I have been following a thread on another e-mail list comparing the mothering rating of the cow that tries to attack anyone who gets close to their new-born calf as opposed to the cow that is OK with this. The consensus seems to be that the mellow cow is not as good mother as the cow that will try to eat you. I disagree with this.
Bud and I found that when you work livestock properly – that is, by using pressure/release methods instead of force and fear, the cows learn to respect but not fear you. Since they don’t feel you are a threat to them, they also don’t think you are a threat to their calf so they don’t “get on the fight” when you need to handle their new baby.
When we lived in Canada we were involved with a Beef Booster cow herd. In case you aren’t familiar, this is a composite breed. Some of the herds were rated “Maternal.” Their main function was to produce heifers to go into the cow herd, another raised “Terminal bulls” to use on the herds that would market all of their calves, etc. The man we worked for had about 100 head of cows that were designed to raise “Terminal bulls.” He wanted to change over to a “Maternal” herd so he swapped his herd with a neighbor. When these cows were delivered the neighbor also delivered a list of ear-tag numbers of cows that would kill you if you tried to handle their baby calf. The only way they could weigh and tag the calf was with a bucket loader on a tractor. A man in the bucket would get the calf, then the tractor operator would try to raise the bucket before the cow could climb in, too. We received these cows in October. We handled them quite a lot. If the feedlot shipped a pen of cattle and there was still feed in the bunks, we’d put these cows in the pen for a while to let them clean the bunk. Through the winter we tried to move their straw bed every few days to make it easier when they farmed the ground in the spring. This usually meant we had to drive the cows to the new bed a couple of times to discourage them from going back to the old one, etc. When spring came the owner was able to weigh and tag every calf with no aggression from any of the cows.
The first year we worked on the elk ranch In Texas, we didn’t see an elk calf until it was a couple of weeks old. The following year, the cow elk would bring their newborn calves with them when we drove through the pasture, scattering hay. We even had one calf born in the corral.
Bud Williams Stockmanship • Eunice Williams • 1519 E Erie Street, Apt #206
Springfield, MO 65804 • 417-719-4910 • email@example.com
Editor’s note: The following is part one of a four-part series that will help you to evaluate different breeding programs, which bulls are optimal for your herd, and how much they’re worth.
There are a range of different beef operations in Canada, and there is no one breeding program that is optimal for all operations. Breeding programs will be determined by operational goals and the management practices that fit those goals.
Here are some examples.
A producer that sells weaned calves at auction may choose a crossbreed program with high calving ease and a focus on performance gained from hybrid vigour; or they may prefer the uniformity of a purebred program with reputation premiums.
A producer that retains heifers and is looking for maternal replacements may be focused on maximizing the performance through inbreeding and outcrossing within a single breed; or they may develop FI crosses with higher reproductive performance and longevity.
These choices may be limited by the number of breeding fields available or the number a producer is willing to manage. There are a variety of breeding programs available, and effective sire selection requires an understanding of the characteristics of the available genetics as well as your own operation.
Each breed of cattle has distinct traits that allow them to excel in different geographical or management environments (Table 1). Depending on the goals of the operation, a sire can be chosen that has the potential to make positive changes for your operation in the areas you’ve identified for improvement.
Table 1. Comparison between beef cattle breeds in Canada (Adapted from Agriculture Victoria, 2017)
The advantage of the purebred or straight-bred approach of using only one breed is a homogeneous herd where cattle responses to environmental and nutritional factors are easier to predict. There will be consistency in nutritional needs, weaning, yearling, or finishing weights, and days on feed. The largest advantage is the ability to market a relatively uniform product, but ease of planning, and providing breeding stock forcommercial operations intending to maximize hybrid vigour may also be considerations.
When the parents have very similar genetics, the calf is more likely to have two sets of identical genes (homozygosity), which can have beneficial effects if the genes are associated with superior performance. However, negative traits can also show up with homozygosity. This can lead to the expression of abnormal traits, such as lethal recessives (e.g. curly calf syndrome, dwarfism, neuropathic hydrocephalus, etc.) It can also have more subtle effects on overall performance by increasing the amount “inbreeding depression” in the population.
Inbreeding depression is a reduction in performance due to the mating of highly related individuals, and it most negatively affects reproductive traits, followed by growth traits, but seems to have little effect on carcass traits. It is associated with an increased percent of open cows and stillbirths, with decreased levels of survival, growth, and overall performance (Northcutt et al). Generally, caution must be exercised when inbreeding as there is a high risk of performance reduction if the breeding program is not managed very carefully.
Three common purposes of inbreeding are to:
to test a bull for the presence of undesirable genetics that show up with inbreeding
develop inbred lines for a crossbreeding system
linebreed, or to maintain the genetic contribution of a genetically superior individual in the larger population
Linebreeding seeks to preserve and continually improve upon the genetics of a high performing ancestor. While linebreeding mates closely related individuals, it seeks to minimize the level of homozygosity (and thus inbreeding depression) while maintaining a high level of relationship to the high performing ancestor. Linebreeding is typically merited when there is difficulty finding outside bulls with sufficient performance to improve the herd.
Key components of a successful linebreeding program include:
individuals selected for a linebreeding program must be of superior quality with no genetic defects
meticulous record keeping of breeding history, parentage records, and animal performance
aggressive culling at signs of defects or lower performance – the starting herd should be as large as possible to accommodate aggressive culling
keeping inbreeding levels low
To keep inbreeding levels low, the recommendation is to keep the genetic contribution of the same ancestor to 50% or less (van der Westhuizen, 2016). To illustrate, the progeny of mating a daughter to her sire will have 75% of genetics from the sire. Generally, matings that involve full siblings and parents to offspring are discouraged. Instead, matings of uncle/niece, half siblings, and first cousins are potential strategies.
Outcrossing, or the breeding to non-relatives or distant relatives (i.e., at least 4 generations away) within a breed, is the most widely used mating strategy in purebred herds. Outcrossing can be used to increase performance levels, avoid inbreeding depression, and restore performance lost to inbreeding depression (Evans and McPeake). The more genetically dissimilar the animals, the larger the potential benefit. One drawback of this system is that, if the outcrossed progeny were to be mated, it is more difficult to predict the phenotype of the calves due to the variation in genetic background.
With crossbreeding, cattle from different breeds are mated. As the genetics from both parents can be very different, both the positive and negative effects seen in outcrossing are magnified with crossbreeding. Crossbred herds are much more unpredictable in terms of calf weight, maturity time, and nutritional demands. However, there are two key advantages:
Heterosis orHybrid vigor – this is the opposite of the performance reducing effects of inbreeding depression. Heterosis provides improvements, especially in the area of reproduction and growth. The effect of hybrid vigor is dependent on the animal having two different copies of a gene, where the more unrelated the breeds, the larger the potential improvements.
Breed complementarity – where the strengths of two different breeds are combined. For example, when mating Charolais bulls to Hereford-Angus crossbred cows, the Charolais bull contributes growth and performance genetics, while the Hereford-Angus cows have desirable maternal and carcass quality attributes. This may not be seen in every individual animal, but is observed in herd averages.
Studies (Gaines et al., 1966; Turner et al., 1968) have found that compared to purebred, crossbred cows have a 10% increase in calf crop and calves weaned, with the calving percentage of the crossbred cows being consistently higher than their parents. Gregory et al. (1978) found crossbred cattle to be 7 kg heavier and 9 days younger at puberty than their purebred counterparts.
Crossbreeding improves reproductive performance, longevity, and maternal ability of the cow. This is manifested through increased calf survival rate, as well as increased weaning weight. Overall, the performance improvements from crossbreeding can have significant impacts on the bottom line of beef producers.
There are many crossbreeding strategies, for example:
2 or 3 breed rotation,
bull rotation, or
A terminal cross is where both parents are purebreds of different breeds, and the resulting calves are a 50:50 mix. However, to maintain this specific breed ratio, replacement breeding stock from purebred herds must be used instead of rebreeding the offspring.
Another strategy is mixed breeds, where multiple breeds are used without maintaining specific ratios of each breed in the progeny. While this strategy does not require complex breeding management, there is lower uniformity and a higher level of uncertainty regarding calf performance.
The optimal strategy will depend on the operation itself; for example, if calves are sold at a pre-sort sale or are part of a large group and able to fill an entire feedlot pen, uniformity becomes less important.
For further reading on crossbreeding, NBCEC (2010) introduces an overview of different strategies and Gosey (1991) presents a more in-depth discussion.
There are also challenges and considerations associated with a crossbreeding system (NBCEC, 2010):
a small herd (i.e., less than 50 cows) can limit choice in crossbreeding strategies
a higher requirement for breeding pastures and bull breeds for the more complex crossbreeding strategies (e.g., rotational systems)
more record keeping and cow identification as the current breed composition of cows can affect sire and heifer replacement selection
less uniformity in progeny
no crossbreeding system can overcome low quality bulls
There is no one-size-fits-all solution or breeding program that is best for all scenarios, as the right genetics depend on the individual operation. Key determining factors include: the management style of the operation, heifer retention (i.e., terminal versus maternal sires), number of breeding fields, and time of marketing. For example, a farm that auctions their calves at weaning may choose a mixed breed program with high calving ease, while a farm that direct markets their beef may prefer the uniformity of a purebred program.
There are many different types of bulls available, and effective sire selection requires an understanding of the characteristics of the available genetics as well as your own operation. Deliberate alignment of the bull’s genetics to your operational goals will contribute to enhanced revenue and reduced costs.
Editor’s note: Stay tuned for part two in this four-part series.
Hannah Garrett of Diamond Peak Cattle Company in Craig, Colo., believes in genomics and good cattle. Genomics, the study of the DNA within a living structure, is important to any cattleman hoping to improve the genetics of his or her herd.
Genomic testing, she said, deals with the changes of the base pairs in terms of the expression of birth weight, calving ease and carcass traits. Through science, research, and academia, Garrett said changes in base pairs can be directly tied to the changes that are directly tied to an operation’s bottom line.
At her Colorado Farm Show presentation, Garrett pointed to her genetic results from a site like 23 and Me. Her results showed her high percentage of Scandinavian blood but her favorite portion of the results, she said, was the 3 percent uncertain result. It’s an illustration that the science is not perfect in either the beef cattle or human segment, leaving room for improvement.
Garrett said there are three main applications for genomics in the beef cattle industry today: parentage, genetic defects and genomic profiles.
“When we think about the future and where this technology is headed, we think about things like disease detection or being able to identify calves that have a higher susceptibility to BRD,” she said. “That would be huge, right, if you’re a feedlot operator and could, from the very beginning, identify by the genome, calves that are more likely to get sick.”
Genomics and profitability are closely tied. For an operation that turns bulls out, genomics can ensure that the bulls being kept — and fed all year — are siring a reasonable number of calves to earn their keep. She said it can also shed light upon the most effective sire and dam crosses and the heritable traits that make it so.
“Maybe it’s a specific sire group that works well when you cross it on top of your cow family,” she said. “You can chase that sire group, use that sire group more, and get more of that type and kind of calves that will bring more value for you.”
This translates to dollars on the scale, as well as the ability to select and retain the highest quality replacement heifers. The cost of improved genetics in the form of bulls is a major consideration for many operations and Garrett said parentage testing can allow producers to keep heifers resulting from this investment to continue to grow the investment.
Garrett said whether a producer is retaining ownership to the rail or weaning and shipping calves, the product being produced is beef, and genomics can ensure the quality of the product is one that is high and will result in demand. Genomically enhanced EPDs is a blending of traditional EPDs with genomic information and is often referred to as a 50K. These enhanced EPDs increase the accuracy of the traditional EPDs. Single step, or BOLT, is the math behind this development and Garrett said it is the algorithm breed associations use to blend the two sets of EPD data. Single step, or BOLT, takes relatedness into consideration.
“Traditionally, we assumed you were 50 percent your mom, and 50 percent your dad,” she said. “But you’re not. You’re 52 percent your mom, and 48 percent your dad. More importantly, rather than being 25 percent of each grandparent, you’re more like 27 and 23.”
This becomes important in cattle, she said, when determining relatedness to a dam or sire and the attributes they possess and pass on. While EPD data changes over time, she said there is less change when genomics and EPDs are combined. As a bull buyer, this allows a higher degree of confidence in EPD data. As populations grow and more data is assigned to a bull, variability decreases over time. For seedstock producers working to produce consistent results, genomics are vital.
“As Mr. Walter told me, I want to know I can sleep at night and that the bulls I sell are the bulls that go out and perform and have the calves I expect them to have,” she said. “Seedstock producers are trying to create a relationship with you and they want you to come back. In order to do that, they’re trying to offer you the most consistent product they can.”
Genomics combined with EPDs can offer producers the confidence to select for the traits that are the most likely to return on their investment but Garrett said bulls still need to be sound and able to do their job so he has the opportunity to bring profit back to the operation. It takes, she said, the variability out of sire selection.
Heifer selection and genomics can be driven by seedstock or commercial profiles to define values in terms of maternal performance and carcass traits. Information is gathered and returned on birth weight, calving ease, milk, stayability and heifer pregnancy.
“If we can identify the heifers that will make better cows and have more calves, that puts us in a higher degree of profitability,” she said. “If we know a heifer is more or less likely to fall out of the herd and not remain as a cow, that’s a big deal because we know cows have to be in the herd for at least six years to pay themselves off.”
Culling those heifers based on genomic results can save thousands of dollars for the producer and save time wasted by developing the wrong heifers.
Carcass traits determined by genomic testing can also translate to dollars, especially for those producers retaining ownership and feeding calves that may be docked on the rail. Identifying and feeding calves with the carcass traits most desirable in an operation, she said, is money in the pockets by reducing discounts.
“Not everybody is set up to retain ownership but maybe if you could use a tool to identify the top end of your calves that are going to feed, and are more likely to gain premiums, it might be something you could pencil into your operation,” she said. ❖
— Gabel is an assistant editor and reporter for The Fence Post. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (970) 392-4410.