BeefTalk: Bigger is not always better

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Perhaps the beef business is not unique. However, each year, when the students gather to study beef production, they are geared to determine what is right.

Many think they already know. This bull or that bull, this steer or that steer, this cow or that cow.

The comparisons can be numerous, but the urge is always there to pick the best.

Unfortunately, the question often is wrong or the answer already is assumed before the question is asked. Students compete with each other as they compare predetermined or engrained concepts of what is best.

In class the other day, two Angus herd sires were presented to the class. The herd sires were taken by chance from two websites of two different Angus breeders. Each student was asked to compare the bulls.

Cutting to the chase, one bull (A) had an expected progeny difference (EPD) for a weaning weight of plus 74. The other bull (B) had an EPD weaning weight of plus 18. An engrained response was evident because all nods went to bull A. This means that bigger and better would be the motto. Bull A is in the upper 1 percent of the breed for preweaning growth, while bull B is at the lower end.

Checking the Angus Association website, the weaning index EPD for bull A was plus 40.77 (upper 2 percent of the breed). For bull B, it was plus 29.11 (upper 35 percent of the breed). The weaning index did not change opinions.

Checking the Angus Association website again, we looked for the cow energy value ($EN). Bull A's $EN was minus 20.07, while bull B's $EN was plus 33.63. In terms of breed ranking, the bulls had completely reversed. Bull B was in the top 2 percent in the Angus breed, while bull A was at the lower end.

The class was silent, at least momentarily. A real challenge was presented with these two bulls. Bull A led the way for growth, but is sacrificing maternal issues, while bull B led the way to impacting the maternal side of the breed but is sacrificing growth.

In fairness to the students, the discussion did acknowledge the dilemma. As the years pass, experienced cattle producers understand the need to genetically balance the cow herd. Likewise, in earlier years, various breeds of cattle evolved with more focus on selected traits.

The early split was between maternal breeds and paternal (or terminal) breeds.

It was fairly well understood that one breed would have difficulty in meeting the needs of the complete package.

In today's beef world, producers tend to be more single-breed orientated because they are looking for the complete package within that one breed.

What is interesting, as was noted with the genetics students, is the presence of variation. The point being, if a producer seeks the right information and obtains the right data, correct decisions can be made to steer the cow herd.

Perhaps the overriding factor in today's drought-driven, expensive feed scenarios is that increased attention needs to be directed to the cow herd. The pounds of feed delivered and utilized by the cow herd impact the bottom line.

Therefore, at least for today, the students could ponder that bigger is not always better. When one compares bull A, a trait leader for weaning growth, versus bull B, a trait leader for cow energy values, astute producers will search the Angus database for a better balance between the two traits.

The next day's assignment for the class was to find a bull that would achieve the desired outcome of growth but not at the expense of cow efficiency. The next class period brought home some good bulls that did balance growth and cow efficiency.

The bottom line for the students is to know the needs of the herd and then ask the right questions to find the right bull. The bull business is competitive and, unfortunately, that means one bull producer against another.

Sometimes lost in the discussion is the bull buyer. Thanks to the many breed associations, bull buyers of today do not need to get lost in the flurry of information and fluff of the sale. Breed association websites contain well- compiled information on almost all the bulls within the breed.

There is no need to find out by paying excessive feed bills that the base cow herd is inefficient. In a matter of minutes, one can type in the registration number of the bulls used on the appropriate breed association website to gain a good understanding of the genes that have been selected and placed in the herd.

The only one responsible is the producer.

Buying the right bulls will position one to be better prepared for the next drought. Bigger is not always better.

May you find all your ear tags.

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Mark Sanders    
Knoxville  |  October, 20, 2012 at 08:51 AM

An omission in this article,unless I just missed it, was determining the kind of beef operation you have before you begin the process of determining replacement bull candidates. The growth bull A would most likely be fine if you were managing an already established efficient -maternal commercial herd.In this case there is no reason to be concerned with maternal characteristics of the bull because all of his calves are terminal.Another instance where bull A might work fine is in a seed stock operation where production of terminal sires is the goal of that producer. Of course you would need to look at at your bull choices completely different if your goal is to produce replacement heifers and maintain a maternal herd. I guess this statement, "The bottom line for the students is to know the needs of the herd and then ask the right questions to find the right bull" could mean what I am saying in a general way. I just like to be more specific.

Kansas  |  October, 20, 2012 at 10:14 AM

I totally agree with Mark, above, as the other important consideration is where do you live and what kind of resources do you have for feed. Not only does the end product of the calves impact what kind of a sire you select, but also what you have for resources. If you live in western Kansas where grass and hay may be scarce 8 out of 10 years, you better be watching that $EN value. But if you live where grass is plentiful and is not the limiting resource to keeping cows, then that value is less important than the growth traits. Every operation is different and that is the beauty of every cowboy picking his own herdsires. I appreciate a class that makes students think--be sure they have all the facts, though. As a seedstock breeder, I find commercial cattlemen looking for totally different bulls. Who am I to say they are wrong?! I provide the information and help interpret it, but I certainly don't tell a guy what kind of bull he needs.

ohio  |  October, 20, 2012 at 10:29 AM

Both offspring here in OH will eat more than the are worth, kinda like our election!

Arizona-Sonora, Mexico  |  October, 20, 2012 at 11:16 AM

A factor often overlooked is environment. You would not buy a Caddy to go offroading, or a dune buggy to travel the interstates. We need to keep in mind before we buy the engine, the cow, how much and how good a fuel you can produce year in and year out. A cow has to maintain, lactate and gestate under the given environment. The first thing to go, as fuel becomes scarce is "gestate". So we see a lot of 18 months calving intervals in our country. We have upper limits, depending on the conditions of our ranches, of how much improvement in growth, milk and carcass merit we can stand. We have to teach the new generations as we move our cow-calf operations to the non arable, marginal lands that fertility is the limiting factor of how much "growth, milk and carcass merit" we can live with. It is a very narrow edge we have to straddle.

Mark Sanders    
Knoxville  |  October, 20, 2012 at 12:40 PM

I have always managed my cow size by enforcing both a short breeding season and a 12 month calving interval. Your cows will size themselves if you ruthlessly cull for fertility. Culling for fertility will also cure a myriad of other problems that you might not even recognize.

Texas  |  October, 20, 2012 at 08:55 PM

Excessive milk is more of a problem for reproduction than excessive weight in marginal or poor conditions. In too many cases, people selected for increases in both and then blamed resulting problems on size alone.

new Mexico  |  October, 21, 2012 at 09:42 PM

Yes, Bull A heifers will cost more to maintain, but after you sell the steers you will see it can be worth every penny

Michael E. Dikeman    
Manhattan, KS  |  October, 22, 2012 at 11:10 AM

Just because Bull A had a higher WW EPD does not mean that he had a higher YW EPD and will sire larger daughters. It probably means that he had much higher milk production and more rapid early growth and not necessarily heavier mature weight. I would want to see more EPDs that what were provided before making a judgement on the 2 bulls.

Bill Pollard    
texas Panhandle  |  October, 22, 2012 at 11:25 AM

30 years ago I spoke with an Angus breeder in New Mexico. I said sir your cattle are not big enough {though they were bigger than most angus of his day} He said don't worry they will be back by me. Size has to fit the economics of the environment.

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