How do you answer the question of how much genetics really count in cattle? Must you read every pertinent article in every livestock publication? Must you attend every possible public meeting? Must you visit the Web site of every college with a research program? These methods all have merit, but there is another for which there is no substitute. Feed some cattle yourself.

I am devoting this column to the experience of a commercial cow-calf operation on the southern plains that is using both its own cattle and purchased cattle in taking the feeding approach. Here are the results from a set of 16 mixed-breed steers. These steers gained 3.74 pounds per day and converted feed at ratios of 6.62 and 5.44 on an as-fed and dry-matter basis, respectively. That’s the good news. The bad news is that only 56 percent of the steers graded Choice, and their dressing percentage was only 61.21. Genetics could have made a difference here, adding $6.78 per head for every 10-point increase in Choice percentage and $10.68 for every one point increase in dressing percentage (see table).

Another set of 20 steers with a breed base known for marbling went down the rail at 100 percent Choice. These steers gained a respectable 3.53 pounds per day, but the bad news was that their feed conversion ratio was only 8.41 (as fed) and their dressing percentage was only 61.35. Different genetics might have made a big difference. Their individual value would have increased $37.03 if they had the same feed conversion ratio of the 16-head group above. And, a one point increase in dressing percentage would have added another $12.01.

Here is a particularly interesting group of 40 mixed-breed steers. These steers were put together from three markets by an order buyer. Market conditions and finishing rates dictated topping the pen. This resulted in the marketing of two 20-head groups. For analysis purposes, 20 pounds were added to the average start-weight of Group A and 20 pounds were deducted from that of Group B.

The steers in Group A gained an average of 3.92 pounds per day, converted feed at ratios of 6.86 and 5.65 (as-fed and dry matter basis), had a dressing percentage of 61.59 and had a Choice grade percentage of 80. The Group B steers gained an average of 3.39 pounds per day, converted feed at ratios of 7.93 and 6.64, had a dressing percentage of 63.95 and graded 50 percent Choice, 35 percent Select and 15 percent Standard.

I don’t have to draw a picture of how much better Group A closed out than Group B. But it is pertinent to genetics that Group A contained a high percentage of steers with breed bases known for marbling and Group B did not.

I strongly recommend that you find a small feedyard with good management and professional nutritional help and start feeding some cattle. The operation in this example was Diamond-O Feedyard, Butler, Mo., a 3,500-head operation. Yards like this often have small pens in which you can feed just your own cattle. Some yards, like Diamond-O, are dividing large pens into units as small as 25 head to appeal to small feeders.

I don’t believe it will be possible to consistently feed cattle profitably in the future without attention to genetics. The ability of cattle to grade Choice or better rules the ever-increasing in-the-beef trade. It will always be necessary to hedge against a wide Choice/Select price spread, which can kill if your quality mix is weak. And, there are strong genetic links to important factors such as rate of gain, feed conversion and yield.

Good genetics must be widely available in the feeder cattle supply, and they’ll be there if good genetics are properly developed and applied by breeders in both the seedstock and commercial sectors.

To contact Fred Knop, write Drovers or send e-mail to fredlyn@aol.com