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Times and People Change: A New Approach to Herd Selection

Posted Dec. 1, 1999

In my early years, I tried to put new cooperators' commercial cow/calf enterprises on a long-term program of genetic improvement. That's how I was trained. Such a plan usually includes identifying current animal performance levels, defining desired genetic goals, and changing management to achieve those goals. It requires measuring appropriate performance traits in the herd to determine which need to be changed and which do not. Only then can the correct replacement heifers and bulls be selected to move the herd toward its genetic optimum. The extent of genetic goals and objectives under consideration determines the operation's complexity. Some like it intensive; some like it extensive. These producers reduce numbers to survive market downturns and adverse weather conditions but always protect the herd's core genetic quality. Those genetics are the base from which they rebuild when things get better. Although I still believe that producers in long-term business should work toward this type of operation, it is not for everyone.

I recently have begun to approach new cooperators from a totally different perspective. An overall program still should be driven by well-defined, realistic goals developed according to resources and the operator's desires and abilities. Any program should include sound production management practices such as a controlled breeding season and adequate health and nutritional regimens. For many, if not most, a program similar to the following is sufficiently rewarding and practical.

Devote your entire operation to mature cows. Purchase replacement females at the market-appropriate time of the year. It takes a lot of time, money ($650 to $800 per head), and pasture (10 to15 percent of total) to raise replacement heifers to calve at two years of age. Unless a heifer is adding known genetic value to your herd, it is usually cheaper to buy her. Maintaining only mature cows maximizes resource use and simplifies management.

Replacement female purchases should fit your specifications. Base replacement female selection on logically defined specifications for age, weight, breed, resource capabilities, target market, and experience. The kind of cow will depend on many factors, including the productive capabilities of the resources, the environment, the target market, the abilities of managers, and owner preference. Matching Cattle to Markets, Management, and Environments is a publication that offers a logical process of defining specifications and is available upon request.

Eliminate selection mistakes through annual performance appraisals. It is almost impossible to operate without some degree of record keeping. At the very least, verify that each cow weans a calf every year. Eliminate and replace nonproducers. If possible, compare the production of each cow through weaning-weight ratios of their calves. Eliminate and replace cows that produce poorly.

Select sires that complement the cow base and fit the target market. Define specifications for your bulls and then identify bulls that meet your performance, EPD, and physical appraisal specifications.

Collect feedlot and carcass information on selected calves periodically. I think it's good business to know how your calves perform in the feedlot and in the packing plant. With periodic data you can manipulate your cow and bull specifications to produce an industry acceptable product. There are many ways to collect this type of data, even without owning the calves.

Consider producing for a specific alliance or niche market. There are many sound alliances and branded beef programs with various requirements, restrictions, and specifications. I can help you find information on those that interest you.

This kind of approach is appealing to me, and it suits a large percentage of the people we work with. There is plenty of information available to help you plan each part of an overall program.

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