By Walt Davis
In the March issue of Beef Producer I discussed how cattle phenotype -- the way they are made -- affects profitability and there are reasons we breeders went astray from producing profitable animals.
Many of you have heard my story about how I took a herd of profitable little cows – about 1,050-pound average – and turned them into a herd of unprofitable big cows. The problem most breeders suffer is not with selection and breeding; it is simple to make animals bigger or smaller or heavier-milking.
The problem is in deciding what kind of animal you want to wind up with. I remember very well being ashamed of the 400-pound 205-day weaning weights of the set of cattle that I started working with in 1961. I was determined to increase those weaning weights to a "respectable" level.
This was before EPD's became widely available but we knew that bull calves that weaned heavy tended to throw calves that were heavy and were even more likely to do so when bred to heifers that weaned heavy.
Problem solved: breed heavy weaning to heavy weaning and my weaning weights increased dramatically. I achieved my goal, as wrongheaded as it was.
Today we have much more precise tools to use in deciding what bull to breed to what cow. Want more milk in the cow herd? EPD's are available to show you what animals to mate to increase milk or frame size or the amount of marbling ... and lots of other traits. I have not seen, however, an EPD for profitability.
Animal breeding has, like other agricultural pursuits, become fixated on production. There is nothing wrong with managing for production so long as the right measures of production are applied. Pounds of calf weaned per cow exposed is a better measure than pounds of calf per individual weaned but not nearly so good as dollars worth of calf sold per dollar put at risk.
It comes down to the purpose of the operation. If the purpose is to have bragging rights down at the coffee shop, then big, heavy milking cows bred to big, growthy bulls and calving in January is probably the way to go.
The big cows will eat more grass so you can't run as many of them and they will need quite a bit of help to make all that milk during the winter time and likely more of them will turn up open but you will have heavy weaning weights.
On the other hand, if profitability is the goal then smaller cows that give less milk, mature early and get fat on grass alone are a much better fit.
Many of the traits our industry has selected for – increased milk yield, reduced back fat, heavier weaning weights – have a depressing effect on the trait most important to profitability for beef cattle, which is fertility.
Fertility is the ultimate assessment of how well an animal is adapted to its environment and a big part of that environment is the management applied to the operation.
I am often asked my opinion of the "best" cattle. My answer is always this: It is the cattle which do what you want them to do under your conditions and management.
Selecting these cattle is not difficult if profitability is the goal. The traits important to profitability are largely the same as those nature imposes on wild animals. Extremes are never encouraged and moderation is valued.
Yet peer pressure continues to be the main reason that adults and even gray-headed old codgers like me are swayed to do things that don't make economic sense. No one wants to hear their kids yelling "My daddy's cows are more moderate than your daddy's cows."
So, how do you select for adaptability?
First cull any female that misses a calf or that pulls down more than the other cows in the herd. I know this is not technically selection but most herds can be improved the fastest by removing the animals that don't fit the program.
Next, watch for cows that habitually calve in the first part of the calving season and select replacement heifers, and bulls if you have sufficient numbers of cattle from these early calving cows.
The old adage is correct that "like begets like." The trick is in deciding what "like" you will pursue.