Last month I had the opportunity to attend a meeting at the Meat Animal Research Center in Hastings, Neb. It was a great opportunity to meet one-on-one with many of the scientists on staff there. In my opinion, MARC is the best research facility for beef cattle production. At MARC they graze 6,400 cows and 3,200 ewes, farrow 400 sows and have capacity to feed 6,000 head in their feedlot.
Many topics were discussed, but two areas of research were discussed that could have direct economic impact on your profits. Those two subjects are replacement heifer development and crossbreeding. If you’ve followed my writing over the years, you know my thoughts on low-cost development of replacement heifers adapted to your environment. And we all know that studies on crossbreeding have shown positive heterosis effects on beef cattle production.
Using crossbreeding in your herd can have significant positive impact on calf weights, longevity, fertility and many other traits, all of which can lead to greater profits if managed properly. So why don’t more producers use crossbreeding in their herds? There are many reasons it has not been more widely accepted. A two-, three- or four-breed rotation requires many different breeding pastures and keeping different replacements for different herds. These factors and others require more numbers or pastures than a ranch may have. Additionally, conforming to a particular breed’s marketing program may not allow you the flexibility for different breeding programs. But can you afford to give up the benefits of heterosis?
That is where much of the research done at MARC can be helpful. They have developed sires and females of composite breeds. These composites are developed from several breeds, and the value is that you don’t need to have multiple breeds in your own herd. MARC research shows that by using a four-breed composite bull you can retain 75 percent of the heterosis that those four breeds would give you in a true crossbreeding program. A three- and two-breed composite will have less retained heterosis, but there are still benefits over single-breed selection. That is certainly something every producer should investigate for his own operation. There are breed associations and breeders that promote composite-breeding programs.
Cow stayability was the other subject I found extremely useful. Research on keep-in-the-herd-longer starts with the heifer. Think of the profit potential if a cow stays in your herd one, two, three or more years longer than the average of your herd now. This research is ongoing, but at MARC they are trying to identify phenotypic traits that can be measured early in life that are predictive of lifetime fertility. Several things caught my interest.
Overfeeding heifers (higher gains) during their development stage can have a negative effect on fertility and milk production as a cow. A preliminary study underway is examining developing replacement heifers on three different levels of gain. My summary of the data indicates that first-calf heifers in all three feeding regimes breed up about the same. The differences begin to widen in subsequent breeding, as 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds. As we know, getting the second- and third-year cows breeding in range condition is the difficult part. The early results of this study show that at the end of five years the heifers on a lower level of gain following weaning — during their development stage — had a retention level of 70 percent, while the moderate feeding level was 63 percent retention, and the high level of gain had only 57 percent of the heifers still in the herd after five years.
The heifers fed for higher gain and condition also had higher levels of fat deposits in their udders, which lead to lower milk production. Bottom line, don’t overfeed your heifers. You will save dollars by feeding less on the front end and make more profit on the back end with more cows staying in the herd longer. You should manage for those individuals that do well in your environment and feed base, and not try to make all individuals keepers. Allowing heifers to drop out earlier, at a younger age, rather than later keeps the bottom line more profitable.
MARC has many research projects going on, so take advantage of this great resource.