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Beef Herd Genetics: Are Your Cows Capable of Doing What You're Asking of Them?

John Peek

By: John C. Peek

How often do we think about the genetics in our cow herd? When people hear the term “genetics” different things come to mind, but what I want to focus on is the ability for cattle to perform whatever task we are asking of them. Cattle are very diverse. Most have some areas in which they excel and other areas where they could improve. I think it’s important to think about what you are asking your cattle herd to do, and then be honest with yourself about if they are doing it well or not.

In my opinion, the first thing we need to think about is our point of sale. WHEN/WHY/HOW do we market our calves? Do you sell calves at weaning? Do you wean and pre-condition calves for CPH sales? Do you sell registered seedstock? Do you market your calves directly off the farm as freezer beef? The answer to that question should steer (pun intended!!!) us in choosing genetics that help make our operation more successful and profitable. An animal can only perform to its maximum genetic potential. This holds true no matter what traits you are considering. The reality is sometimes the genetics in our herd and our marketing plans don’t complement one another very well. For example, let’s consider a freezer beef operation that is taking calves up to slaughter weight, feeding them the best growing and finishing rations, but when harvested the cattle all grade select. Assuming they were fed correctly, it is apparent their sire and dam didn’t pass on the genetic ability to marble/grade at the choice or prime level. To make a high quality end product and eating experience for customers, those calves (which also means their sires and dams) have to have the genetic potential to marble.

The good news is there are several tools available to be able to identify the heritable traits that cattle possess. A few of these are EPDs, genomic testing, actual performance data and phenotype. We should use this information to help us compare an animal’s traits to our operation’s goals and then purchase bulls or replacement females accordingly. First, I encourage everyone to visit the website for whatever breed you are interested. Find out what EPDs they have, but more importantly what they mean and how they are meant to be used. Does the breed have genomicenhanced EPDs to increase the accuracy, or are they just averages based on pedigree?

I will caution you to not depend on the numbers alone. Instead, visit with breeders in your area and look at the cattle to make sure they are sound and functional. It doesn’t matter what the EPDs are if the cattle aren’t functional. Also look at the actual performance of individuals you are considering for purchase as compared to their contemporaries. Ask about the feeding program the cattle have been in. I think it’s best to purchase cattle that have done well in an environment similar to your own. Lastly, think about phenotype including color. For example, the goal of a bull purchase could be to increase the uniformity of a calf crop from a set of mixed breed cows by breeding them to a black bull. With that goal in mind one would need to make sure the bull was homozygous for black coat color.

With all this information at hand, you can put a plan into action. One of the quickest ways to change the genetic base of a cow herd (if replacements are being kept) is through the sires. Although it is important to realize that change can be for the better or worse. The choices you make will have an impact for years to come. I advocate the use of artificial insemination when feasible because it allows for improvement at a faster rate. There are many proven sires for most traits that you will be seeking to improve. After two or three generations of stacking those sires, the calves should be performing better for you since you are breeding them to excel at what you are seeking. Although, I do want to caution against long-term single trait selection. If we only concentrate on one trait or two, other traits could suffer in the process. I think in most situations, especially when replacements are being kept, we need to try to breed a fairly balanced type of animal. They need to have good maternal, performance and carcass traits.

As beef producers, we should always remember that at the end of the day we are producing a product that is going to be consumed by people, and the decision to purchase beef again or not in large part is influenced by their last experience. We need to make sure we are trying to breed and raise an animal that will make for a good eating experience. Without happy consumers, we have no market.

My goal in these ramblings is mainly to provoke thought. I hope I have caused you to take a minute to think about your operation and the genetics of your own herd. Then go a step further to consider the future cattle that you will incorporate into your herd and their genetic potential. Take advantage of new technology in the beef industry, and put it work on your farm. Cattle come in all shapes, sizes and colors. Which ones will help you be more profitable? I encourage you to breed cattle that are capable of doing what you ask of them.

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