Every Tool on the Belt

Written by Jackson Barry.
Canton, MO, Canton FFA, Shamrock 4-H in Clark County

To me, being a beef breeder in the 21st century means using every tool on the belt of the cattle industry. The goal? Produce the highest quality, most efficient cattle. Genetics is our biggest asset, because even the best management cannot overcome inferior quality. I will elaborate on the many potentials for higher production and profit through better genetics, record keeping, use of technology, and effective management.

First, genetics. We can and will select those cattle who produce the most for the least. To be more specific, instead of looking at output per cow, we must look at output per unit of land, as in pounds of beef that make it to the rail compared with acres used. The fact is, a larger cow will often produce more than her smaller contemporary. However, if we step back and see the big picture, we can run more moderate sized cattle on a given pasture than larger cows. Also, it has been proven that smaller cows have the capacity to wean a higher percentage of their body weight. So per unit of land, we may conclude that smaller cows can produce more pounds of beef, and lighter weight cattle attain a higher price per pound so the benefits are compounded.

An additional genetic strategy we must take is planned cross breeding. Economists will tell you there is no such thing as a free lunch, but they’ve apparently never raised crossbred cattle. Crossbred stock have the best production in the least heritable traits, namely fertility. In the case of a crossbred market animal, it will outgrow its peers on the same feed and exhibit superior health. In the case of the crossbred cow she will, on average, wean approximately 20% more compared to her straight bred counterpart. Additionally, longevity is a strong quality of the crossbred cow, meaning she may remain productive for additional years. If it takes $1500 to raise a heifer, and $500 to feed and vaccinate her through her life as a cow, she will become profitable at around six years old. The cross bred cow (weaning more) will come profitable sooner and have a higher first years profit. On average they will remain productive two extra years meaning more profit in the lifetime of a cow. Considering crossbred cows re-breed earlier and more often this disparity could potentially be larger.  To further illustrate the value of cross breeding, pretend we operate two herds of 100 cows for one century, one of purebreds and one of F1 cows bred to a third breed. This will be ignoring inflation, based on $800 per weaned calf per straight bred cows, and 20% higher value of weaned calves for crossbred cattle. Over the course of this time the straight bred cattle will incur $300,000 more in expenses (8 year vs. 10 year life) and the crossbred cattle will produce $1.4 million more in revenue. Divided back out this means $170 more per cow per year. Free lunch after all.

Keeping track of actual production and losses per cow paints a clearer picture of which cows are truly driving the profit in our herds. In the future, selection must be based on indexes and must include a big picture view, rather than selecting one trait such as growth or milk. Selecting either of these traits alone will produce animals inferior in the other category. Indexes can show which animals best combine traits and which compare favorably with their peers.

This idea of terminal vs. maternal brings us to our next topic: technology. Artificial insemination allows producers to import outside or superior genetics selectively, affordably, and easily. An even better option is sexed semen. A producer could utilize sexed heifer semen to breed replacements and clean up bulls with strong carcass merit and propensity for growth. This gives us the best of both worlds, a group of heifers to keep, and a group of calves to feed out for our consumer base. Innovations and benefits that pertain to artificial insemination and embryo transfer are numerous and have profit potential. We can also use these technologies to breed cattle that are more efficient and thus have a lower impact on the environment. I look for assisted reproduction to become an even more integral part of our industry as time goes on.

Lastly, management will play a large part in our ability to continue to produce more and more cattle on ever shrinking acres due to losses to residential developments and row crop production. I believe that management techniques such as intensive rotational grazing, tighter calving windows, low stress handling techniques and low stress working facilities are the way of the future. Research shows we can run at least 50% more cattle per acre on good rotational grazing systems, and in some cases, more. In addition to higher productivity of pasture, we allow the grass time to rest and regrow. Steep pastures will go without cattle for periods of time, reducing erosion.

A tighter calving window results in more calves of a uniform age and size which are more efficient to feed and will earn a premium when it is time to sell them. This keeps buyers happy and production of beef fast. The most recent Genex Catalog contains an article stating cows are most susceptible to miscarrying or aborting a pregnancy during the early portion of the first trimester. Unfortunately, this is when many cattle receive vaccinations, are affected by pinkeye and endure heat stress. What can we do to solve this? Heat stress is unavoidable but stress from human contact certainly can be prevented. Simply improving the corral used to sort and handle the livestock can play a big part in less stress, as no running or yelling is required. Supplements like Multimin®90 boost micro-nutrients and can help strengthen stock for periods of stress like summer.

My goal, long term, is for all producers to have one singular goal: efficiently produce high quality cattle with a lesser impact on the environment and consumer checkbooks. Not everyone will get there in the same way, but that is one of the great things about the United States: private ownership and individual producers stimulate innovation. This is where I believe the beef industry is heading in the 21st Century.
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