For cow-calf producers, survival and operational profitability are reliant upon efficiently producing uniform calves for target markets in an economical fashion. Doing so requires a clear management plan, set goals for the cow herd, proper bull selection and a concise marketing strategy. Collectively, those things reduce risk and generate greater returns to the bottom line.
“Breeding cattle isn’t rocket science, although it does require common sense and a certain degree of business savvy,” said Mike Horvath, director of commercial marketing for the North American Limousin Foundation (NALF). “Simply put, there are three basic markets available: mainstream, lean and premium-Choice. The majority of commercial producers shoot for the mainstream commodity market, with a handful of managers gearing their enterprises towards the lean or premium-Choice markets.”
For the latter two options, he explained, producers must be comfortable accepting greater risk. For example, if a calf destined for a natural program gets sick and requires an antibiotic, its destiny changes.
Despite the target market, true success starts in the cow herd.
“Regardless of breed composition, cows must be sound-structured, big-ribbed, loose-flanked, easy-fleshing and moderate,” Horvath explained.
Conservatively sized females usually will be more profitable and efficient because they often wean more total pounds of calf per cow exposed, and their calves have more market flexibility as they either can be backgrounded or go straight into the feedyard. Additionally, females should be genetically balanced – using expected progeny differences (EPDs) – if they are to be productive in the herd.
Furthermore, producers realize additional value through maintaining a crossbred cow base. Production and economic advantages of commercial crossbred cows, adapted to their environment, will trump those of straightbred cows, with the following advantages:
- 20% more pounds of calf weaned per cow exposed and
- An additional 1.3 to 2.0 years of cow longevity.
“That equates to a 30% increase in lifetime cow productivity,” Horvath stated.
In terms of dollars and cents, an average commercial F₁ cow will return about $70 more per year than a straightbred. If the chosen crossbreeding system yields between half and two-thirds of maximum hybrid vigor (heterosis), the additional $50 per cow per year yields at least $400 more in lifetime earning over a straightbred.
With a strong cow base, managers have more versatility in bull selection and, ultimately, greater access to a larger array of market opportunities. Producers should apply many of the same criteria used in female selection when seeking out bulls.
“Potential sires should be big-footed, good-structured, high-capacity, muscular and have above-average testicular development,” Horvath advised. “Genetic composition and associated EPDs should be above breed average and progressive for the direction the enterprise is headed.”
For those targeting the mainstream market, NALF recommends producing halfblood calves by turning out purebred Limousin bulls with British-based cows then through the use of F₁ Lim‑Flex® bulls on the F₁ Lim‑Flex females produced.
“The advantage of ‘Lim‑Flex on Lim‑Flex’ is that it allows producers to realize the benefits of hybrid vigor, alleviates many of the requirements of traditional crossbreeding schemes and allows for easy retention of commercial heifers,” Horvath said. “Breeding hybrids to hybrids also affords managers a heightened degree of consistency and predictability in producing uniform calves, resulting in increased merchandising ability.”
NALF encourages those aiming for lean markets to incorporate higher percentage Limousin genetics so the resulting calf crops are at least 75% Limousin influence. That is simple to do by pairing purebred Limousin bulls with halfblood or three-quarterblood Lim‑Flex cows or by breeding straightbred Limousin bulls to Limousin cows.
On the other hand, if producers want their cattle to have at least a Modest degree of marbling for the premium-Choice markets, lower percentage Limousin influence is needed, with calves being 25 percent or less Limousin blood. A simple approach to hitting that market would be to cover British-based cows with high-marbling halfblood Lim‑Flex bulls.
“Breeding cattle to hit target markets is a blend of art and science,” Horvath stated. “Contrary to what some might lead you to believe, it does not require a Ph.D. or an understanding of quantum physics.”
“Cow-calf producers’ success lies in a firm understanding of the industry, where the operation stands, where it needs to be and steps that must be taken to get there efficiently,” he added. “As well, a strong dose of resilience and a light sense of humor help through the hard times.”
The North American Limousin Foundation (www.nalf.org), headquartered in Centennial, Colo., provides programs and services – including genetic evaluation of 5,000 active sires – to more than 4,000 members and their commercial customers. The Limousin breed and its Lim-Flex hybrid lead the beef industry in muscle-growth efficiency and ideally complement British breeds.