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Some Thoughts on Selecting the Cow Herd

Posted Jul. 1, 2001

The United States has diverse environmental conditions; therefore, a single breed of cow or crossbred type cannot be expected to excel everywhere. For example, researchers have repeatedly verified the advantages of Brahman-influenced cows in the southern U.S. The overall performance of these same cows would suffer greatly if they were in colder regions of the country (e.g., Montana). Therefore, producers should strive to effectively match cow type with the production environment. In deciding cow type, producers should not overlook the advantages of the crossbred cow. Research reports demonstrate that crossbred cows, normally the F1 crossbred, offer better reproductive, maternal, and growth traits than their parents. The increase in production above that of the parent breeds is known as heterosis, which is highest in reproductive traits but still significant in maternal and growth traits.

Crossbreeding may be the most accepted management opportunity available that can effectively increase herd production. Crossbreeds that are uniform in appearance and more efficient and productive than the parent breeds can be produced. Using a different breed of bull than is represented by the breeds used to produce the F1 cow is highly recommended. Changing the potential product can be as simple as choosing a different breed of sire or, occasionally, a different individual within the same breed.

When making selection decisions in the cow herd, producers should not forget the simple concept of relative economic value. Reproductive traits are considered ten times more important than product traits (yield grade, quality grade, and so on) and five times more important than production traits (weaning weight, yearling weight). The take-home message is simply that a cow herd must be first and foremost reproductively sound. Reproduction and maternal traits should be stressed, but with today's beef industry, producers cannot ignore growth and carcass characteristics. Purebred bulls that have some degree of predictability for growth, muscling, and carcass merit are available. Knowledgeable producers will use this predictability to select sires that complement a cow herd's maternal strengths.

Producers with smaller herds (fewer than 100 brood cows) should consider an F1 cow herd for the most efficient productivity. Replacement heifers should be purchased from a reputable breeder to maintain a base breed type for the cow herd.

Breeders who choose to raise their own replacement heifers must be willing to put additional management effort and money toward this enterprise. Maternal traits must be stressed anytime replacement heifers are being produced. Therefore, any bull used to sire potential replacement heifers must be selected according to maternal merit.

In today's segmented marketing system, producers can potentially market cattle in at least six different venues:

  1. weaned calf at the local sale barn,
  2. preconditioned commingled feeder calf sales,
  3. yearling-type cattle after a stocker phase,
  4. live cattle on a pen basis,
  5. grade and yield, and
  6. some type of branded program with specific carcass targets.

Any of these could potentially be a feasible marketing endpoint. However, it is imperative for producers to know what they are actually producing at the chosen marketing goal. As we move from 1 to 6, the need to identify the market desired and the management level required to successfully market cattle at that endpoint increases significantly. Therefore, producers should first identify what their potential market is and then establish a baseline of current production for that market, whether that be pounds of weaned calf or number of cattle that qualify for particular carcass premiums. Producers should manage so that calf production is uniform. Considering the inherent variation in the cattle industry, uniformity can be difficult to address. However, if particular attention is given to the selection of both the cow herd and sires, uniformity can be increased. Producers should not become so concentrated on one marketing venue that they overlook the potential variation in economic return that exists year to year. In other words, know a break-even and potential economic return for each market. Market conditions may dictate that, even though a producer originally intended to sell his cattle on a grade and yield formula, the most economically feasible option is a preconditioned calf. Maintaining flexibility in marketing schemes can often lead to more favorable economic returns.

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