The Bottom Line

Animals for performance and profit

Size really does matter (but it's not what you think)

Key points:

  • Animal types (phenotypes-observable interaction of genotype and environment) are important on regenerating grasslands
  • Some livestock value has been transferred from producers to feed lots

Short, thick cows have all the critical factors ticked off when it comes to profitably restoring grasslands and increasing biodiversity and landscape function. Economically, these cows have been proven, MLA research, to be more profitable with the exception of very low stocking rates. Environ-mentally these types of cows have a lower maintenance energy needs and perform very well on fully recovered perennial grass containing fresh litter. Socially these cows can produce progeny that can be finished on perennial grass producing healthier meat while enhancing the environ-ment. As we know, grazing management that increases landscape func-tion and perennial grass diversity is the only way to reverse climate change (lower fossil fuel use does not address the legacy load of CO2 ).

Conversely, tall, narrow cows, selected for low levels of subcutaneous fat require larger amounts of energy, which is traditionally supplied in Aus-tralia through renovating for high performance pastures and other dietary supplements including grain (or anything else that can supply energy in times of need- think lollies, citrus pulp, shredded magazines which were fed in the millennium drought). A diet high in supplements and renovated 'improved pastures' is highly dependent on fossil fuels, lots of money and is high risk.

There are many case studies depicting where a farmer has switched to 'high performance' genetics. The case studies overwhelmingly include 'pasture improvement' to make the 'most' out of the new genetics. This practice is clearly unsustainable. Resowing pasture has, on average, a 7-9 year payback period and is no longer considered best practice or even the best use of money. Resowing pasture also uses fossil fuels and deci-mates landscape function for several years.

Despite this, there continues to be a shift to these larger, energy con-suming, supplement dependent cows. The driver appears to be the feed-lot industry where low fat levels and large mature size increases the val-ue for the feed lotters. The graphs following show the trend that has emerged and remained true of recent years; as feedlot value goes up the energy required to maintain a cow, let alone gain condition, increases (Cow Energy Value the higher the value the less energy a cow requires – more positive the number the lower energy required to maintain a cow).

Two messages from these graphs appears to be that a transfer of value has occurred. American Angus are now more expensive for farmers to run but have higher values for feed lotters. Many of these genetics are used in Australia and it is fair to suggest that the same transfer of value has occurred.

Graphs showing the transfer of value from farmers to feedlots

This graph shows the impact of selective breeding in the American An-gus breed for the last 43 years. Feedlot value has increased by $124.

The impact on the energy required to maintain cows is clearly seen in the graph following. The American Angus breed has for the last 43 years seen a steady decrease in cow energy value. The graph indicates that the estimated costs ($EN) for farmers of keeping cows has increased by $147!

Cow energy value ($EN) assesses differences in cow energy require-ments. A larger value is more favourable when comparing two animals.

Differences include lactation energy requirements and energy costs as-sociated with differences in mature cow size

Of course, it'd be remiss of me not to mention the added negatives of 'high performance' genetics and the typical production chain impacts. Pollution from feedlot dung concentration and landscape function dam-age caused by conventional grain production means that this is the wrong direction for any livestock production.

The good news is that grazing management that regenerates perennial grasslands also increases biodiversity, reducing erosion while repairing nutrient cycling. Regenerating grasslands, are at times, higher in fibre and lower in protein and therefore require animals that are very energy efficient.

Work in the dairy industry is clear. More feeding reduces profit by in-creasing cost of production and fixed costs. Let's not forget that this ap-proach has also been proven to increase risk and environmental dam-age. If the dairy industry cannot afford to feed cows, then it is unlikely that this feed more strategy will prove successful for beef producers.

Damage caused by current grazing management

A big concern is that current grazing management, (which isn't focused on increasing landscape function) is the single most damaging practice for reducing biodiversity, causing erosion and damaging nutrient cycling in Australia. This conclusion was from a recent analysis I did for a project on behaviour change. Impact X Area lifted grazing above cropping.

This analysis of impact by sector is required so as to focus effort on be-haviours that will have significant impact (see cbsm.org). I look forward to sharing more of this with you as the project progresses.

How can it be that farmers have gone down this path? The path of reducing their own profits to make other sectors of the industry more profita-ble? The design of a low-risk, moderately profitable farm business doesn't seem to have the same appeal as chasing production even though this approach increases risk whist providing little or no profit and damaging the environment.

It's not just the grazing industries. This is seen in cropping as planting marginal areas of the farm that aren't profitable over a 10 year period, planting crops such as canola, that have little chance of being profitable over a 10 year period, dairy farmers overstocked with tall, narrow cows that require too much maintenance energy to be profitable over a 10 year period, sheep and beef grazers carrying excess numbers of animals that also have very high maintenance requirements and need a decade of above average rainfall to be profitable over that same period.

The reasons for this lack of connection between enterprise design and profitability have been stated and are twofold:

  • poor economic analysis and advice (imperfect information - advi-sors and input providers can have a vested interest in higher pro-duction)
  • a misguided attempt to build wealth through livestock numbers and land value increasing when this overstocking, with high mainte-nance energy animals, reduces equity and wealth over time

We are experimenting with trying to quickly change to a cow with the fol-lowing design features:

  • Low energy requirement and performs well on fully recovered per-ennial grass (looks like an ungrazed plant and contains fresh litter)
  • Easy, unassisted calving and excellent mothering
  • Gets too fat if not feeding a calf for 10 months
  • Calves are early maturing and fatten easily
  • Performs well at high stock density and frequent moves

We have found some discussion of selecting for low energy requirement bulls on Kit Pharo's website http://www.pharocattle.com , Dunlouise An-gus http://www.dunlouiseangus.com & Alto Angus http://www.altoangus.com.au/

The following was clipped from the Dunlouise Angus Facebook page

From data submitted by ranchers to the American Angus Association, our Native Angus bulls fair superbly for Cow Energy Value:
Dunlouise Commander Bond - +86.36 (top 1%) (top photo) Dunlouise Cortachy Boy - +84.82 (top 1%) (bottom left) Dunlouise Jipsey Earl - +39.51 (top 2%) (bottom right)
This means daughters of these bulls are extremely feed and cost efficient

Early Warning!

(printed in the March/April 2009 edition of the Montana Angus News)

"Cutting Edge" Genetics Can Hurt!

Have you heard of the lethal genetic disorders commonly called "Curly Calf Syndrome", "Fawn Calf Syndrome", the various forms of dwarfism, and the hydrocephalus syndrome? Probably not, since the Angus Association only recently admitted to the problem of lethal genes in Angus cattle. But very soon–probably a the World Angus Forum to be held in Calgary this summer–the word is going to get out that the most popular A.I. sires of the breed carry these hidden genes.

In all likelihood, if you have been a believer in artificial insemination utilizing the leading sires of the 'breed', you may have contaminated your herd of cows. Don't be persuaded by someone who tells you that these problems won’t affect the commercial man. Any time you have to cull a cow just as she reaches the most productive part of her life, you are losing money. All the promises of 'extra weaning weight" are meaningless if you can't keep a cow around to profit from the second ten years of her life.

Realizing that the Angus "breed" is now represented by a dysfunctional composite animal which hides its lethal genes in programs that continuously market change as progress, at Saddle Butte Ranch we have sought out breeders who have demonstrated integrity and single-minded purpose. The genetics we have used come from the "closed" Wye herd in Maryland, from the "closed" Pinebank herd in New Zealand, from the Dunlouise herd in Scotland of pure, native Aberdeen Angus, and from the Octoraro herd in Pennsylvania.

Half of our herd has just dropped calves sired by three Pinebank New Zealand bulls. That's a comfortable feeling since the breeder of these bulls, Gavin Falloon, spent 40 years with a geneticist to clean out all the lethal genes in his closed herd. The other half of our herd will calve to native Scottish bulls or to our Wye bulls. For generation after generation our goal has been to create the best possible cow. We invite you to look over the results of our efforts. By the way, we are free from bovine leucosis, another disorder that will cost you money in culls.

– Harrison O'Connor

The Hidden EPD

The new $ EN Value is actually a bio-economic index that accesses differences in cow energy requirements as an expected dollar savings difference {$/cow/year} in daughters of a sire. From Angus Sire Evaluation we quote, "This energy cost index is derived from the cost of milk production and mature size differences. The $EN is an additional tool for breeders wanting to fine-tune cowherd maintenance attributes in their breeding programs."

It is going to be difficult to "fine-tune" cowherds using $EN because it will be missing from most sale catalogs and bull information sheets. Why? Because it points out clearly what we have experienced and been saying all along; that the daughters of the most highly promoted and used Angus bulls of the past decade are having a devastating effect on cost of production and reproduction in real commercial grass environments. Not only do these daughters require more feed, they require higher quality feed. Even if the quality and quantity of the grass will support reproduction of these high maintenance types, their production increase per cow, is offset by fewer calves produced from a given farm...30 big cows producing 30 big calves, versus 40 medium cows producing 40 medium sized calves. And our experience points out vividly that fewer problems are involved when extremes are avoided.

How important are feed costs in a commercial cow-calf operation? "Feed costs have the largest impact on profitability among cost factors in cow-calf operations, accounting for more than 50 percent of the variation in herd-to-herd profits. After feed cost, the next largest cost factor was depreciation. Operating costs ranked third and calf weight fourth as profit indicators." {University of IL IRM} Feed costs can be only be managed within the genetic ability and limitations of the cows we keep. So...how do we use, or "fine tune" a cowherd using $ EN Values? Like any other EPD or index, an increase in one trait will create a decrease in another...all Epd`s must be kept in the context of how it affects the whole. Profit has always been derived from a balancing of costs versus benefits; only in the show and tell world of purebred cattle breeding are costs ignored.

Our 30 years of cattle breeding, making mistakes, but learning from them, allows us to present the following "fine-tuning " approach to cow herd development and calf production using $EN to fit the right cow to the environment she must produce...and reproduce in.
$EN Values Angus Sire Summary values range from - 21.50 to + 41.99 , a difference of $63.49. Assuming feed quality is sufficient, this represents a carrying capacity difference of up to 30% fewer high input cows on the same feed assuming IRM established feed costs @ $200/cow/year. The average of the breed current sires is $9.06. Also we know that in most farm or ranch cow feed environments, high priced supplements must be purchased from off the farm to enhance feed quality for higher input cows.

Plus $30 and higher...These bulls would sire the ultimate low input cow, and the output per cow would suffer accordingly, though the output of total lbs per farm could be maintained with greater numbers of smaller cattle.. To fit current packer specifications and feedlot growth demands, most of these type cows would necessitate being mated to terminal growth bulls to avoid dockage on price. The best use of these sires would be to attempt to cure the problems of daughters of sires below 0 $EN.

Plus $20 to plus $29...These bulls increase $EN Values dramatically over the Angus breed average. There exists in these bulls some with less mature size and growth with adequate milk that like the bulls above, might need terminal sires to uphold feedlot desirability; some with excellent growth, but less than desired milk for calf rearing without creep feed; and a third category that offers a balance of growth and milk. The proper choice would involve looking at the components of the index to find the "type" of bull needed.

The daughters of these bulls would fare well on lower input environments such as Kentucky 31 fescue without energy or protein supplement. Plus $10 to plus $19... These bulls sire daughters that in most instances will thrive in grass environments and offer adequate feedlot performance. They strike balances of growth, mature size, and milk production that would fit practical Ky. farms economically with limited need for energy or protein supplements except perhaps for the rebreeding of the two year old first calf heifer.
$0 to plus $9...Young daughters of these bulls will need high quality forages or grain supplementation to uphold reproduction, likely even as three year olds. Their output will be higher but will be achieved through much higher cost of production with more problems.

Below $0...The daughters of these bulls are high maintenance animals unsuited for maternal units unless under feedlot conditions until they are mature as 4 to 5 year olds. Their milk is often excessive inducing poor udder and teat structure reducing longevity even if reproduction can be maintained with high levels of high quality feed. The management problems involved with these type daughters make these females best usage to be feedlot animals killed for meat as the female counterpart of the terminal sired steer.

So define your practical feed environment level...and then what? For the most profit results at weaning, we would then select for the highest $W within the parameters of the $EN level. Of course, science can never attribute a $Value to the convenience traits such as temperament, good udders, etc...and certainly conformation differences exist between sires with the same $EN and $W numbers that would make certain bulls more useful than others.

For practical application to our feed production at Keeney Angus, the best sires for female retention will be a minimum $EN of +15.{top 15% of the breed} These types are sustainable on poor quality hay or would thrive in year round grazing programs.

So where is the Angus breed headed? The following are the 10 most heavily used and promoted bulls that sired the most registered calves in fiscal year 2004.

Bon View New Design 878 $EN +.25
Bon View New Design 1407 $EN -7.59
CA Future Direction 5321 $EN +4.37
Twin Valley Precision E161 $EN +.57
BCC Bushwacker 41-93 $EN -2.00
Rito 6I6 of 4B20 6807 $EN +14.35
SAF 598 Bando 5175 $EN -10.00
Sitz Alliance 6595 $EN -3.37
Vermilion Dateline 7078 $EN -3.79
B/R New Frontier 095 $EN -9.42 ave $EN -1.66

From this data, one sees the terminal breeding course the vast majority of Angus breeders are on, and why if the goal is desirable maternally efficient cows, a commercial or registered breeder must look elsewhere from the mainstream direction of the Angus breed.

– By Mike Keeney of Keeney Angus

Cow Size

The general principle is that decreased cow size lowers gross nutritional inputs, which allows for sustained beef production in lower energy-based systems.

By Kris Ringwall, Beef Specialist

NDSU Extension Service

Starting in 1995, the Dickinson Research Extension Center noted the need to evaluate production costs and herd performance for late-spring (early May) calving in contrast to the traditional spring (late-March, early April) calving in southwestern North Dakota.

Although the process has been slow, a review of the accomplishments certainly is in order. Although the two topics of calving later and cow size are unrelated, they often are discussed at the same time.

The general principle is that decreased cow size lowers gross nutritional inputs, which allows for sustained beef production in lower energy-based systems such as grass. The center, like many, started to take a more detailed look at the average weight of the cows. Although very reflective of the industry, the center cows were large.

The first question asked at the center was how to decrease cow size in anticipation of producing cattle for a grass-based operation. The effort to decrease cow size failed because the decreased size sucked the muscle right out of the cattle. Scratch two years of breeding efforts in 1997 and 1998.

However, the center regrouped and tried again. This time the center went with smaller cattle but took the time to select for increased muscle. The unwritten guideline was no smaller-framed sires would be purchased without 1.3 square inches of rib eye per 100 pounds of live body weight. Through the years, that guideline still stands, even if the threshold was not reached in all purchased sires.

A common phenomenon is that not enough money to obtain one's desires still drives many outcomes. A gradual approach was used to reducing cow size by breeding the center's heifers to Lowline bulls. For those who are not familiar with Lowline cattle, the cattle were selected from within a population of Australian Angus cattle for quality of beef and smaller size. Selection has been ongoing for several decades and the cattle have developed into a distinct line or breed of cattle.

Initially, two questions were being answered. First, would the cattle work to decrease calving issues with the heifers? Second, would there be value in the market for cattle produced from the mating? The answer was "yes" to both questions.

The center bred heifers to calf in 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007 and eliminated calving problems. Birth weights dropped to just less than 70 pounds and dystocia was just more than 2 percent. The male calves were sent to a custom feed yard as yearlings and finished at just less than 1,250 pounds. They had a frame score of 4.8, an 83 percent choice grade or higher, 84 percent yield grade 3 or lower and a feedlot average daily gain of 3.1 pounds per day.

However, even after having established value and purpose, some concerns still existed. One of the concerns was the fact that the heifers were small. As yearlings, the Lowline breed sired heifers with a frame score of 3, while the traditional breed-type heifers were closer to a frame score of 6.

Time went on and the half-blood Lowline heifers became cows and took their place in the herd. Likewise, the traditional breed-type heifers did as well. Historically, the traditional cattle utilized on the range program have weighed just less than 1,300 pounds at spring turn-out, according to Lee Manske, center range scientist. These cows routinely have produced just less than 600 pounds of calf and weaning just more than 46 percent of their body weight in calf weight.

As the early data came in, these smaller-framed cows weighed in at more than 1,000 pounds at spring turn-out and produced almost 550 pounds of calf. In terms of their body weight, they produced just less than 52 percent of their body weight in calf weight, so these cows produce a very acceptable beef package. Actually, once the stocking rate is adjusted to account for the smaller-sized cow, they outproduce the traditional cattle in terms of gain per acre.

In other words, the center had more cows per acre that produced more beef per pound of grazing cow. These are very positive indications that, after 15 years of transition, there really is something to the concept of lowering cow size.

Interestingly, the same trends were seen with this year's replacement heifers. The heifers were developed on grass- or forage-based diets. As noted in the earlier replacement heifers, the frame score dropped 2 units. The Lowline breed sired heifers with a frame score of 3.6, while the traditionally bred heifers at the center had an average frame score of 5.5. However, the rib eye per hundredweight of live weight actually is greater on the smaller-framed heifers.

Again, the data is early and more time is needed to confirm the results. However, grass and cows seem to go together, which seems to be especially true when using appropriately sized cows. At least at the center, Lowline genetics certainly can realign size in a very positive manner.

Stay tuned because the grass cattle are just beginning.

May you find all your ear tags.

Your comments are always welcome at http://www.BeefTalk.com.

For more information, contact Ringwall at 1041 State Ave., Dickinson, ND 58601, or go to http://www.CHAPS2000.com on the Internet.

(Ringwall is a North Dakota State University Extension Service livestock specialist and the Dickinson Research Extension Center director.)

--
Paul Nehring

NewGrass Farm, LLC
Wausau, WI
715-675-0688
www.newgrassfarm.com