. AI also can help more heifers conceive early and calve early, which helps assure long-term productivity of the heifer while adding value to the calf.
DNA testing in bulls, she says, can enhance the accuracy of EPDs for difficult-to-measure traits, particularly for Angus, which is the only breed where genomic tests have been calibrated against the breed database to determine the genetic correlation and then incorporated into breed EPDs. Van Eenennaam believes producers get more "bang for the buck" from DNA testing in bulls than they do in replacement heifers, simply because the cost is spread between more calves. A bull might account for 100 calves or more over its time in the herd, while heifers will average five or six.
Bachman, wanting rapid genetic progress and as much documentation as possible, attacks the issue from the female and bull sides. He says he's investing in some of the best bull genetics he can find for use in the commercial and registered herds, using top AI sires to breed heifers and purchasing bulls that compete with popular AI sires.
As an example, he cites the pedigree of the Red Angus heifers he's selling this spring. He synchronized and bred the heifers to a top calving-ease AI bull, Feddes Big Sky R9. And as a cleanup bull, he used Bieber Sequoya X355, which he says carries as many EPDs in the top 10 percent of the breed as the Big Sky bull and was the third-highest selling Red Angus bull in the December 2011 Bieber production sale.
In bull selection, Bachman focuses on EPDs, looking for a balance across economically important traits. He views genomic information as one tool for appraising bulls. He'll use the scores if available, but doesn't rule out non-tested bulls. If a bull looks good overall, but has a low genomic score for an important trait, it might influence his decision not to purchase that bull.
As an overall strategy for building maternal traits into the cow herd, Van Eenennaam says heterosis is hard to beat. "Nothing makes a good replacement animal like a crossbreed."
Crossbreeding benefits calving rates, weaning rates and cow longevity, along with performance traits such as weaning weights. Research from the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center shows that maternal heterosis in crossbred cows improves calving rates by 3.7 percent, survival to weaning by 1.5 percent, weaning weight by 3.9 percent and cow longevity by 16.2 percent. The longevity improvement translates to about an extra year of productivity and one extra calf. Between that extra calf and heavier weaning weights, the crossbred cow weans about 25 percent or 600 pounds more calf weight over her lifetime, compared with a straight-bred cow.
Van Eenennaam acknowledges that producers in some cases receive price premiums for straight-bred calves from breed-specific marketing programs. But in those cases, they should verify the premiums are high enough to cover the opportunity costs of the benefits they forfeit by passing on crossbreeding.
Finally, Viator stresses a balanced approach toward genetic improvement for long-term profits in cow-calf production. "While pounds at weaning will continue to drive a large portion of a producer's return, we will need to recognize the inefficiencies created by huge-spread, huge-growth genetics in our supposedly maternal-based breeds. Producers who recognize genetics that hit multiple targets, including fertility, early breeding, longevity, optimum not maximum growth, muscle and forage efficiency, will be long-term survivors in our industry. Trend chasers will continue to be those who are in and out of the beef business."
Our MoreCowsNow initiative focuses on herd expansion and the long-term viability of cattle ranching, helping producers determine whether to expand and providing information to help them do so profitably. For ore information on heifer selection and development, and other aspects of herd expansion, visit MoreCowsNow.com.