Bringing Order to Chaos

– Dr. Tom Turner, Beef Specialist, OSU Extension (reprinted from the 1999 Ohio Cattleman Seedstock Buyers Guide

For the past thirty years or so we, in the United States, have collected virtually all genetic material available in the world for our beef industry. Numerous breeds have been promoted as the “answer” while commercial producers desperate to improve their bottom line have sampled one breed after the other, such that ‘genetic chaos’ exists in our breeding herds. Please don’t misunderstand. Many breeds do have value and possess a reduced level of heterozygosity for certain traits so that, when used properly, they can have a positive impact on our bottom line.

In any industry, building a product requires planning and execution. “Plan your work – work your plan” was a phrase posted on my high school Vo Ag classroom. I’m not so sure cattle producers are careless and certainly they are not unwilling to work or to dedicate the necessary commitment of resources to this enterprise. Rather, I think most of us simply do not have a clear focus of our end product goals.

Different than poultry, dairy and possibly pork, beef can deliver a variety of end products. In my view this is a positive attribute compared to the competition. Examples would be the high lean products and the high quality, white tablecloth products. The ability of our industry to produce a spectrum of products is a plus but blurs the focus of breeders on end product goal. Furthermore, the market has not sent clear price signals to producers. Future alliances, contracts and other arrangements may help to bring some order to this chaos but the independent nature of producers may slow the process as a method of improvement. Breeders can however make improvements independently by following certain steps.

1. Define End Product Specifications – Identify Yield and Quality grade targets as well as carcass weight, ribeye area and age at slaughter.

2. Analyze Genetic Material Available and Design a Plan to Utilize a Few Breeds to Accomplish Your Goals – Heterosis, or hybrid vigor, can be maximized with three breeds. Using more breeds increases heterozygosity and leads to greater variation.

3. Evaluate Trait Areas – Almost all economically important traits fall into one of three categories.

a) Traits of Reproduction – Examples would be age and puberty, rebreeding performance, milk production, mothering ability, calving ease, etc. While these traits are generally lowly heritable they are high in their response to heterosis. Thus, crossbreeding will pay big dividends here.

b) Traits of Production – Examples here are growth rate, weaning weight, yearly weight, feed efficiency and mature size.

These traits are moderately heritable and still have a mild response to heterosis.

c) Traits of the Product – Examples are Quality grade, Yield grade, carcass weight, fat thickness, ribeye area, age at slaughter, and so on.

These traits are highly heritable and do not show a big response to heterosis.

4. Design a Mating System – Discipline is the key word here. Webster defines discipline as ‘control obtained by enforcing obedience or order.’

Planned mating systems can yield the results we want if we are willing to be a little patient and not stray from the plan – discipline!!

Mating systems are challenged by the relatively small herd sizes in Ohio because most use only one bull. There is a solution, however. The three breed cross utilizing a “terminal” sire allows one to keep a herd sire for several years. In addition, all calves would be marketed. These two economic pluses would affect the need to purchase replacement heifers. Let’s examine this program more closely.

First, commercial beef cows must absolutely be crossbreds. We cannot forego the advantages of heterosis on the traits of reproduction and there are reams of data to support this. However this female only needs to be an F1; (a first cross of two breeds). Adding additional breeds is unnecessary and complicates the plan because these two breeds should be similar for many traits. An example would be to use two maternal breeds that have similar size, calving ease and milk production. Many of our British breeds fit well here.

Secondly, identify a sire breed that will bring additional needed traits with a particular focus on the end product. The best system to utilize this breed is a terminal sire. No calves will be retained. This breed could provide additional growth, muscle mass and carcass merit. Many of the European breeds fit well here. The terminal sire system also allows the producer to keep the herd bull for several years. Discipline is necessary, however, because it will be tempting to keep some of those good heifers for replacements. Regardless of how good they appear, remember that they differ genetically from the cow herd and keeping them constitutes a deviation from the plan and will eventually lead to the “chaos” that is so widespread currently.

Let’s review. 1) Pick three breeds – two maternal, one paternal. 2) Make F1 cows from the two maternal breeds. 3) Mate the F1’s to the sire breed. 4) Sell all calves.

The remaining challenge is production of replacements. This is where networking or alliances come in. Someone needs to be making these F1’s to provide replacements. There is no doubt that this has already started and will be a recognized system in a few years. Our friends in the hog industry do exactly this and it works fine. A few years ago, commercial swine breeders kept their own replacements, but now almost all buy them from a breeder specializing in making replacement females.

Where do we start. One, become a student of breeds – what are their strengths and weaknesses. Two, base these evaluations on scientific data – not hype from associations or individuals – this is a business and we need to always treat it that way. Three, exercise discipline to bring order to chaos – plan your work.

Finally – work your plan!