In this article, and perhaps the next, I will pose some “what if” questions that are very pertinent to profitable ranching. I will also propose some answers that I think merit your consideration.
Here are seven “what if” questions and my thoughts to consider:
1. What if every replacement heifer was selected because she conceived as a yearling in the first cycle of the breeding season?
Over time, your yearling heifers and your entire cowherd will become more fertile and the calving season will become shorter. Because the calving season will be shorter, weaning weights will increase. Significantly more heifers will be exposed to breeding; and the environment and the bull will do most of the selection instead of us. That will find the good heifers.
2. What if every bull used for maternal matings (to make replacement heifers) was born to a cow that has always calved before or in the first 21 days of the intended calving season, recognizing that some cows calve before the intended calving season starts?
If you are buying or keeping a bull out of a two-year-old heifer, the bull must be born in the first 21 days and then his dam must calve in the first 21 days as a three year old before you keep the bull. This is how we start to get at true maternal traits.
Bulls selected from cows that always calve early in a low-input environment will bring adaptation to the cowherd in size, milking ability, functionality and temperature and pest tolerance. The ones that breed early get to stay and reproduce while those that don’t get culled.
3. What if bulls used to produce replacement females were never pampered?
I must admit to a little frustration when I read articles suggesting how we should take care of bulls so they will get cows pregnant in the next breeding season. The bull never has to lactate or gestate. Why does he need or deserve better care than your cows—or even as good?
If a bull needs better care than your cows, do you want his daughters to become your cows? I think bulls should be able to easily pass a breeding soundness examination when treated a little tougher than your cows. If you have been pampering your bulls, and too many of you have been, you probably want to back away slowly until you know your bulls can deal with it.
4. What if producers really tried to fit cows to the natural environment as much as possible by reducing fed feed inputs to an optimal level?
In the first few years, you probably would have to cull a few more open cows—probably ones too big with too much milk or perhaps an inability to maintain body condition. However, this would make the first three “what if” points even more important.
The heritability of fertility is probably greater when the environment is tougher. If you are truly trying to adapt cows to their environment, your definition of maternal will probably change. There is reason to wonder about the BEST way to use EPDs for maternal selection. Without whole herd reporting and with varying lengths of calving season, what does a stayability EPD tell us? At what point does milk become a negative in a maternal index; and who knows the appropriate level?
I think first cycle conception as a yearling and subsequently first cycle conception as a two year old with minimal fed feed inputs are economically the most important maternal considerations.
5. What if producers each year would cull every cow that is open or dry, that needs to be doctored or assisted with calving, that weans a poor calf and any with poor dispositions?
Some would have a shrinking cow herd and therefore will need to ease into this much culling rigor. However, after doing it for a few years, most of the culls will be the open or dry cows. When the other problems are culled, it is amazing how fast those problems disappear unless you keep bringing them back in through the bulls you use.
I know a good number of producers that range-calve cows and heifers, checking them once a day or less. Some of these same people don’t even keep an antibiotic. They seldom treat an animal because good health is bred in. The few sick ones are like most of us with a common cold—they just get better without treatment. Appropriate immunization and minimal strategic supplementation should ensure that the naturally healthy ones perform.
6. What if most of the cows in the U.S. were bred to be highly maternal—very fertile, moderate size and milk, calving ease, maternal instinct and mothering ability, healthy with parasite resistance, functional and with good disposition?
There would be more heterosis. The average cow would be smaller and have less milking ability and be very easy to handle. In the hot and humid climates, more of the cows would be red, yellow or white.
7. What if 40% of those highly maternal cows (still moderate in size and milk) were bred to terminal sires emphasizing growth and carcass?
Many operations would be much simpler and more profitable. The industry would produce more beef and do it more efficiently.
Moderate sized cows adapted to their environment will function well in a low-input, low-cost operational environment. Breeding them to high growth, high carcass bulls will result in a little more weaning weight and better performance for the feedlot and packer. In the meantime, the other 60% of the cows would be dedicated to making more cows—to replace themselves and the 40% that will be terminal crossed. Maternal and terminal matings should usually not happen on the same ranch.
Teichert, a consultant on strategic planning for ranches, retired in 2010 as vice president and general manager of AgReserves, Inc. He resides in Orem, Utah. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.