Living beyond one's means eventually leads to bankruptcy. Many young cows are destined to file for Chapter 11. Why? They were genetically bred to survive on a champagne-and-caviar diet but are forced to live on a greasewood flat. The result is open or bankrupt cows.

EPDs have done an excellent job of identifying sires that excel in growth and other traits. There are no free rides in this world. This added growth comes at the expense of higher-nutrient demanding cows. How many times have we heard you should not single-trait select. The universal advice seems to be "match the cow to the environment." A balanced EPD package is the most economical. Yet go to the bull sales and see what type of bulls bring the big bucks. The commercial cowman is sending a message to the registered producer that he wants the big growth numbers. He is willing to pay for growth and is not too concerned about frame or milk. Average is hard to sell at a bull sale.

Take a look at how the Angus bull EPDs for the various traits have changed since 1982 (see table below). Data for other breeds show similar trends. Milk has gone from a +0 in 1982 to a +15 in 2001 and yearling height has gone from a +0.1 to a +0.6. During that same time, weaning weight EPDs have gone from a +5.0 to a +31. Yearling weight has moved from a +9 to +57. At the same time, birth weight EPDs have moved from a +0.7 to a +2.7. Is this progress or digression? Depends on if you are caught up in the big numbers trap and have cows going bankrupt.

The zero point or base, as it is often called, does not change over time as the breed changes genetically. This is handy because it means that a given EPD will always have the same biological interpretation: +10 for milk will always imply the same level of genetic ability for milk production.

Milk is not a maternal trait. It is a growth trait and the highest nutrient-demanding growth trait there is. The cow requires energy and protein to produce milk. The higher the milking ability, the more energy and protein that cow needs. If energy and protein feeds are not available in sufficient quantities to meet her demands, the demands will be met at the expense of body condition and reproduction.

The level of milk for a particular animal should not be used to measure the maternal ability of that animal's offspring. Maternal, in my mind, means calving ease, mothering ability, udder conformation, fleshing ability and fertility. Fertility would be at the top of the list.

Ask yourself, "Have the feed resources on my ranch changed to compensate for my cattle's increased nutrient requirements brought on by genetic selection?" The answer is probably no. Perhaps your supplementation and inputs have increased to fill the void. Or perhaps you have changed your management such as weaning early to preserve body condition or strategic supplementation. However, if you have not made adjustments, you are probably experiencing a large number of bankrupt or open cows. Perhaps you should reevaluate your EPD criteria and truly "match your cows to the environment using balanced trait selection." Your future might very well depend on it. Bragging rights have bankrupted a lot of ranches. Don't let it be your's.

Ron Torell is an Extension Livestock Specialist with the University of Nevada and a registered and commercial cattleman in Elko, Nev.