Cattle Today

Cattle Today

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W.L. Miles, Associate Professor
Dept of Animal Science, Texas A & M University

Today's cattle producer is like a motorist driving down a highway lined with flashing signs. The signs read "specification production," "uniformity" "change frame score," "change muscling," and, at the very end of the road, "keep the cattle productive." The average cow-calf producer can get bewildered because it seems that every segment of the cattle industry is telling him to change his cattle in some way to better suit their particular business needs. To whom should he listen? How should he respond?

First, a cow-calf producer should listen to his cows. If he is observant, they will show the types of changes needed in their genetic makeup. A cow-calf producer can tell by looking at production records and cost figures if his cows fit his ranch. Since 90 percent of all purebred bulls are sold within a close radius of the ranch on which they are raised, the genetics of the cattle must prepare them to survive and prosper in that environment. The cow herd should be selected to travel, reproduce, and wean acceptable-weight calves, given the environment, feed resources, and management available and goals of the individual ranch operation. No other segment of the livestock industry can tell a producer how to, or what to, select to accomplish these goals. This must be done for each unique set of circumstances on a ranch-by-ranch basis.

However, within a ranch environment, the cow herd can respond to one demand of the commercial industry - that being uniformity. The variation within a cow herd can be decreased to produce a more uniform and predictable product. Commercial cow-calf producers will demand bulls, and perhaps heifers, in uniform packages to fit into production programs in their operations. As commercial cow-calf operations grow in size during the next few years, the demand for uniform groups of seedstock will increase accordingly.

Specification is the latest cattleman's buzzword. A great deal has been spoken and written about possible specifications and probable specifications. Today, while packers may have a preference for the type of cattle they want to buy, specification buying is not happening. The reason that the packing industry was not able to make specification demands is that we ran short in cattle numbers. Fed cattle suppliers got small enough that the packers had to buy whatever they could to keep their plants operating at an efficient level. This situation will continue for a few more years. In the long run, however, when cow numbers rebuild in this country, the packers will be able to demand specification production. To be ready for this eventuality producers need to be aware of the needs of the packers.

Getting the fat out of the system

The meat packing industry today is going through a change similar to the changes made when the industry converted from carcass to boxed beef. The packing industry is slowly "gearing up" to produce 1/4 inch trim boxed beef in the packing house. This procedure will put a great deal more efficiency in the production chain of beef to help keep us competitive with other meats. As this changeover occurs, the packer will begin to place more and more emphasis on the relative amounts of fat versus muscling in the cattle he is buying. The fat can no longer be passed on to the retailer in this system, so, finally, the packer will have to contend with excess fat production, and he will try to discourage cattle being fed to excessive levels. The packer will also begin to encourage production of cattle with a higher muscle yield as muscle-to-bone ratio becomes very important once fat is taken out of the equation.

The cow-calf producer can respond to these demands primarily through bull selection. We have made a case for fitting the cow to the ranch, so we need to fit the bull to the industry. The current selection pressure on increasing frame size has probably been overdone. It is now time to be more two-dimensional in our selection programs and include muscling in the equation. An immediate word of caution is needed here to say that single trait selection for muscling alone is just as wrong as single trait selection for frame size. Selection should include frame, muscling, soundness and breed type. If purebred producers generate seedstock that will fit the commercial industry's needs for reproductive performance, adequate but not excessive fat at market weight, and adequate muscling, they will find that the world will beat a path to their door

Thus, as the commercial cattle producer "drives down the road" and reads all the signs and hears all the buzzwords, he still must stick to the basics of production with regard to his cows and be aware of industry needs when it comes time for bull selection.

How do we shape cow herds to answer the beef industry demand for more consistency and uniformity? We all know the turnaround time is measured in years in the beef cattle business. By the time we can progeny test cattle to find out what they are capable of producing, they are six years old and we have produced a significant amount for U.S. consumers that may have missed the targets. We look at our competition in the poultry and pork industries and envy them because they can make much faster changes in response to changing consumer demand. The advantage held by our competition and the lack of data upon which we can base change cause many cow-calf producers to throw up their hands and say, "What's the use?"

Too often producers do not look at their calf crop close enough to try to decide how they could have made that calf crop more uniform through management and common sense genetic selection. Opportunities do exist to narrow the window and improve consistency of the nation's cow herd.


1. Decrease the length of the calving season. If we cull cows that are either open or habitually late in the calving season and only put the bulls out for 60 days, we can narrow the calving season in a cow herd dramatically in one year. The decreased calving season not only makes sense in terms of labor and other costs, it will produce a set of calves that are more uniform for weight at weaning. If we then select our early-born heifers, we will be selecting for females that will breed early and continue to fit in the window. The cheaper cost of heifer calves for the next few years makes this an opportune time to make these shifts in management.

2. Implant the youngest half of your heifer calves with a calf implant. If you are only selecting heifers from the oldest half of your calf crop, then you can implant the remaining heifers and cause them to catch up with the rest of your calf crop for weight. Since they will not be held for breeding, there is no issue of delaying fertility to be concerned about. In addition, castrate early and implant all of your steers.

3. Creep feed calves. Creep feeding your calves can add pounds to the sale weight in economic times when every pound is important. In addition, the calves from lower milking mothers will catch up with the calves from high-milking mothers. This will also bring the calf crop closer together at sales time.

4. Stimulate immune systems by vaccinating while on the cow. This will allow calves with mothers that provide either a few maternal antibodies or a large amount of maternal antibodies to react more the same to post-weaning vaccinations.


1. Visual selection. Use visual selection to remove your largest frame size cows and your smallest frame size cows to even your herd with females that are more uniform. This will allow your bulls to produce calves from matings where the females are more similar and the calves will also be more similar.

2. Use one type of one breed of bulls. Use one breed of bulls on all of your cows. Many producers commonly use two or three breeds of bulls on a given set of cows. These random matings produce very non-uniform calf crops. A single breed of bulls will also produce calves with differences, but if you have selected bulls of similar type, you will move toward uniformity more rapidly.

5. Gather as much data as possible on calf performance in feedlots and the packing house. The ultimate decisions concerning consistency and uniformity can only be made with data. Producers need to obtain this data through opportunities made available to them through steer feeding tests with their universities or state cattle associations. This information as to the level of performance and carcass value will help producers further narrow the window of consistency and uniformity.

The suggestions made in this paper are made for things that can be accomplished while you are gathering the data you will need for the long term. If we use good management and common sense genetic selection, we will narrow the window and make beef more consistent.


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