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OSU Extension BEEF Team

BEEF Cattle questions may be directed to the OSU Extension BEEF Team through Stephen Boyles or Stan Smith, Editor

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Previous issues of the BEEF Cattle letter

Issue # 730

April 6, 2011

Calving Ease: A Trait We Can All Agree On! - John F. Grimes, OSU Extension Beef Coordinator

Spring is a very exciting time of year on the farm as it is a season of renewal. It is the beginning of a new crop year and the anticipation of planting this year's grain crop. Pastures and hay fields are beginning to "green up" and will soon see rapid growth as temperatures increase. For the beef cow-calf producer, it may be the most exciting time of the year as we see the results of months of planning and anticipation of the new calf crop that is on the ground or soon to arrive.

One of the great strengths (and inherent weaknesses) of the beef industry in this country is the amount of genetic diversity that producers have available at our disposal. We need several breeds to fit a wide diversity of environments and production systems. We sometimes misuse the wide variety of genetic choices we have but that is a subject for another day. The bottom line is that a producer can raise just about any type of cattle that they desire and emphasize any number of production traits.

Survey a group of producers as to what traits they choose to emphasize in their programs and you will likely get a wide range of answers. Producers selling feeder calves will tend to focus on weaning weight, those selling market steers will concentrate on yearling weight and carcass traits, while those raising cattle for the show ring will stress phenotype. While getting these segments to come to an agreement on a standard breeding program would be difficult at best, one trait that I'm sure we could get all groups to seek improvement in would be calving ease.

Regardless of your production emphasis, nobody wants to have calving difficulties. Under the current economic conditions facing today's beef industry, we simply cannot afford to keep a cow for a year without producing a live calf to offset annual costs. The effects of calving difficulties are easily recognized: 1. Decreased calf survival which results in fewer head to sell; 2. Higher labor costs from time devoted to frequent observations and the need to provide assistance during calving; and 3. Delayed rebreeding which results in younger and lighter calves born the following year.

There are several factors that impact calving ease which include nutrition, body condition, and the environment (weather) to name a few. However, I would contend that genetics can play a very significant role in determining the ultimate degree of calving difficulty experienced in an operation. Nearly every prominent breed used in breeding systems today has a Sire Evaluation Program that generates Expected Progeny Differences (EPDs) on their sires. EPDs for traits such as Calving Ease Direct (CED), Birth Weight (BW), and Calving Ease Maternal (CEM) can provide valuable information when selecting bloodlines that can help minimize calving difficulties. Assuming that you can achieve calving ease from a sire with an undocumented genetic background or basing it on the physical stature of the sire is simply flawed logic!

Historically, small herds (average herd size in Ohio is less than 20 cows) have experienced difficulty or shown reluctance in trying to emphasize calving ease traits. Given the small average herd size, most herds use a single sire during the breeding season. Many herds attempt to raise their own replacement heifers which complicate the proper use of calving ease genetics. Producers express the desire to own a bull that is acceptable in calving ease traits for heifers but will want use this same bull on the mature cows. There are those uncommon bulls that possess excellent calving ease with superior growth and carcass traits, but they are difficult to find and can be more expensive to own! Unless you are willing to secure such a bull, you will be getting calving ease with your heifers at the expense of potential profitability available from your mature cows.

How can we improve upon the typical scenario of single use sires in small herds? The obvious answer is to artificially inseminate your replacement heifers with a proven calving ease sire. This minimizes the risk of calving difficulties from an unproven sire and allows the producer to use those unique sires with solid calving ease combined with excellent production traits. The majority of producers have shown an unwillingness to use artificial insemination (A.I.) primarily because of the perceived lack of time to accomplish the task. There are several heat synchronization programs available today which can facilitate the implementation of A.I. with a minimal amount of time and labor required from the producer.

Consider this possible production scenario. A cow-calf producer wants to maintain a herd of 15-20 mature cows. He/she annually keeps 3-5 heifers back as replacements. Use a herd bull with the desired production traits to service the cow herd and use proven calving ease A.I. sires to breed the heifers. Keep back a couple of extra heifers more than needed to allow for the inevitable lack of 100% conception with the heifers. Cull the open heifers after the breeding season through traditional marketing options or as freezer beef.

If this production scenario does not appeal to you, here are a couple of additional suggestions. If you want to retain the genetics from your herd, send the heifers to a development center for management through the breeding season. These females can return to the herd after they are confirmed pregnant. Another possibility is to sell the entire calf crop and purchase bred heifers for replacements. In this situation, identify a source of replacement heifers that will blend with your herd in terms of genetics and calving date.

Calving season will soon be winding down in most herds around the state. Now is the time to assess this year's calving season to determine if improvements need to be made in terms of calving difficulties. Management techniques must be examined for possible improvement. Through the proper use of genetics, the producer can achieve the maximum number of live calves born while not sacrificing performance from the herd. In today's economic climate, this is a necessity, not an option.

Things To Do Before Purchasing A Bull - Brett Barham, University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture

I know many producers spend many hours in the process of purchasing a bull. It's a big decision - one that can impact your herd for many years beyond the expected usefulness of the bull due to his daughters remaining in production. It pays to do some homework on determining what kind of bull you need prior to purchase. Here are some steps to help guide you through the process.

1. Identify Herd Goals. Herd goals serve as the foundation for sire selection and provide guidance as to traits with the most economic importance. Defining the production and marketing system, along with management strategies and environment, are key factors that warrant consideration.

* Will the bull be used on heifers, mature cows or both?
* Will replacement females be retained in the herd?
* How will the calf crop be marketed (at weaning? retained ownership? sell females?)?
* What are the labor and management resources available?
* What are the feed resources and environmental conditions of the operation?
* How will this sire contribute to the overall breeding system plan?

2. Assess Herd Strengths and Weaknesses. Fundamental records are key to identifying strengths and weaknesses. Basic performance parameters such as calving percentage and dates, weaning percentage, weaning weights, sale weights, carcass data, feed usage, etc., are necessary to serve as the basis for assessing areas of strength and those needing attention. This type of information is extremely important considering the high input costs and low operating margins of today's markets.

3. Establish Selection Priorities. Concentrate on those factors which stand to have the largest impact on profitability. Remember that income is derived from performance (sale weight, percent calf crop weaned, carcass merit, etc.). Performance is a function of both genetics and environment/management. Superior genetics can be negated by poor management, which emphasizes the importance of separating the impact of management (nutrition, health program) from that of genetics when specific priorities for the herd are established. Considering both the genetic and management influences on various traits is important. Focus on a handful of priority traits rather than attempting to change many traits simultaneously. Establishing the few traits to focus on is the key factor.

4. Utilize Selection Tools. Once selection priorities have been established through close examination of herd goals and current status, a number of useful tools are at the disposal of beef producers to assist in making genetic improvement. Genetic differences across breeds have been well established, and utilization of different breeds in a complementary fashion through structured crossbreeding plans provides the opportunity for improvement in multiple traits.

Most importantly, heterosis attained through crossbreeding has been shown to have significant favorable impact on traits such as reproductive efficiency and cow longevity which are critical for herd profitability. The limited ability to select for reproductive traits in the form of EPDs further emphasizes the importance of capturing the value of heterosis.

EPDs are available for many traits of economic importance. The introduction of economic indexes, which combine several related traits and their economic values into one EPD, are available to assist with simultaneous improvement in multiple traits which impact areas such as carcass merit and post-weaning profit. Again, with the large number of EPD tools available, the critical step is to determine the EPDs which are most important and establish benchmarks relative to each.

5. Establish Benchmarks. Several tools can be used to help determine EPD specifications. EPD values for current and past sires can be used as benchmarks. With these benchmarks, EPD specifications can be set to reflect the desired increase or moderation in performance for a particular trait. As an example, establishing a benchmark for milk EPD can be determined through the relationship between previous sires' genetics for milk and the performance of his daughters in the herd.

6. Find Source. With the above defined, we can now begin to look at individual bulls. There are many sources of bulls that warrant consideration - production sales, test stations and private treaty sales. Of critical importance is that the bull be from a reputable source which will stand behind its product. It may be necessary to look at several sources in order to find the correct bull.

7. Do Your Homework. The first step to doing so is to evaluate the sale catalog, performance pedigree and data. By examination of the bull's performance record, determine which bulls meet the EPD and other specifications that have been established (and, likewise, eliminate those that do not meet the specifications). Be prepared to make tradeoffs, as the perfect record may not be attainable. Do not be surprised or alarmed when the bulls you have highlighted appear scattered throughout the sale order. Remember to stick to the selection criteria and qualifications/specifications that have been established. All this can and should be accomplished prior to departing for any sale.

8. Have a Look. Once the list has been narrowed to only bulls which meet the criteria, these bulls can be further evaluated and the selection refined. Having a list of suitable bulls prior to arrival at the auction or farm will not only save time but also assist in making sure the right bull for the situation is purchased. Upon narrowing the potential candidates on paper, the bulls can be evaluated for suitability of phenotypic traits and the potential candidate list shortened even further. Not all relevant traits have EPDs (examples include disposition, foot soundness, fleshing ability, etc.) and, therefore, must be evaluated visually.

9. Make a Sound Investment. For many cow/calf producers, purchasing a new bull is a relatively infrequent occurrence. This emphasizes the importance of selecting the right bull, particularly in single-sire herds. The value of the right bull cannot be overestimated. Investments in good genetics will pay dividends, both short- and long-term, through the influence the bull has on each calf crop as well as his daughters that are retained in the herd.

10. Manage the New Bull Properly. Of equal importance is the care and management of the newly acquired bull. Proper management and nutrition are essential for the bull to perform satisfactorily during the breeding season. With most new herd sires purchased as yearling bulls, management prior to, during and after the first breeding season is particularly important. Plan ahead by acquiring a new yearling bull at least 60 to 90 days prior to the breeding season so ample time is available to allow for adjustment to a new environment, commingling with other bulls and getting the bull in proper breeding body condition.

Don't overlook a well-managed crossbreeding program - Greg Lardy, NDSU Animal Sciences Department Head

As you evaluate the myriad of options out there for breeding programs this time of year, don't forget about the advantages of a well-managed crossbreeding program.

The reasons supporting crossbreeding are many. Crossbred cows are typically more productive, have greater fertility, and produce heavier calves than purebred cows. In addition, traits like longevity and adaptability are enhanced in a well-planned crossbreeding program. Data from the USDA-ARS Meat Animal Research Center (MARC) in Clay Center, NE, indicate that over their productive lifetimes, crossbred cows are 25 percent more productive than purebred cows. About two-thirds of that advantage comes from the crossbred cow, while one-third comes from the crossbred calf.

Heterosis, or hybrid vigor, is the term used to describe the increase in productivity when comparing crossbred offspring to their purebred parents. Traits which benefit the greatest from heterosis are those that are low in heritability. These include things like fertility, adaptability, and longevity. In the northern Great Plains, these are all very important traits.

A really great benefit is that crossbreeding influences ranch profitability. More efficient cows mean lower feed bills! More productive cows mean more dollars from your calf crop at marketing time! The amount of heterosis for any given cross is determined by the difference between the two parent breeds. The greater the degree of difference between the parent breeds, the greater the potential for heterois in the offspring.

Table 1 below shows the level of individual heterosis you can expect to achieve with a crossbred individual. For example, a crossbred calf would be expected to be nearly 4 percent heavier at weaning than its purebred counterpart.

Table 2 below shows the level of maternal heterosis you can expect in a crossbred cow. This is where the value of a crossbreeding system really shows up in commercial ranching operations. Over the course of the crossbred cow's lifetime, you can expect her to produce calves with about 25 percent more weaning weight than her purebred counterpart. This benefit results from the fact that the crossbred cow has greater longevity, greater pregnancy rates, and gives birth to calves with better survival rates.

Taking advantage of breed complementarity in designing a crossbreeding program will result in a combination of traits in the offspring that is superior to the traits of the individual parents. For example, in the data from MARC, Hereford-Angus cross cows are moderate in frame size, milk production, and growth rate, making them well suited for a variety of production systems across the country.

Many commercial producers have become disenchanted with the complexity of some crossbreeding systems over the years. However, a simple two breed rotational cross or a terminal sire program in which crossbred replacement females are purchased can simplify the systems and reduce the number of breeding pastures needed. A two breed rotational cross will offer 67 percent of the maximum heterosis possible, while a terminal sire system will offer 100 percent of the maximum heterosis possible. In addition, there are a number of purebred breeders who offer "hybrid" or composite cattle. These cattle can be utilized to get the benefits of crossbreeding without having an incredibly complicated crossbreeding program in place on your ranch. The KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid) applies here. Don't make it any more complicated than it needs to be.

Take the time now to evaluate your crossbreeding program. Are you taking advantage of all the benefits that a well thought out program can offer? If not, maybe it is time to reevaluate your breeding program to take advantage of some of the productivity traits that crossbreeding has to offer.

Table 1. Levels of individual heterosis for various traits.

Trait Units Percent Heterosis
Calving rate, % 3.2 4.4
Survival to weaning, % 1.4 1.9
Birth weight, lbs 1.7 2.4
Weaning weight, lbs 16.3 3.9
Yearling weight, lbs 29.1 3.8
Average daily gain, lbs/day 0.08 2.6

Table adapted from Cundiff and Gregory, 1999.

Table 2. Levels of maternal heterosis for various traits.

Trait Units Percent Heterosis
Calving rate, % 3.5 3.7
Survival to weaning, % 0.8 1.5
Birth weight, lbs 1.6 1.8
Weaning weight, lbs 18.0 3.9
Longevity, years 1.36 16.2
Lifetime Productivity
Number of calves 0/97 17.0
Cumulative weaning weight, lbs 600 25.3

Table adapted from Cundiff and Gregory, 1999.

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BEEF Cattle is a weekly publication of Ohio State University Extension in Fairfield County and the OSU Beef Team. Contributors include members of the Beef Team and other beef cattle specialists and economists from across the U.S.

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