Optimizing Cattle Performance On The Range & Rail
February 14, 2017
It's been said that cattle are much like employees; they work for the rancher, not the other way around. And the test of a good employee is whether or not the cow can thrive under the unique conditions a producer presents her with. Whether it's extremely hot temperatures, bitter cold and snowy conditions, rough forage spanning miles of rocky and hilly terrain — producers must find the cattle that thrive in the environment they live in.
Kendrick and Sharon Redland own Redland Angus, a black Angus seedstock operation located near Manderson, Wyoming. Through generations of tough selection criteria dictated by Mother Nature, the Redland cattle have adapted well to their surroundings, running on an entirely forage-based program.
"We try to develop genetics that work in extreme environments; we want cows that will go out and make a living for us," said Kendrick Redland. "We breed for a specific phenotype. We look for a moderate cow with depth of body, shape of rib and a deep flank; this is the type of cow that will thrive in our environment. With cows that weather year-round on the range, some things just don't work in a least cost environment. Other types will flourish in a grain-fed environment, but out here, we have to have a cow that will do well on rough terrain, who has the ability to calve on her own, who will mother the calf and raise one that has the vigor to get up and go, and who will maintain her body condition score in extreme weather conditions and rough terrain."
This laundry list of "must-haves" in their genetic program has served them, and their customers, well over the years. Both Kendrick and Sharon grew up on commercial ranching operations in the Big Horn Basin, so they have a firm understanding of what it takes for cattle to thrive in rough conditions.
"We both learned at an early age what types of cows work on the range, and that's why we gravitated toward the Angus breed because of how well they do in this type of environment," said Redland. "We want to raise Angus bulls that will help the commercial cow-calf operator source genetics that will work in a true range situation. It's a balancing act because we want to have light birthweight calves, and the cows are expected to calve unassisted. At the same time, we realize that calves are sold by the pound, so we have not lost sight of the performance side."
For anyone who has run cattle on the beautiful, yet harsh, western terrain, it's a big priority to match the best cow to the tough conditions she will face.
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"The cattle have to be able to adapt to extreme weather conditions," said Redland. "Whether it's really hot, really cold, dry, windy or snowy, they have to work for the rancher. She has to harvest what's available on whatever country they are put in. If they can do that and wean off a heavy calf, that's what everyone hopes to achieve. We never want to buy genetics that will require extra inputs to get them to produce."
Redland said they have been breeding the same type of cow for decades, and they have no plans to change in the future.
"I tell people, when you see deer or elk running on this land, they never change their type, so why should cattle?" he asked. "The cattle that fit the environment naturally are what works best around here, so don't try to reinvent the wheel as trends change in the cattle industry. We have found early on that there is a specific type that fits the western range land, and that's what we've focused on and stacked up on in order to achieve predictability for us and our customers."
Just like every breed has its own merits, every operation has its own demands. For producers facing extremely cold and harsh winter conditions, genetics and management play a huge role in the success or failure of the brood cow herd.
"In this part of the country, we have to have cattle that are pretty versatile because we have the extreme weather conditions that ranchers along the coasts don't have to contend with," said Terry Mader, University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor emeritus, ruminant nutrition. "Traditional British breeds are probably the animals that have most adapted to these conditions; however, it takes a hybrid to make the best animal today. A Hereford, Angus cross cow is one of the best crosses that can maintain thriftiness and stayability under difficult conditions and can be crossed with a continental bull for higher levels of productivity."
Although Mader said every breed has its own benefits and selling points, the British crosses have historically worked well in cold winters and hot, dry summers as they adapted to extreme conditions in Europe where they could efficiently grow a thick hair coat for the cold months and slick it off quickly as temperatures rose.
"If we go back in history, English breeds spent the majority of their time out on the hills where they needed to be able to endure hot and cold temperatures; this helped them develop the hair coat that worked well in both extremes," said Mader. "Continental breeds tended to be raised in more close, intensive management operations near family farms, so they may be less adapted to the extreme conditions. However, as our gene pools have changed and various breeds have adapted, a lot of cattle have come closer to the middle."
Mader said as the industry has doubled its productivity in the last 30 years thanks to high-efficiency feed and protein supplements, input costs have also increased. This presents a challenge when selecting cattle for a least-cost environment on the range.
"The industry is doing amazing research in understanding the various genes and gene pools of beef cattle," said Mader. "In the next 10 years, we will learn a lot about what animals and what genes are needed to thrive in different environments. It's a matter of gene manipulation to achieve the 70-pound birth weight and 700-pound weaning weight and have them grade USDA Choice at 1,300 pounds consistently. I don't think we'll achieve that with one breed; it will take a compilation of breeds to do that. However, I do think we are on the verge of improving our understanding of the ways to manipulate animals to thrive under adverse conditions."
Moving from the extreme hot and cold swings of the western range to the always hot environment of the south, depending on which region a producer lives in, his priorities for the ideal cow changes dramatically.
"Everybody knows that Brahma-influenced cattle are more heat tolerant," said Joe Paschal, Texas A&M (TAMU) AgriLife Research and Extension Center meat science professor and Extension livestock specialist.
"The Bos indicus breeds of cattle have a firm handle on fertility, growth and milk, and now breeders are focused on carcass traits," said Paschal, who has worked with and studied Brahman-influenced breeds for 30 years. "I never expect Brahman or Brahma-influenced cattle to marble as well as Angus or Red Angus, nor to be a muscular as Charolais, nor to give as much milk as a Holstein. I do expect that in addition to the traits they are noted for (hot, humid climate adaptability, some disease and parasite resistance or tolerance, longevity, increase energy efficiency, etc.) these cattle do have some level of those other desirable attributes to be competitive in today's beef production systems."
Paschal noted that there are several ongoing carcass merit projects taking place in cooperation with Kane Beef, the tenth largest packer in the United States. Paschal has collected carcass data and evaluated steaks for marbling and tenderness to help producers make the best selections not only in the cattle that are best adapted to thrive in the hot climate, but to also help the breed compete with Bos taurus breeds of cattle in the feedlot and on the rail.
"Brahman were one of the first breeds with a tenderness EPD, and they led the way in carcass work and EPD development," said Paschal. "All of the Brahma-influenced breeds are interested in carcass merit and are actively working to improve it either with feed-out programs, ultrasound data or both. Almost all of these results are used in their EPDs."
Whether it's extremely hot or bitter cold, ranchers must not only find cattle that match the environment, but they also must focus on producing cattle in these least-cost environments that will go on to perform well in feedlots and on the rail. With advancements in genetic testing, greater understanding of fetal programming, and identifying the perfect combination of breeds for optimal performance, cattlemen may soon have the answers they need to achieve their goals on the range and the rail.