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Making wise breeding decisions

Billy Whitehurst for Progressive Cattle Published on 08 April 2022

Sometimes we all inherit the consequences of decisions in which we had no input. We recently took over management of a ranch, and this calving season we are subject to the consequences of breeding decisions that were made before our arrival.

As I was riding calving pens at night in 15-below temperatures with wind chills even colder, trying to stay awake and thanking God that my horse would watch where he was going so I didn’t have to, I was reminded of the monumental stupidity of calving in the wintertime.

Going from our own operation in which we bred and calved for a low-input, hands-off type of calving season, back into the conventional mindset of wintertime calving, I was afforded the chance to further solidify my belief that many in the cow-calf industry really need a serious kick in the pants and a wakeup call to quit throwing money out the window by calving in the winter and breeding for large calves. In our situation, steps have been taken to mitigate these errors of judgment and financial lunacy, but unfortunately, many will refuse to do so and continue the path of slow financial death as well as quality of life decline as they further enslave themselves to the conventional mindset that has infected us for so long.

I will not go into which traits to select for, crossbreeding or line breeding, natural service versus A.I. strategies or whatever you may think of today. Those are all decisions that could be profitable or detrimental depending on your individual circumstances. Today, let’s focus on a few big-picture decisions that, more often than not, steer in the direction of profitability. We’ll just hit the high spots to hopefully push some buttons and make us question why we do what we do.

Who do we buy bulls from? Ideally, we would select breeding stock that has to work harder than ours do. I have talked to bull producers who tell me about all the extra nutrition supplements, care and feed they provide to their bulls to ensure performance. Many put so much grain in their bulls to make them ready for a springtime sale that their feet fall apart when placed in real working conditions. I don’t even waste my time with their catalogs. Why would I buy a bull that requires so much extra care to perform? These types of genetics only do one thing to a commercial cow-calf operator – create welfare cow herds that slowly drive the operator into financial ruin. The more inputs you must pay for to keep your herd going, the more cost you must cover to make a profit. In most cases, as inputs go up, margin goes down, and the result is a slow death of financial attrition.

Does calving season dominate your time? I know people who are afraid to go out to eat or to a movie with their spouse during calving season because they are afraid a cow will calve, and they won’t be there in case the cow needs help. If this is you, then I have one thing to say: Reevaluate your cow herd. If you have cattle that need babysitting, those cows need to go far, far away. You cannot be profitable when you are devoting all your time to calving when the rest of the ranch needs attention, nor should you need to hire extra help for calving. The cows are supposed to be working for you, not you for the cows.

Look at the cows as employees. You would gladly help an employee doing something for the first time, or even help through some initial mistakes. However, you would not retain an employee who needed constant aid or one that made the same mistakes over and over again. Why do we do it with our cattle? We see their needs are met and set them up to be successful, but let them work for us. If she can’t calve on her own two years in a row, sell her. If she is a bad mother, sell her. If her calf gets sick or dies or she doesn’t wean a calf, you guessed it, sell her. There is no reason to bust your hump for a welfare case of a cow. Remember, it’s your family you are hurting by keeping freeloading cows in the herd.

What weaning weight are you breeding for? There is a delusion among the cow-calf industry that thinks big calves equal big profit. Rarely does an increase in per-cow production result in a correlative increase in profit. It may result in higher gross revenue, but rarely in profit. Conversely, we can’t breed for calving ease alone. There is a reality that if we don’t have some losses during calving season, we are spending way too much time and money trying to keep everything alive. It is a harsh reality that we must maintain an economic threshold for losses and not go in the hole to keep every cow or calf alive. We treat them humanely, but we can’t go broke for their sake. Every ranch has a different threshold, and I am not here to say what that is.

The single most financially important production trait in the cow-calf business is fertility/longevity not weaning weight. The ranch will profit more by focusing on moderate-sized females that can produce more calves over a lifetime than focusing on weaning weight. This results in the ranch weaning more total pounds from a larger herd of moderately sized females. The pounds are generally worth more due to the calves being a little lighter: smaller cows, less carry cost, more total pounds weaned and at a higher price. A win all the way around.

As you are going through this year planning for the future and watching your calves grow, take time to truly evaluate breeding decisions for financial soundness, not social or ego welfare. We have the choice to be a poor farmer or a successful livestock business. Which one do you want to be?  end mark

The opinions expressed are those of the author and not of Progressive Cattle.

Billy Whitehurst
  • Billy Whitehurst

  • Makale Livestock
  • Whitehall, Montana
  • Email Billy Whitehurst