As a seedstock producer, Willie Altenburg calls himself a “hard-core numbers junkie.” He, like other breeders and some commercial producers, enjoys digging through sale catalogs and other seedstock literature, studying expected progeny differences, pedigrees, ratios and ultrasound data in great detail.
For Altenburg, whose family operates Altenburg Super Baldy Ranch near Wellington, Colo., a fascination with numbers and interest in the finer points of genetic selection are useful qualities. He stresses, though, that for commercial producers EPDs and genetic selection do not need to be complicated.
If a customer shares his interest, he’ll be glad to talk numbers all day, but for most, he likes to keep it simple, focusing on a few key pieces of information that help producers select genetics that work in their operations.
Altenburg is a strong advocate of using EPDs, calling them the most important breeding tool implemented in the past century. He also, however, stresses the importance of other components of a breeding program such as careful evaluation of phenotypic traits and, especially, crossbreeding. His family raises purebred black and red Simmental, Angus, Red Angus and their “Super Baldy” Simmental/Angus crossbred cattle.
Crossbreeding just makes sense for commercial producers, he says. Crossbred cows are more productive and produce longer than straight-bred cows. And because of crossbreeding’s impact on poorly heritable traits, it can improve maternal traits more in one cross than selecting fertility EPDs for five generations, he says.
Producers need to find a balance between producing cattle that work in their production setting and also provide value to feeders, packers and consumers, he adds. These are not always the same, but Altenburg believes a crossbreeding system using English and Continental breeds can offer a balance of size, muscling and marbling to satisfy the needs of each sector.
Altenburg suspects some producers have shied away from crossbreeding because of the complexity of some systems such as multiple-breed rotations. Again stressing simplicity, he says producers can maintain two-thirds of maximum heterosis by using composite bulls in a basic breeding system.
For EPDs, he breaks out a few key groups of figures that are meaningful.
Use calving ease and birth weight EPDs to predict unassisted births in heifers, he says. The calving ease EPD is the best predictor, as it incorporates birth weight along with other factors.
Looking at growth traits, weaning weight and yearling weight EPDs are positively correlated with each other and negatively correlated with birth weight, he points out. So while producers are paid for the weight of their calves, they also need to keep birth weights manageable. Selecting for too much growth also can result in cows that become too large and inefficient. Altenburg says numbers junkies like him look at a bull’s weaning weight EPD in relation to its yearling weight EPD. A weaning weight EPD that’s more than seven-twelfths of yearling weight indicates an earlier growth curve, meaning heavier calves at weaning without excessive mature size.
Among all the EPDs for maternal traits, Altenburg focuses on maternal calving ease and milk. Maternal calving ease describes the calving ability of the sire’s daughters, and he advises producers to avoid bulls that are substantially negative for the trait. As for milk, he stresses that too much can be as bad as too little, as increasing milk increases cow maintenance requirements. “In Angus, I prefer bulls that are 15 to 20 pounds of milk EPD. In Simmental, I prefer bulls from -5 to +5.”
Altenburg says he looks primarily at three carcass EPDs — ribeye, marbling and backfat. The first two are fairly self explanatory and become more important in programs that reward carcass merit. Backfat, he says, can serve as a good indicator of how well cows will maintain body condition, and he favors sires that are at or slightly above the breed average.
The relative importance of traits such as weaning weights, yearling weights and carcass merit vary depending on whether a producer sells calves at weaning or retains ownership through the feedlot. Altenburg says producers should consider their marketing plans in their seedstock purchases but also take a long-term view. Weight might be your main objective today, but if you might decide to retain ownership in the future, carcass traits become critical. And, Altenburg says, while you might not know how your calves perform in the feedlot or on the rail, someone probably does, and buyer interest could eventually suffer.
Altenburg says he takes pride in applying modern technology such as embryo transfer and artificial insemination, while also maintaining traditions of western ranching. Each spring, he, with help from friends and neighbors, drives the herd by horseback 15 miles to their summer range. He stresses that he raises all his cattle in range conditions, in similar environments to what they will face on customers’ ranches.
Efficiency is becoming more important as input costs increase, he says. “Producers should buy cattle from seedstock producers who raise cattle the way they do. We manage our cows like a commercial herd, on grass, corn stubble and a minimum of harvested feeds. The yearling bulls coming off grass at sale time might not look as pretty as some others, but astute buyers know they are ready for range conditions.”