Capitalizing On Your Calf Crop Begins With Breeding

Two producer-panelists speaking at the recent BEEF Quality Summit shared their perspective on what it means to manage costs and product quality for profit.

For Alan Sears, the simple answer is heterosis because it boosts production using the same inputs. Art Brownlee, on the other hand, prefers to measure and manage the factors that can impact quality during a calf’s life.

Cow-calf producers looking to optimize their resources in a cost-critical environment need to ask themselves, “Do I want to pick up an extra $50/calf/cow, or $100?” Sears asks. He speaks from more than 10 years’ experience marketing bulls to upscale commercial cow-calf ranches and funneling the resulting feeder calves into branded-beef programs.

“Crossbreeding, with an emphasis on heterosis, is where most of the advantages lie when we look at cost savings at the cow-calf level,” Sears begins.

The bonus is twofold, but stems from the mating of diverse genetic packages: first in the calf that will be sold in the marketplace (growth, efficiency and leanness), and secondly in the retained maternal female (longevity, fertility and udder durability).

According to Lee Leachman, general manager of Leachman of Colorado in Wellington, crossbreeding is the most important strategy most ranchers forget. Sears prefers the adage: “Heterosis – don’t ranch without it.” Why? “Because it’s the only free lunch in this business,” Sears says.

Pick and choose. Crossbreeding is more effective today than 30 years ago because of the type of cattle being used, Sears says. In the ’70s, Continental cattle were tall and lean; British were just the opposite. “We wondered why we got such a spread in phenotype and performance levels,” Sears jokes.

Today, breeds are more complimentary in size and stature, but with distinct separate core traits from British and Continental breeds. Over time, phenotypic differences can be minimized, he says. More importantly, composite genetic providers are using documented pedigrees and performance measurements, similar to what the purebred producers have been doing for years.

“The well documented purebreds provide an important core foundation for a successful composite or crossbreeding system,” Sears says.

He favors a Continental/British cross. The Continental breeds bring red-meat yield, efficiency and growth performance. The British base adds maternal and marbling. Even when the breed balance is 7/8 or 15/16, there’s still a 12.5 to 25% advantage from heterosis.

“Most businesses would take a 10-12% margin and be pretty happy about it,” Sears says. Here’s a breakdown of how heterosis boosts production.

Calving rate (number of calves weaned per cow exposed): +6%
Calf-survival rate: +4%
Weaning weight: +8%
Yearling weight: +4%
Carcass traits: +0-2%
Weaning weight per cow exposed: +23%
Given those figures, over 10 years, a rancher with 100 cows and an average calf weaning weight of 575 lbs. could expect to see:
60 additional head (calf-survival rate, 6%)
An extra 20,000 lbs. at weaning (4% advantage in weaning weight)
105,000 lbs. (23% increase in weaning weight per cow exposed)
With an additional 18 calves/year, heterosis is worth $100/cow/year. In addition, the crossbred calf opens up more marketing opportunities by providing access to yield or quality markets and get there with additional pounds.

“The calves are versatile and attract multiple buyers,” Sears states.
But he cautions cattlemen that in order for crossbreeding to be done right, it starts with attainable goals. Producers should consider available marketing endpoints, replacement females, environment and management ability in selecting a crossbreeding plan. “Then you’ve got to stick to that plan,” Sears says, be it with Simmental, Gelbvieh, Limousin, Chi-Angus or South Devon on the Continental side or Angus, Red Angus, Hereford or Shorthorn on the British side.

Measuring from the get-go. But once calves are on the ground, the task of managing for optimum harvest quality takes precedence. Brownlee, along with his wife Merry, inherited a 1,400-head cowherd in the western Nebraska Sandhills near Ashby. At the time, their cowherd was 70-80% Continental and graded less than 40% Choice. But they wanted to increase the herd’s marbling and make the end product something they would serve their friends.

Brownlee plainly states they’re not single-trait selectors, but seek moderation. But by measuring and managing data the past 14 years, they’ve been able to take their herd from producing 40% Choice calves to above 80% with 40-50% in the upper two thirds.

“Genetics to me is the baseline,” Brownlee says. “When I look at genetics, I look at potential. What’s the potential of that individual mating?” To assist him in those decisions, he looks back on individual datasets examining how each cow’s progeny performed out of different sires.

“We’ve got a starting point of genetic potential and it starts at conception. We have the end point at harvest,” Brownlee says.

There are several challenges along the path that can impact end-product quality, says Brownlee, who adds that over the course of time, he’s tinkered with and botched each individual area. But he hasn’t experienced a complete wreck. Here are his areas to watch:
Nutrition. “Anytime nutrition is compromised on a calf, the potential for losing marbling is there,” Brownlee says; the same is true for ribeye.
This emerging field is called epigenetics, or in utero programming. The dairy industry is already working this field. Researchers have experimented by programming the feed given to pregnant cows while calves are still in the womb. The result is progeny with elongated mammary cells capable of producing more milk. More and more research is being conducted in utero, emphasizing the importance of pre-calving management.
“We can get hammered by it if we don’t treat our cows right in the wintertime,” Brownlee says.
Environment and weather. Looking back two years ago, Brownlee says the harsh winter conditions his cows endured on cornstalks impacted the calves (in utero) they harvested this year. “Environment and weather can compromise a calf when they’re growing and need nutrition,” Brownlee says, be it fighting against cold, heat, parasites or chest-deep mud in the feedlot. Even sunlight can affect the quality grade of a calf.
Harvesting practices. This includes excessive hotshot use, extended trucking, facility design, stress and overcrowding. “In a non-Beef Quality Assurance atmosphere, all those things can affect an animals’ stress level that will affect the gain, which affects marbling,” Brownlee says.
Treatment philosophy. Everything from managing calves for natural programs to mass treatments can impact quality. “Do you wait until you can catch on foot before you treat it?” he says.
Implant strategy. Brownlee questions producers about their timing and frequency protocol for implant programs. Giving an animal probiotics, beta antagonists and various hormones can impact quality.
Brownlee closes the discussion by telling of an employee on his ranch who, being miles from anywhere, saw the electric fence was down. He figured out a way to repair the electrified barbed wire fence by using an old plastic ear tag nailed to a hedge post.

“What we’ve got here is a system that isn’t right,” Brownlee points out. The wire shouldn’t be barbed wire, but high-tensile because it carries electricity better over long distances. The pole should be fiberglass with a proper insulator; otherwise power could be lost to the fence.

“Basically, that’s what I see as I look at the cattle business,” Brownlee says. “There are lots of places we could rob the spark from what we’re doing. Until we haven’t compromised the animal in all those different aspects, we won’t know its potential.”

Calving to first estrus

Keep cows in moderate body condition score (BCS) after calving to decrease interval to first estrus, Oklahoma Agricultural Experiment Station researchers in Stillwater suggest.

The study’s objective was to determine the effects of BCS at calving and the amount of postpartum protein supplementation on the dominant follicle (DF) and behavioral characteristics at the first postpartum estrus of mature beef cows.

Multiparous Angus X Hereford cows (n = 45) were fed to calve in thin (T; < 5) or moderate (M; ≥ 5) BCS. Cows were stratified by BCS and calving date, and randomly assigned to receive lesser (L; 2.6 lbs./day) or greater (G; 5.5 lbs./day) amounts of a 42% crude protein supplement. All cows grazed the same native-grass pasture and were fed in individual stalls for 49 ± 2 days.

Beginning 20 days after calving, blood samples were collected from each cow three times weekly, and estrus behavior was monitored continuously with a radiotelemetry system.

At 4-16 hours after the onset of estrus, size of the DF was determined by ultrasonography. BCS of T cows was less at calving than M cows; L and G cows had similar BCS at calving and at the end of the feeding period. Body weight gains during treatment did not differ for L or G cows.

Duration from calving to first estrus was greater for T than M cows. The incidence of a short luteal phase before first estrus was not influenced by BCS or protein supplement. Concentrations of IGF-I in plasma tended to be greater, and size of the DF was greater for M than T cows. Size of the DF tended to be greater for G than L cows. Duration and number of mounts received at the first estrus were not influenced by BCS or supplement.

Pregnancy rate for M cows during the breeding season was greater than T cows.

Postpartum protein intake and BCS at calving influenced the size of the DF at the first postpartum estrus in mature, suckled beef cows. Researchers believe cows should be managed to calve in moderate BCS and maintain body weight after parturition to decrease the time to first estrus, increase follicular development and maximize pregnancy rate.
— Lents et al, 2008, Journal of Animal Science, 86:2549.

Feeding MGA prior to puberty can alter testis characteristics in bulls, say University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers.

Eighty crossbred bull calves (420 ± 11 lbs.; 5 months old) were fed MGA (1 mg/head/day) either pre- (PRE) or peri-pubertally (PERI) and a control (CON) group. Calves were allowed to graze a bromegrass pasture and supplemented with soybean hulls (60%, DM basis) and corn (40%, DM basis).

The PRE treatment group was fed for 70 days, while the PERI treatment group was fed MGA for 88 days. At each point until bulls were castrated, right testis weight was collected as well as combined testis weight, scrotal circumference was measured and blood samples were collected for testosterone analysis.

Bulls in the PRE group had increased scrotal circumference at 12 months (36.2 ± 0.8 cm) when compared to CON (34.1 ± 1.0 cm) and their scrotal circumference tended to be greater than PERI (34.1 ± 0.8 cm).

Feeding MGA pre- and peri-pubertally affected all testosterone concentration measurements and treatment groups except for the 5.5-month measurement, which showed no difference between groups.

The bulls in the PERI group resulted in an increased concentration of testosterone at 6.75 months compared to the CON, and increased testosterone concentration compared to the PRE.

The bulls in the PRE group tended to have an increased testosterone concentration at 7.5 months compared to PERI. The PERI bulls also showed a decrease in testosterone compared to the CON groups at 9 months.

At 12 months of age, bulls in the PRE group tended to have lower testosterone concentrations compared to the CON and had lower concentrations of testosterone than the PERI groups.

Feeding MGA increased body weight in the PRE group (1,115 ± 26 lbs.) compared to the CON (1,040 ± 27 lbs.) at 7 months of age. At 12 months of age, the bulls of the PRE group (1,872 ± 46 lb.) tended to have an increased body weight in comparison to the CON (1,750 ± 53 lbs.).

The researchers conclude that pre-pubertal MGA feeding increased scrotal circumference and testis weight and decreased testosterone at 12 months compared to the control and the peri-puberal treatments. Thus, feeding MGA during different stages of pre- and peri-pubertal development can alter testosterone development and may increase spermatogenic capacity of the testis. However, since no seminal characteristics were evaluated, further research needs to be conducted to determine if sperm characteristics (volume, motility, etc.) were also enhanced.
— Slattery et al, 2008 Nebraska Beef Report, p. 10


Crossbreeding remains one of the most effective low-input, high-return management practices a beef-cattle producer can adopt. Effective crossbreeding is more than just mating a bull and cow of different breeds. Crossbreeding systems with varying degrees of complexity offer benefits in proportion to the increased management they require.

Crossbreeding can increase production levels in two ways:

Crossbreeding provides the breeder the opportunity to combine the desirable characteristics of two or more breeds, thus achieving a higher overall performance level of desired traits. This is frequently called breed complementarity, which refers to the strong points of one breed complementing or covering up the weak points of the other breed.

Crossbreeding increases productivity for particular traits due to heterosis (also called hybrid vigor). The whole can be greater than the sum of the parts. For instance, if straightbred Hereford and Angus calves average 500 lbs. at weaning and Hereford x Angus calves average 525 lbs., the heterosis realized is (525-500)/500, or 5%.

The most commonly utilized crossbreeding systems in order from least to most demanding in terms of facilities and labor include:

Two-breed cross,
two-breed rotational cross,
three-breed rotational cross,
static terminal sire, and
rotational terminal sire.
The ranking applies to the realized benefits. For instance, the two-breed cross is the easiest to manage, but results in the least heterosis and little opportunity for breed complementarity. Some crossbreeding systems offer a greater degree of heterosis than others, and some traits respond more to crossbreeding than others. Use of artificial insemination (AI) or multiple breeding pastures is required for use of complex systems.

Heterosis is realized in inverse proportion to heritability for a given trait. Lowly heritable traits offer the most heterosis; highly heritable traits offer the least. In general, reproductive traits are lowly heritable, growth traits are moderate and carcass traits are highly heritable.

Thus, differences in reproductive performance between herds are virtually all due to environment and management, while differences in growth or carcass traits are due primarily to genetics. Also, reproductive traits will respond the most to crossbreeding, carcass traits the least.

Before designing a crossbreeding system, the production environment and marketing goals must be determined. A balance of traits is usually best and little progress will be made by a breeder who tries to select for everything at once.

Clint Peck is director, Beef Quality Assurance, Montana State University.

Angus Breeders Make Strides Identifying AM Genetics

Science, technology and the willingness of Angus producers to test their animals, along with efficient communication via the Internet, have aided the American Angus Association® (AAA) in its efforts to keep the membership informed and abreast of the issues of arthrogryposis multiplex (AM), AAA says. Also known as “curly calf,” AM is a genetic defect discovered within the breed late last year.

Five labs are now conducting tests and electronically submitting those results to AAA daily; the results are posted on American Angus Association and added to the database. As of March 31, AAA reports more than 50,000 animals had been tested and reported.

AAA Login users (registered and commercial) can log in and use the Potential Carrier Report on their account to see exactly which animals they should test first. Animals on the report are labeled several ways:

No carrier ancestor – the animal has no AM carrier in its pedigree or an ancestor that’s been tested free and therefore does not require testing.
Undetermined – the animal is commercial and doesn’t have enough info in its pedigree to determine parentage.
Potential carrier – has one or more ancestors in its pedigree that are carriers and should be tested to find out definite status.
Don Laughlin, AAA director of member services, says that, as of July 1, any animals regarded as “potential carriers” will carry a notation on their pedigrees, both printed and online.

Do DNA Tests Work?

Sales literature claims DNA tests can be used to accurately evaluate genetic potential of cattle at birth, and ultimately improve your bottom line. While it is evident that animals can be genotyped at a young age, producers often ask me, “Do DNA tests work?” The answer to that question is, as with many questions, “It depends.”

It depends on your motive for testing, and what you mean by “works.” DNA-based tests can be used for various purposes: selection and breeding decisions, feedlot sorting, pedigree verification, and as a marketing tool. Their utility for these applications requires knowledge of both how well they work in cattle populations where they are to be applied, and the cost of testing. In the absence of these two pieces of information, it isn’t possible to evaluate the costs and benefits associated with the use of these tests, and so it’s not possible to determine if they “work.”

Some seedstock producers are testing their bulls to provide potential buyers with DNA information. The value of that information to the buyer is determined by the market. If the value is deemed to be more than the cost of testing and is reflected in the bull purchase price, then the test “worked,” at least as a marketing tool.

However, many people are interested in using DNA test results for marker-assisted selection (MAS) — using the results of DNA-marker tests to assist in selecting individuals to become parents of the next generation. Therefore, as a geneticist, I interpret the real question being posed when producers ask whether DNA tests work as whether they “work” to improve the accuracy of genetic predictions sufficiently to justify the expense.

The answer to that question is again, “It depends” — on which trait is being examined, which test is being used and how much it costs, and in which breed or population the test is going to be used.

Breed differences

Traditional methods of DNA marker discovery have focused on finding genetic markers in locations on chromosomes that are experimentally known to have an effect on the trait of interest. Rarely has the marker been the actual DNA sequence causing the effect; rather, the marker flags the approximate location of the causative or “good” sequence.

However, the relationship between the marker and the good sequence may differ among breeds. For one breed, a marker might be linked to the DNA sequence causing the desirable effect on the trait; in other breeds, there may be no effect of that marker on the trait, or the marker might even flag the “bad” sequence. The predictive value of a DNA test decreases when markers are incorrectly associated with the trait of interest in a given breed or animal.

The U.S. National Beef Cattle Evaluation Consortium (NBCEC) has been involved in the process of independently validating commercial DNA tests for quantitative beef quality traits since their first appearance on the U.S. market in the early 2000s (results are posted at Validation is a critical activity to test the strength of support for the genotyping company’s published claims based on independent data. This process sometimes revealed that tests did not perform as expected; in certain cases, companies chose to withdraw those tests from commercialization.

Problems arose as the DNA-testing industry matured from single marker tests to multiple-marker “panels” with effects on numerous traits. The NBCEC and DNA testing companies struggled to find appropriately phenotyped populations that were not involved in the discovery process for validation studies. Such populations are rare, as they are expensive to develop and phenotype.

Additionally, results from different breeds and cattle types (e.g., Bos taurus, Bos indicus) genotyped with the same single-nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) panel were often inconsistent with respect to the significance of the association between the test and the trait(s), and sometimes even with respect to the direction of the association (i.e., a good DNA test result in one breed was the least desirable result in a different breed).

This complicated the interpretation of validation results, and created confusion as to whether “validation” meant a test “worked” (was significantly associated with the trait) in all or some breeds, or whether the test had simply been evaluated by an independent third party. This exposed the process to marketing zeal and left producers confused and somewhat stymied because the data reported (significance of the association) did not really help to inform decisions about the value associated with investing in specific DNA tests.


The accuracy of a DNA test at predicting the true genetic merit of an animal (improving accuracy) is primarily driven by the amount of additive genetic variation accounted for by the DNA test. Current estimates of the proportion of genetic variation accounted for by existing tests are generally low (0.0-0.10), although this number is not readily available for all tests.

A key criticism of the currently available tests is that their ability to predict genetic merit is limited. The exception is tenderness DNA tests, where available estimates for the proportion of genetic variation range from 0.016 to 0.299 ( Over time, it’s envisioned that genetic tests will have markers associated with the majority of important genes influencing a trait. In other words, it is hoped that in the future, genotyping results will be highly predictive of the true genetic value of an animal.

Next Page: Do they work?

In the interim, however, from the user’s perspective, perhaps the most useful information that could be provided is how much accuracy improvement can be expected from adding DNA test information to EPDs. Publishing traditional EPDs and marker information separately, as is currently the case, is confusing and can lead to incorrect selection decisions when marker scores predict only a small proportion of the genetic variation.

Creating an approach to developing marker-assisted EPDs seems to be a logical next step in the implementation of DNA tests into national genetic evaluations.

A paper recently submitted to the Journal of Animal Science, entitled “Genetic Evaluation of Angus Cattle For Carcass Marbling Using Ultrasound and Genomic Indicators” by M.D. MacNeil, J. D. Nkrumah, and S. L. Northcutt, examined the impact of including DNA-marker data from a 114-marker panel that was calculated to have a genetic correlation of 0.37 with the marbling (i.e., the test explained (0.37)2 = 0.137 of the additive genetic variation) in Angus cattle.

For animals with no ultrasound record or progeny data, the marker information improved the Beef Improvement Federation accuracy of the Angus marbling EPD from 0.07 to 0.13. So this test “worked” in Angus cattle (there was a correlation between the genetic test result and the trait of interest) and the test was associated with 13.7% of the genetic variation in marbling.

It isn’t clear how the marker panel examined in this paper relates to the version of the test that is currently on the market. This is an important point as companies are constantly developing new, and presumably improved, marker panels. These panels are proprietary and which markers are used in various versions is confidential.

This creates an obvious problem for entities charged with developing EPDs. The genetic parameters required to incorporate DNA information into EPDs need to be re-estimated for each new marker panel, and correspondingly, DNA results using a specific version of a test will have to be incorporated into genetic evaluations using the appropriate values for that test version.

This is a logistical problem for genetic-evaluation providers, and at the current time it also appears that these parameters may have to be individually determined for each breed. This is quite a daunting prospect given the imminent commercialization of a multiplicity of products derived from high-density, SNP assays.

Do they work?

So do DNA tests work? At the current time, tests on the market explain 0-30% of the genetic variation associated with various traits. A test that explains 0% of the variation is of little use. A test that explains 30% may be very useful for improving the accuracy of genetic predictions, although its worth is dependent on the economic value associated with the trait it predicts.

DNA tests for traits that are collected after culling decisions are made are likely to be of greater value than tests for traits that can be easily measured early in life. Details of how DNA tests perform in representative populations are needed to enable an informed decision regarding the use and value of these tests. Currently such details (proportion of genetic variation accounted for by a DNA test panel) are not reported on the NBCEC validation site, although they will be reported for all future validations. This will assist with plans to incorporate DNA data into the existing genetic evaluation infrastructure to develop marker-assisted EPDs with an associated accuracy.

Such an approach is appealing as it presents results in a format that is familiar to producers, and it eliminates the choice that is implicitly associated with the current practice of publishing traditional EPDs and marker information separately.

Alison Van Eenennaam is an Extension animal biotechnology specialist at the University of California-Davis.

Genetic Rut Gets Deeper As Cattle Industry Ignores Crossbreeding

“Crossbreeding systems that exploit heterosis and complementarity and match genetic potential with market targets, feed resources and climate provide the most effective means of breeding for production efficiency.”

Larry Cundiff, research leader of the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center Genetics and Breeding Research Unit for better than three decades, provided this eloquent description of reality a few years back.

Nothing about that has changed.

Dog-eared research and experience indicate crossbred cows have longer reproductive lives, higher calving rates and healthier calves, among other advantages. Direct heterosis in the calf improves survivability, weaning growth, yearling growth and gain.

Yet, the industry’s lack of interest in strategic crossbreeding also remains the same.

At least that’s how it appears when you study the survey of genetics providers and users that BEEF published in mid-February ( The lion’s share of commercial respondents — 70% — said their cowherds were primarily a high percentage or straight-bred British, or were mostly a British crossbred. As telling, 82.5% indicated no plans to alter the breed composition of their cowherd within the next five years. Of those planning to make a change, 60% plan to increase the percentage of British genetics.

Either as the response or driver, 90% of the seedstock suppliers in the same survey said they provide British purebred seedstock — Angus, Red Angus and/or Hereford bulls.

Keep in mind, the majority of crossbreeding benefit comes via maternal heterosis, the hybrid vigor of the cow herself.

There are plenty of logical reasons why crossbreeding doesn’t fit the resources and goals of a specific operation. From an industry standpoint, though, it’s tough to square so little use of heterosis with the growing need to increase rather than reduce or maintain efficiency. It’s even harder to square when you realize composite and hybrid genetics offer crossbreeding advantages with “straight-breeding” convenience.

Of course, if the BEEF survey is correct, only 31% of commercial producers care much about knowing the specific pedigree of the bulls they buy. Even fewer — 29% — require a registration paper for making a purchase.

Of the likely possible explanations, there’s only one positive one I can think of: The buyer is dealing with a trusted seedstock supplier who is building registered seedstock. The seller offers the paperwork, the EPDs and all of the rest, and the buyer says, “You know what I need; I’ll let you keep track of the documentation and details. Just don’t let me down.” There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, that’s the type of customer/supplier relationship worth aspiring to.

The other likely explanations for so few bull buyers demanding registration papers or even the basic pedigree aren’t as sunny:

The papers aren’t available because the bulls are coming from a trader or a breeder — rather than a seedstock supplier — who sells bulls but doesn’t register them, electing instead to ride on the coattails of those who do. In the survey, only 77% of the folks selling bulls said they provided registration papers.

The papers aren’t available because the buyer’s procurement revolves around picking up bulls through the local auction sale — young or old — for lots cheaper than those highfalutin ones the neighbor is selling.

Incidentally, according to the survey, 56% said the bulls they’ve purchased in the last three years have averaged between $1,500 and $2,500; 28% said between $2,500 and $3,500.

If the BEEF survey is an accurate reflection of the overall industry, and I believe it is, for all of the tools and technology available to slice and dice genetic potential — embraced wholeheartedly and profitably by some — not much has changed when it comes to genetic selection, management and use.

Using Distillers Grains In Cattle Diets

Replacement of up to 50% of the dry-rolled (DRC) or high-moisture corn (HMC) in finishing rations with wet distillers grains plus solubles (WDGS) resulted in superior feedlot performance compared to cattle not fed WDGS.

University of Nebraska beef feedlot researchers analyzed the results of 14 finishing trials comparing the replacement of DRC, HMC or a 50:50 blend of DRC and HMC with up to 50% WDGS. Pound for pound, the feeding value of WDGS was consistently higher than that of DRC, HMC or the combination of both. WDGS’ feeding value was greater at lower levels of inclusion (10-30% of ration dry matter) and decreased as inclusion level increased.

The increased feeding value of WDGS was due to increased average daily gain. Compared to DRC and HMC, WDGS has a feeding value of 148, 142, 136, 129 and 123% when replacing 10, 20, 30, 40 or 50% of the corn in the diet, respectively.

A related analysis determined that WDGS has the same feeding value when fed from season to season and in varying types of cattle. This includes calves going into the feedlot following weaning or yearlings going into the feedlot off summer grazing.

Replacing steam-flaked corn in finishing rations with WDGS does not result in similar improvement in feeding value as observed with DRC or HMC. Presumably, this is due to the rate and site of digestion of the corn portion of the ration.

Additionally, researchers at Texas Tech University and Elanco Animal Health teamed up to answer the potential effect of Rumensin to potentiate polioencephalomalacia (PEM) in cattle fed WDGS. Two studies were conducted that evaluated three levels of dietary sulfur and three levels of Rumensin in steam-flaked finishing rations with and without WDGS.

In both studies, Rumensin didn’t increase the level of hydrogen sulfide, the causative agent of PEM, produced in the rumen. But as the level of sulfur in the ration increased, so did hydrogen sulfide levels.
To reduce the incidence of PEM, feeders should monitor incoming WDGS for sulfur content.

Plan your grazing implant strategy

Implanting suckling steer and heifer calves and stocker cattle is one of the most cost-effective production technologies available to beef producers.

University Extension summaries consistently report a 15- to 20-lb. increase in weaning weight and about a $15/head net return for implanting calves. But, fewer than 12% of all U.S. cow-calf producers utilize implants prior to or at weaning, according to the USDA National Animal Health Monitoring System’s 2007-08 Beef Cow-calf Survey. The survey found large cow-calf producers (more than 200 cows) utilize implant technology more frequently than small producers (31% vs. 7%).

Stocker operators utilize implants at a higher rate than cow-calf producers, according to a 2008 Oklahoma State University (OSU) stocker survey. But, fewer than 40% of small stocker operators implant, while upwards of 75% of large stocker operators do so. Extension summaries report a 20-lb. increase in grazing gain and $25 net return for implanting stocker cattle.

Meanwhile, OSU scientists compared the grazing performance of steers implanted with either Ralgro® or Component® TE-G with Tylan to non-implanted control steers. In a two-year study, crossbred steers averaging 464 lbs. grazed introduced Bluestem or native range pastures for 126 days. The implanted steers outperformed non-implanted steers by 11 lbs. and 24 lbs. of total grazing gain for the two implant treatments, respectively.

AI Efficiency Hinges On Many Factors

“The best thing to happen to breeding heifers is $6 corn,” says Willie Altenburg, a northern Colorado rancher and a part of Genex, a cattle genetics and AI cooperative. While high feed costs are not good for the industry overall, $6 corn can encourage a rancher to not get his heifers too fat before breeding season.

But that doesn’t mean heifers shouldn’t be fed. Heifers need to be in correct body condition, he says. South Dakota State University’s beef Extension specialist, George Perry agrees. “What you do between weaning and breeding has a big effect on pregnancy,” he says. “You can’t just turn them out on range and forget them.”

Altenburg says it’s probably a bigger problem in an artificial insemination (AI) program for heifers to be too fat than to small and thin. “They need to be 65% of their mature weight at breeding,” he says. “But they need to be gaining 1-1½ lbs./day throughout the breeding season.”

Age is important, of course – he says heifers should be 12-14 months old when breeding season commences. But weight is more important than age, in his opinion.

Perry says research shows that heifers supplemented on pasture had significantly higher AI success than heifers left to graze pasture alone. What’s more, they observed that fetal programming came into play.

The subsequent heifer calves from heifers that received supplement had higher pregnancy rates and performed better than heifer calves born to unsupplemented heifers, he says. “The follicles that a cow will breed on for the rest of her life are developed while that cow is still a fetus during the third trimester,” he says.

According to Perry, stress can play a big role in the success of an AI program. That’s because the heifer doesn’t know she’s pregnant until about two weeks after insemination, making that a crucial time in a successful pregnancy.

Stress causes the release of prostaglandin, Perry says, and even small doses of prostaglandin can be embryo toxic. So he and Altenburg suggest that it’s best to move cows and heifers to the pasture right after insemination. And handle them quietly and calmly, Perry stresses.

There are four independent factors that affect the success of your AI program, says Altenburg. They are:

A – Percent of the herd that’s inseminated. This hinges on herd nutrition, post partum interval and other management factors.
B – Inseminator efficiency.
C – Individual cow or heifer fertility.
D – Semen quality.

“A x B x C x D equals the percent pregnancy rate of your AI program,” he says. When he evaluates an AI program that didn’t work, this is the formula he uses, and the breakdown can be found in one or more of those four elements.

Avoid These Common Breeding Season Mistakes

Avoid These Common Breeding Season Mistakes

What can you do this year to better ensure that your herd has a successful breeding season? Tim and Chandy Olson, a South Dakota couple who have dedicated their careers to beef cattle reproduction, see several common mistakes that could be avoided.

Together, the couple handles 50,000-60,000 cattle/year; Tim has worked as a beef specialist for Select Sires for the past 17 years, while Chandy is a self-employed DVM through her business CATL Resources. Tim will typically artificially inseminate (AI) over 10,000 head of cattle in a 90-day period, and Chandy will ultrasound pregnancy test 30,000 cows.

Their services range from selling semen and providing fertility and ultrasound testing to turnkey synchronization programs including heat detection and AI. The duo works with beef herds in the Dakotas, Wyoming and southeast Montana.

Four common mistakes

Based on their experiences, the Olsons suggest four management mistakes that can easily be corrected to improve your herd’s reproductive success.

1. Slowly extending the calving season. Making excuses for cows that breed late and keeping them in the herd frequently leads to problems the following year. Chandy explains, “These cows have the highest risk for being disease carriers as well as being reproductively inferior to the rest of the herd.”

2. Expecting thin cows to breed. Cattlemen must recognize that middle-aged cows handle grazing pressure and lower body condition better than young and old cows. “If the body condition of your middle-aged cows is marginal, it’s a good bet the youngest and oldest cows will have difficulty breeding under the same conditions,” Tim says.

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3. Not paying enough attention to herd bulls. Although an annual breeding soundness exam is always recommended prior to the breeding season, there are other factors that are just as integral to successful breeding, the duo says. For instance:

Yearling bulls that will breed on pasture should be adapted to grass prior to turnout and should not be overly fat at the beginning of the breeding season.
Bulls should receive prebreeding vaccinations similar to the cowherd.
Fly control and vaccinations such as pinkeye and foot rot should be considered for the bull battery.
4. Not paying enough attention to synchronization protocols. Utilizing estrus synchronization and AI can be an effective management tool to increase pregnancy and conception rates. But, attention to detail in the synchronization protocol schedule and the correct administration of synchronization drugs is very important. “Poor drug administration can take a program that usually has a 90% estrus response rate down to 50%,” Tim says.

He adds, “Many of the producers we work with on synchronization programs have shortened their breeding seasons and have up to 90% of their cows bred in less than 30 days.”

Handling is important, too

Animal handling that’s efficient and low-stress on the cattle – and people – is equally important to any successful program. Because of the volume of animals this couple handles in a year, they have firsthand knowledge about which facilities and handling tactics work..

The Olsons say the most common mistake is trying to handle too many cattle at one time. “You can handle large numbers in a day, but you’ve got to bring them into the crowd pen and alley three to four head at a time,” Tim says. “You may take more steps in a day, but you can work the cattle a lot faster.”

It’s not uncommon for the couple to easily work 500-1,000 head/day. “We’ve done nearly 1,100 head in six hours using portable equipment,” Tim reports.

In addition to working a few head at a time, Tim emphasizes the importance of working cattle in an alley from “front to back.”

“The natural tendency is to go to the cow’s hip, but cattle cooperate better when they can see you. You need to get her attention by walking past her head; she will move forward almost all the time.”

For producers looking to improve their handling facilities, the Olsons say it’s important to design a system that can be operated with just one or two people. Tim has provided input to numerous producers in designing their facilities, and was consulted in the design of cattle facilities at the North Dakota State University Research Center in Carrington.

They also believe that portable equipment set up in a pasture is a viable option. They frequently synchronize, breed and preg-check 500-1,000 head/day with such facilities.

Sidebar: Preg-checking is a report card

Once breeding season is complete, Chandy Olson, DVM, says ultrasound pregnancy testing the herd is an equally important management tool to determine calving dates and identify any fertility concerns.

Herds with an abnormal amount of open or late calving cows may indicate a reproductive-disease problem, a bull fertility problem, or more frequently a nutritional or stocking rate problem.

She says the best time to ultrasound is between 30 and 100 days of gestation – but can be done as late as 120 days. Frequently producers will ultrasound cows when they precondition calves because the cows and calves are already sorted.

Based on the calving date information, Olson says cows can be divided into calving groups that are 20-30 days apart (i.e., early, middle and late calving groups). This can help decrease feed costs and focus labor efforts during calving.

Kindra Gordon is a freelancer based in Whitewood, SD.

Back To The Future With Heterosis

Back To The Future With Heterosis

Talk to a feedyard manager about cattle and he’ll ask some pretty basic questions. Darrell Wilkes knows that, because, as part of his job as ABS manager of beef supply systems, he helps find homes for 75,000 to 100,000 feeder calves every year that were sired by ABS bulls.

“What the feedyard guy asks us are two or three very simple questions,” Wilkes says. Those are: How big will they get? How fast will they get there? How much feed will it take for them to get there?

While you’re pondering the answers to those questions, Wilkes says the feedyard manager fills the silence with an even simpler question – “If average cost of gain is $1/lb., will these cattle you’re pitching me feed for 90¢ or $1.10?”

While the genomics researchers and breed associations are working to find answers to those questions, Wilkes says the industry already has the technology to help itself genetically enhance many economically relevant traits, especially at the ranch.

Speaking at the recent Beef Improvement Federation meeting in Bozeman, MT, Wilkes said he heard many interesting presentations on the genomics of animal health and feed efficiency.

“But folks, we already have the genetic technology and the know-how to breed cattle that stay healthier and handle stress better. We already know how to breed cattle that produce more output for the same amount of input. We’ve had the technology for decades on how to make cows more fertile and breed earlier in the breeding season and live a year or two longer. We have the technology to add $100/cow/year to a commercial cow-calf operation.”

It’s called crossbreeding.

Wilkes says that doesn’t mean that genomics research on those topics isn’t needed. It is, and the beef industry has made amazing strides in tying economics to that knowledge. “We’ve done more in the last 10 years in bio-economic modeling than we’ve done in perhaps the last 30 or 40 years.”

But for a solution to many of the genetic advancements the industry is trying to make that will work in the dirt and mud, the wind and sunshine of a commercial cow-calf operation, it’s hard to beat heterosis, he says.

Not all of his estimated $100 to $125/cow return is hard cash, he says. “If you expect the packing industry or feeding industry to pay you more for crossbred cattle, and you’re depending on a signal to do that, I think you’re missing most of the puzzle, which is unit cost of production on the ranch. That should be something that would motivate a cow-calf producer just from the benefit of lowering his unit cost of production and getting more production out of the same resource without additional dollar input.”