If the ultimate survival of the beef industry rests on efficiency, Ernie Ford will be a survivor.
He's betting his future on functional, cost-efficient Beefmaster cows that fit his management and environment and high performance Beefmaster bulls selected for growth, gain, feedlot and carcass performance. By successfully combining the legendary maternal traits of Beefmaster females with high performing Beefmaster bulls, he's getting what he needs in the pasture, in the feedlot, and on the rail.
"We're getting close to having the right combination in our cattle," Ford said. He and his wife, Marie, produce commercial beef cattle, Upgrading Beefmasters, purebred Beefmasters and peanuts near Edison in Southwest Georgia.
Ford started using Beefmaster bulls on his commercial cows in the late 1970's. He liked what he'd read and heard about Beefmasters. In 1978, he bought his first Beefmaster bull.
In 1984, they enrolled their commercial cows in BBU's Upgrading program. In this program, a producer can start with commercial cows and eventually breed up to a purebred Beefmaster status. It requires personal inspection of the original or base cows by a BBU field representative and three successive top crosses to certified Beefmaster bulls. Each subsequent cross - the first crosses and second cross females - must be inspected and accepted by a BBU field representative.
Ford's purebred Beefmaster females came through the Upgrading Program. "I like the Upgrading program because it allows you to go through a rigorous culling process. By the time you reach the purebred status, you've had several years to cull," he said. The Upgrading Program, Ford said, has been a tremendous opportunity for them.
That same year - 1984 - Ford also hitched on to the performance bandwagon in a big way and began using BBU's Weights & Measures program. It hasn't let him down. "It doesn't matter what they look like, if they can't perform, we don't need them. No one needs them," he says. He was among the state's first cattlemen to enroll steers in the Georgia Beef Challenge, a program in which producers get feeding and carcass data on their cattle. He has since retained ownership on most of his steers and cull heifers.
He looks for bulls with low birth weight and high weaning and yearling EPD's. "It's tough to find that combination, but not impossible," he said. He won't keep or purchase a bull that doesn't meet his EPD requirements. All cows in his herd, even the base cows, have EPD's.
"We've worked too hard and too long to improve the performance of our cattle. We can't back up," he said.
And the cattle do perform!
Feeding and Carcass Performance. His straight Beefmaster steers fed at Hitch Feeders, Inc., Garden City, KS, in 1998 did exceptionally well. The 75 steers, fed 151 days, gained 4.29 pounds a day (based on purchase weight, not in-weight). They had a dry matter feed conversion ratio of 5.1 and a cost of gain of 43.93 cents based on purchase weight. There was no death loss.
In 1999, he sent his cattle to Decatur Beef Alliance in Oberlin, Kansas. In this program, cattle are sorted into pens using sonogram and are sold when they reach a certain end point with regard to finish and back fat. That group of 83 steers gained 2.95 pounds a day and had a dry matter conversion ratio of 6.65. (These figures include 60 days in a growing yard before entering the feedyard.) The cost of gain was an impressive 43.86 cents a pound. There was no death loss. Fifty-one percent of the steers graded Prime or Choice or went into premium branded programs. Forty-seven percent were Select and 2 percent Standard. Sixty-four percent of them were yield grades 1 or 2 and 35 percent were yield grade 3. They earned an average profit of $107.78 per head. The steers performed well above average in feeding efficiency and profit and average for all breeds in quality and yield grades.
"One of our selection and breeding objectives is to eliminate Standard carcasses," Ford said. "If we can totally eliminate the Standards, I'll be well satisfied with the feeding and carcass performance of our calves," he said.
He's getting close. For example, one of his Beefmaster bulls is producing straight Beefmaster progeny that average 40 percent Choice and 60 percent Select carcasses. And most of the Selects are Select +.
Ford also maintains a small feedyard on his place where he and area cattlemen conduct feeding and carcass tests in cooperation with the University of Georgia and the Georgia Agricultural Extension Service. "This gives us a little closer look at the feeding and carcass performance of our cattle," Ford said.
Emphasizing Maternal Traits. Despite the emphasis he's put on growth, gain, feedlot and carcass performance, Ford doesn't overlook the huge contributions made by his cows. "It's a real challenge to balance maternal, environmental and economic traits at the farm with carcass performance," he said. The challenge is magnified, he said, because of the glaring antagonism between maternal efficiency and carcass performance.
"Based on more than 15 years of experience and records, I can tell you the cows that produce calves with the higher grading carcasses are not efficient. I've culled cows that produced the best carcasses because they were just not efficient," Ford said.
"You just have to keep the economics in perspective," he said.
Regarding efficiency, Ford believes longevity is a huge plus for Beefmasters. He has several Beefmaster cows that have had 13 consecutive calves within a 365-day calving interval. "These old cows have performed. Otherwise, they wouldn't be here. We never fall in love with a cow to the point that we can't cull her. If her numbers are not acceptable, or if she misses a calf, she's gone," Ford said. Heifers are bred to calve at 24 months.
Heifers are culled both on performance and visual appraisal. "But it starts with performance," Ford said. "If she doesn't meet our performance requirements, she goes to the feedlot, regardless of phenotype." With commercial, Upgrading and purebred cattle and through retained ownership, Ford has several options with his heifers. Depending on their performance and phenotype, they can go into one of the herds or to the feedlot.
"The key," Ford says, "is balance. If we're going to remain competitive in the cattle business, we must produce efficient cattle and keep our production traits in balance." Which is pretty close to what he's done with Beefmasters.