From the December issue of Drovers Cow/Calf.

For the commercial cow-calf producer the two most important professional relationships are with the seedstock supplier and the herd veterinarian.

Genetics provides a foundation upon which the future of the enterprise will stand. The most influential genetic decisions made by cow-calf producers who produce their own replacement heifers are the three most-recent generations of herd sires. These bulls account for approximately 75 percent of the calf crop’s genetic makeup in terms of their direct influence as sires of calves and as the sires of the cow herd.

Given the tremendous influence of the bull battery, the sire-acquisition process takes on a special level of significance, and thus, the relationship with the genetic supplier becomes highly important.

One of my mentors in the cattle business believed that before a decision was made on which bulls to purchase, cattle producers should visit the potential seedstock supplier’s business at least twice — initially to check out the supplier and the second time to evaluate the cattle. His concept was founded on a commitment to only buying seedstock from herds managed under a similar philosophy and with comparable weather, forage and climatic conditions to the purchaser’s situation. His belief was that if the people were solid, then you could more confidently do business, safe in the knowledge that they were creating good cattle and that they would stand behind them.

However, even before contact is made with a seedstock producer, cow-calf managers must assess their own condition and their level of herd performance in critically important areas, and they must solidify their goals and objectives for the beef enterprise. Bull buyers who are making choices from an information-rich perspective are more prepared to build a solid working relationship with a seedstock supplier.

A mating system

Determining the mating system is another key decision cow-calf producers should make by using knowledge about their own enterprises as well as leveraging the experience of other producers and of the genetics supplier. The mating system, along with the sires selected to work within the mating system, requires that commercial producers carefully assess four critical areas:

  1. Feed resources and environmental limits
  2. Labor resources
  3. Marketing goals and objectives
  4. Gaps between present and desired levels of performance in traits critical to profitability.

Once these issues have been addressed in detail then a meaningful discussion can be undertaken with potential seedstock suppliers.

A long-term and valued relationship with any seedstock supplier begins with business integrity, a commitment to providing solutions to customers, conversations founded on meaningful information and service after the sale. As these discussions are undertaken, two concepts should always be kept in mind. First, the novice bull buyer deserves an attentive seedstock supplier who is willing to provide education, answer questions and, most importantly, follow up after the sale. Second, there is a dramatic difference between the supplier whose sole goal is to sell a bull and the supplier focused on solving problems for a customer.

Sire selection should be founded on making the most objective decision possible that is aligned with the overall strategy and vision for the cow-calf enterprise. Thus, it is essential to acquire bulls only from those herds with active engagement in a performance program backed by a dynamic national database and supported with state-of-the-art genetic prediction tools. It is not important that a cow-calf producer understand the intricacies of how genetic estimates are calculated, but developing a solid functional understanding of how to use the estimates and information is critical. The role of the seedstock supplier is to provide educational and consulting support to assure the comfort level of the customer.

Making matches

The sire-selection process is one driven by winnowing down the available bulls for sale into a group of individuals that possess the appropriate combination of performance metrics. These should align with the limitations of the resources available on the ranch and ensure conformance to the demands of the target market for progeny.

This narrowing-down process can be driven by several key focal points:

  1. Avoid sires that create dystocia. Calving difficulty is a leading cause of both calf and breeding female death loss, contributes to increased morbidity of calves born in difficult births, and diminishes subsequent reproductive rates of females experiencing dystocia.
  2. Will replacement females be kept from the progeny? If yes, then what is the appropriate level of mature size and milk production for the particular farm or ranch? Attaining profitable levels of reproductive performance depends on keeping the nutritional needs of the herd aligned with cost-effective feed sources, which are often in the form of grazeable forages.
  3. What is the optimal combination of growth, muscularity, marbling and carcass yield for the target market? Producing feeder calves that can be merchandised to generate high levels of revenue is fundamental to profitability.
  4. Finally, what are the gaps in performance for the herd that need to be closed to improve productivity, profitability and quality of life? For example, if cattle are flighty and nervous in handling situations, then more focus on docility is warranted. If udders are badly structured, leading to calves unable to suckle and thus requiring more labor, then udder quality will need to be addressed.

In each of these discussions, reputable seedstock breeders will provide information, insight and advice. Using their experience and knowledge is critical to building a genetic base designed for long-term satisfaction from the cow-calf enterprise.

Tom Field is professor and head of the Engler Agribusiness Entrepreneurship Program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.