Narrowing the Focus when Selecting Replacement Heifers
by Bruce Derksen
Adding quality replacement heifers to the cow roster is a hit or miss proposition at the best of times. With the challenges of 2020 stifling the beef industry’s bottom line, it’s vital the hits far outnumber the misses.
Many attributes are desired in replacements. Age, weight and frame size all play a part, as do the genetics derived from a superior dam and a top-notch sire. Most producers agree heifers should reach puberty early and breed at the beginning of the season to promote reproductive longevity. While these traits are important, experts say two other qualities should never be forgotten.
Controlling Disposition and Temperament
Dr. Jason Banta, Associate Professor and extension beef cattle specialist, Texas A&M University outlines confirmed performance benefits related to the disposition and temperament of breeding females. “What we do know from research and various studies done around the country, animals with poor disposition typically don’t grade as well from a market standpoint. They tend to have more illness and their performance in some situations hasn’t been as good. We’ve always known temperament was a convenience trait, but now there is data of performance implications too.”
Flighty, nervous or aggressive animals are also a safety hazard to the men and women who work with them. Data from the 2017 census shows the average age of farmers and ranchers in the US is 57.5—up 1.2 years from the previous 2012 census. Dangerous and unpredictable cows pose an even greater risk to an aging work force. Banta says more producers are paying attention to disposition and as they get older, are less likely to keep poor natured females, especially with proven performance issues tied to them.
Public perceptions of the cattle industry are also critical. “An animal welfare situation or even just an unflattering event, such as cattle trying to jump a fence at an auction barn is not an image we want. It’s not a safe situation and it’s unflattering to the cattle industry. We have a higher risk of having those types of events with animals of poor temperament.”
It’s one thing to remove these females from the herd, but quite another to select and add acceptable animals. Disposition estimates of breeding females might be obtained from dams and sires expected progeny differences (EPDs), but while widely available to purebred cattle operations, often these statistics are unknown to commercial operators.
Scoring Systems and Practical Tips
Banta outlines several measurements and scoring systems available, mostly at a research level. They include exit speed, which uses electronic equipment to measure the speed of the animal as it leaves a squeeze chute. Flight speed measurements calculate velocity at a designated distance from release. Chute scoring is a numbered system grading an animal on the level of struggling or aggression they portray in a chute, usually from a ‘one’ meaning calm to a ‘four’ indicating extremely aggressive with violent struggling. In his opinion, they all have their uses in trials and research, but he doesn’t see them as cost effective for most producers.
He says extensively researched and practical tips including eye tests are available for selection. An initial test places 3 to 5 replacement candidates in a pen and views how they interact and respond to a handler. It is often noticeable just which animals are more nervous in this situation.
A second trial is to single out each animal separately and watch their reaction. “There are situations in a group where an animal may not show the signs of being temperamental like they will by themselves. This is helpful for making selections on marginal animals.”
“It’s not pie in the sky stuff,” he said. “For commercial producers, much can be learned just from watching individual animals as they move through the systems when being handled routinely. Just make note of the more temperamental and strike them from the list of candidates.”
Matching Cattle to the Environment
David Lalman, Professor at Oklahoma State University, and extension beef cattle specialist believes matching potential replacements to their future environment is another vital aspect of selection.
He acknowledges environmental extremes throughout North America dictate choices to a degree and cattlemen should pay attention to them. “Obviously, you can’t take Brahman cattle to Canada and be very successful and on the opposite end, in the deep south, parasite resistance is critical as well as heat stress and tolerance. These are obvious points, but elements such as genetic potential for milk production can also be fine tuned.”
Lalman says females should fit their environment without inputs at the operator’s disposal being modified or increased. “It concerns me that over time we tend to encourage people to take certain actions. Like gradually stepping up the hay feeding season. Maybe slowly increasing the amount of feed or the supplementation rate. Those are two simple examples of modifying the environment to fit the cattle we like, instead of selecting for and retaining cattle to fit the environment.”
He recognizes it’s not always easy to find females with the attributes to match an environment while still being efficient from an output and production standpoint. “The tools get better and better over time. Estimations of genetic merit for different desirable traits, genomic testing, fertility, longevity, residual feed intake. There’s a lot of data helping to make the match to environment. Many of these EPDs have been around for quite a while now and continue to improve in terms of the way they are calculated.”
Replacement heifers play a significant role in strengthening the core of the cow herd. With constricting markets due to the challenges of 2020, making intelligent and targeted choices is vital for the health of any operation. Focusing on disposition and environmental matches is an excellent place to start.
“It just seems like our industry has spent the last 20 years focused almost solely on post weaning and carcass performance and just gives lip service to the cows,” said Lalman. “We have made the post weaning traits a priority. For a commercial producer it needs to be the other way around.”
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