The more things change
November 17, 2015
"We have all heard the saying, 'Money isn't everything,' and then we have also heard the reply, 'It is if you haven't got it.' I'm sure the same is true about beef cow fertility." So said John J. Winninger, Winnger Ranch, Meeteetse, Wyoming, speaker at the second Range Beef Cow Symposium held in Cheyenne in 1971.
In a 2009 slideshow looking back over the previous 40 years, Jack C. Whittier of Colorado State University noted that a few things had changed in 40 years:
1. New breeds, crossbreeding, composites and biological types.
2. New cost and income structures.
3. Increased understanding of biology (nutrition/efficiency).
4. Improvements in management systems.
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The presenter told that the following crossbreeding-focused items were recommended at the first RBCS, over 40 years ago:
1. In a Nebraska research herd in the mid 1960s calf crop weaned was shown to be 6.4 percent greater for crossbred cows than for straightbred cows. This was due to significantly higher pregnancy rates and first service conception rate in crossbreds.
2. In the same study involving cows in Nebraska in the 1960s, the cumulative effect of individual heterosis and maternal heterosis by increasing pregnancy rates, survival rates in calves and actual weaning weights combined to improve pounds of calf weaned per cow in the breeding herd by 23 percent
3. A crossbreeding study in Virginia with British breeds during the late 1950s reported a 10 percent advantage in calves weaned from crossbred matings. This indicated heterosis for fertility of the dam and livability of the calf
4. Crossing British breeds with Brahman-type breeds in a Louisiana study in the early 1960s caused significant improvement in reproductive performance compared to parental straightbred performance
5. Significant heterosis effects exist for age at puberty in British breed crossbred heifers that are independent of heterosis for average daily gain
Profitability as it relates to cow costs and fertility was also a main topic of conversation in 1969.
This year's presenters are focused on genomics, estrus synchronization, market issues and buzzwords like sustainability and consumer preferences. But crossbreeding still works behind the scenes.
A researcher from the North Florida Research & Education Center, University of Florida has studied a bunch of about 300 cows for 15 years, selecting heavily for fertility.
Cliff Lamb said his case study has involved about half Angus and SimAngus cow and about half Brangus and Braford cows.
He has used estrus synchronization and artificial insemination on all of the cows at least once, and culled using a strict set of criteria.
"We decided we were only going to keep heifers that became pregnant in the first 25 days of the breeding season, ones that calved by the time they were 24 months of age and that calved every year without assistance," he said.
When he started the research, the breeding period for those cows was about 120 days. Now it is 70 days and the cows have gone from 81-86 percent pregnant to 92-94 percent pregnant in that time frame.
Using a constant calf value of $2 per pound in the last six years, Lamb figures the cattle owner is now grossing about $50,000 more per year, mostly due to heavier, earlier born and more uniform calves.
Lamb said the three things that played a role in the success of the improved fertility of the cows were:
1. Selecting heifers that only became pregnant in the first 25 days.
2. Sticking to the other culling criteria without fail.
3. Implementing synchronization and AI.
Lamb has presented at the Range Beef Cow Symposium twice before – once representing the University of Florida and once representing the University of Minnesota. He's looking forward to the producer panel, Mike Engler's presentation and Lee Leachman's pre-symposium seminar.
A presenter from within the RBCS region, animal geneticist Michael Gonda will discuss how to use commercially available genomic predictions. The South Dakota State University scientist will tailor his presentation to commercial cattlemen.
"My talk will address what is available and what are the strengths, benefits and limitations of genomic testing," he said.
A newer "class" of genomic tests have recently been developed and are being advertised as friendly to commercial cattle producers, he said. Zoetis and Igentiy each offer a genomic testing option. The traits tested range from heifer pregnancy rate to carcass data like marbling and ribeye area to weight gain, and come in a sort of "package deal," he explained.
Gonda said he has helped advise producers on which tests are the most relevant to their needs, and helped them decide which groups of cattle to test.
As a general rule he doesn't advise testing a small number of cattle, but would encourage the cattle owner to test an entire age group, like all heifer calves they are considering keeping as replacements.
"I still recommend producers look at structural soundness and other physical characteristics when sorting for replacements. Genomic testing isn't going to replace what we already do, but it can be helpful in terms of increasing accuracy of selection decisions," he said.
The accuracy of the tests is not known because it remains proprietary information owned by the companies performing the analyses, he said. "We don't know which traits they are more or less accurate on at this point," he said.
In order to submit a sample for a test, producers should contact the company to find out what type of genetic information they need. "They will either need to get a hair follicle or a blood sample on a card," he said. The current tests are a "mix and match" approach where the producer has a few options for what information he or she desires.
Just like in 1969, today's producers are still looking to breed for a profit. No, money isn't everything but just enough of it will keep the ranch going for another year.
To see more about the Range Beef Cow Symposium, including the schedule, go to http://www.rangebeefcow.com/