In the game of Scrabble, luck of the draw appears to be a major factor in winning the game. You reach into the bag to draw letters that you must then use to make words. But skill comes into play as you take those letters and analyze different combinations to ultimately make words that will give you the most points and help you win the game.

The same can be said with genetics. You may feel like luck of the draw is the easiest solution to improving genetics, but you need to analyze your situation and make the best choices that will make your herd profitable. And it doesn’t have to be complicated. You can begin by understanding where your herd is genetically, then set goals or targets for where the herd needs to go to be profitable.

What’s in your herd?
You can’t make any improvement until you analyze what genetics already exist in your herd. Dick Helms, owner of Flying H Genetics near Arapahoe, Neb., is a big believer in crossbreeding programs and composite breeds to benefit today’s cattle industry. He works closely with his customers to help them understand breeding programs and determine goals for their operation, and offers some simple examples to identify current genetics.

  • Type B (British/British cross) Angus, Red Angus, Hereford, Shorthorn or crosses of two or more of these breeds.
  • Type BC (British X Continental cross) Any Type B cow crossed with any continental like Gelbvieh, Charolais, Simmental, Limousin, etc.
  • Type BR (Brahman cross) Any Brahman-influenced cows including Brangus, Braford, Santa Gertrudius, etc.
  • Type C (Continental/Continental cross) Any cows with high percentage Gelbvieh, Charolais, Simmental, Limousin, etc., either purebred or crossbred.

What are your goals?
From there, you need to determine goals. “Producers need to ask what have they got to work with and what are their goals, particularly in terms of their market goal,” says Jim Gosey, animal scientist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Even for those producers not retaining ownership and who think that carcass traits don’t impact their profitability, those traits do.

“At some point, those carcass traits are going to come back to the producer,” he says. “As we source cattle tighter and tighter, especially with electronic identification, that communication is going to come directly back to them and much quicker.” So a buyer of your calves may not want them next year if those animals didn’t meet grid specifications that he or she was targeting.

With grid specifications and niche marketing available to many producers now, that needs to be part of your goal setting. Those grid specifications then become goals for improvement on the carcass side and possibly even the production side. On-farm production data also provides information on areas that you may need to improve, for example, high percentages of assisted births within the herd may mean adjusting goals to include calving ease.

In addition, Mr. Helms says that producers have two main targets—carcass beef or replacement females, and even those animals eventually become beef. “ Those are the two targets that we try to help our customers achieve,” he says. “I’m convinced that with today’s crossbreeding programs, we can achieve both targets within
one herd.”

What are some economically important traits to improve?

Reproduction traits
A cow that weans a live calf each year has more impact on profitability than many other traits. In addition, keeping that productive cow in the herd longer by increasing her longevity also improves profit potential. Environmental factors also greatly impact these traits and should be evaluated when trying to make improvements in this area.

From a genetic standpoint, reproductive traits are lowly heritable. Crossbreeding and the resulting hybrid vigor, however, have a dramatic impact on cow longevity and lifetime productivity. Mr. Helms points out research that found hybrid vigor increases cow longevity by 38 percent and lifetime cow productivity by 25 percent. In other words, on average, a straightbred cow typically may produce to 10 years of age. By crossbreeding, you can add three years to a cow’s average productive life, meaning three more calves to offset her development cost and make her more profitable.

Production traits
These traits, such as birth weights and weaning weights, are highly heritable. There’s a lot of information available to producers on these traits through EPD evaluation and profit indexes from breed associations.

Carcass traits
Carcass traits are highly heritable and you can move them with selection, Dr. Gosey points out. “The problem lies in the fact that traits like marbling and retail product yield are somewhat antagonistic. You move one up and you limit what you can do with the other one. So that means you have to apply selection to both traits at the same time.”

Next month, we’ll look at breeding programs and specific tools available to help reach desired goals through genetic improvement.