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The great equalizer

Clifford Mitchell Published on 24 December 2012
Cows in the pen

Genetic combinations provide free lunch and premium steak

The beef business will face several troubling issues in the coming years.

These potential roadblocks will have to do, in some form or another, with the industry becoming more efficient.

Where is the industry headed for sure? Who knows, but cattlemen will have to get a better handle on the genetic base of the cow herd and utilize every tool to get the most out of the resources available.

As cattlemen plan for the future, one can only assume cost of production will continue to rise annually. Only marginal ground will be available for grazing and most will have to take a wait-and-see approach to current weather patterns as to what the future holds.

As these questions or theories continue to occupy the minds of commercial cattlemen, future genetic choices loom large. Recent promotion of straight-bred commercial females has led to some confusion or sent most on a fact-finding mission.

Money in the bank

“It’s almost like arguing evolution; people can believe what they want, but hybrid vigor is still worth a lot money.

Every study ever done on the benefits of heterosis has come back in favor of a designed crossbreeding system,” says Marty Ropp, CEO, Allied Genetic Resources.

This firm markets seedstock and helps commercial cattlemen find the right marketing system for their end product.

“It has been hard for us to find straight-bred commercial females that will adapt to southern Louisiana along the Gulf Coast. They have trouble with the heat and insects,” says Paul Dufrene from Triple Son Farms of Cutoff, Louisiana.

Dufrene runs a family operation with locations in southern Louisiana, which is home to 900 F1 females, and the central Texas ranch is home to the 700 Angus and 225 Brahman cows that are an integral part of the Certified F1 production.

The need for the industry to add efficiency to the production system still screams for hybrid vigor.

Crossbred cattle may not be “en vogue” for some cattlemen today because of poor experiences of an older generation, poor choices when it came to crossbreeding decisions or the lack of tools to evaluate new exciting composite cattle.

“There is a need for more efficiency in the beef business and this points to the crossbred cow,” Ropp says. “Increases in lifetime productivity, fertility and even something like salvage value are all influenced by crossbreeding.

“Unfortunately, for a lot of operations, choosing the next breed of bull to use from something seen at the county fair was a bad idea. The tools we have for evaluation that we didn’t have back then have made it easier for cattlemen to find genetics that work in their system.”

Many things have happened over the years that may have gotten cattlemen going in a tailspin. Ever-evolving standards in the beef industry forced most to stay middle of the road because change takes so long with the generation gap.

A demanding consumer was screaming for better beef and the industry answered the call, with not only improved carcass quality, but improved technology to more accurately grade carcasses.

“There is a need for highly marbled beef. Straight-breeding is easy, crossbreeding systems are hard,” Ropp says. “Selection for increased carcass quality obviously worked, because our percent premium product is as high as it has ever been, but we have more waste fat than we have ever produced.

We have genetic combinations and composites that are providing high-quality beef, without excess fat. By taking advantage of breed complementarity we can increase retail yield without sacrificing carcass quality.”

“We run black and tiger stripe F1s in south Louisiana. We are currently mating these females to Hereford and Angus bulls to produce a three-quarter British, quarter Brahman baldie female,” Dufrene says.

“These females have been in demand because they are very useful in the Southern states and the steer calves have a little more carcass quality than the F1s.”

Need to feed

Extreme environments and marginal forages are another challenge the beef industry faces. As the value of corn and other crops continues to rise and the population keeps growing, different regions of the country could be leaned on to take a greater stock in beef production.

Couple this with a good chunk of the cattle-producing country experiencing severe drought – maintaining supply will continue to be an ordeal.

“The straight-bred females will not work along the Gulf Coast. We have a lot of marginal, high-moisture grass along the coast and some animals can’t consume enough for maintenance requirements.

The Angus females had 65 to 70 percent conception rates on the coast, while our F1s will breed up around 92 or 93 percent,” Dufrene says. “For us, that is the difference between a marginal year and a profitable year.

In the commercial cow/calf business, with today’s input costs, you can’t afford to have open cows. It will put you out of business.”

“By the time most producers realize they need to get some heterosis back in the herd, they have gone six or eight years with straight-bred cows.

There isn’t one glaring thing that jumps out at you, but a variety of things like more opens, less weaning weight and all the 12-year-old cows have disappeared.

These are things cattlemen don’t tie to straight-bred cows,” Ropp says. “I would like to think we have better evaluation systems today, but we haven’t done much to help adapt cattle to the extreme environments like fescue country or along the coast.

Marginal lands are going to be very important in the coming years to help grow or protect cow numbers. Current weather patterns are showing us we’ll have to have more adaptable cattle, and it starts with crossbreeding.”

Most of the time cattlemen get caught in the debate of whether to raise replacements or purchase them. In today’s high-cost environment, the question could be how much it will cost to replace that cow. Longevity is at a premium.

“Follow the science; crossbred cow herds don’t turn over as quickly as straight-bred herds. If you use a bull today, the value of those genetics could still be felt in 2030,” Ropp says. “Look at the data. Heterosis will work every time.”

“Our F1s will last until they are 15 years old,” Dufrene says. “That’s three to five more calves throughout their lifetime compared to most straight-bred cows. That’s a lot of money at today’s prices.”

Cows 86 and 88

Ease with the multi-breeds

Designing a good crossbreeding system may be less adventurous today than it was not so long ago.

Biased beliefs or lack of the right tools to evaluate cattle led to some pretty influential academia mapping out the path the beef business would take.

Everything in the beef business comes with good and bad.

Unfortunately, when it’s time to change horses, some in the industry balk at new ideas.

“Raising purebred cattle is hard work. If a commercial operator utilizes a crossbred cow in his system, he has a much easier time designing cattle that better utilize his resources, fit in his environment and work in the end product system,” Ropp says. “There was a time when the folks that influenced the beef industry told us only purebred bulls were acceptable.

One reason was they didn’t have a multi-breed evaluation like we do today. By using the best from each gene pool we can create composites that bundle a package of traits we couldn’t create in a purebred scenario. I saw this first-hand in the swine industry.”

“Along the Gulf Coast, we have to have Brahman influence to survive. That F1 will live a long time, breed back and wean a big calf,” Dufrene says. “With what it costs to raise these calves to harvest, I think there could be a time when we demand these cows to produce heavier calves for the system.

My F1s are certified, which means both parents are registered with their respective breed associations. We are looking for the best genetics in both breeds to keep improving the product we have.”

Crossbreeding is a lost art within the beef industry. Utilizing straight-bred cows or one-breed systems evolved because of several factors.

This system may have served a purpose, but the industry demands efficiency and most cattlemen need more bang for their buck.

For most operations, cattle have to perform in so many arenas before rail premiums mean anything and the supply chains are totally different today than they were 20 years ago.

“Crossbreeding is the great equalizer,” Ropp says. “Sometimes we don’t get to place as much emphasis on reproductive traits as we want because we have to produce quality beef.

Reproductive traits make money in the beef business and crossbreeding takes the pressure off increased selection pressure for those traits while it also allows producers to hit many different end-product targets.

We can design cattle to fit all-natural and organic programs. Cattle are still going to be black and polled if that’s what the industry demands.

“If you keep records you aren’t going to see any quantum leaps in one or two years. Crossbreeding systems take a long-term commitment.”  end mark

Cliff Mitchell is a freelance writer based in Oklahoma.

PHOTO

TOP: The Brahman influence crossed with Angus and Hereford bulls, as seen with these Brahman-Hereford tiger-stripe F1s, makes cattle more durable in southern climates.

BOTTOM: Utilizing crossbred cows gives producers an easier time designing cattle to fit resources. Photos courtesy of Progressive Cattleman staff.

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