Cattlemen Collaborate to Elevate the Industry’s Most-Favored Female
by Megan Underwood, RAAA Communications Intern
DENVER – The ballroom was filled with cattlemen collaborating to learn about innovating the industry’s most-favored female during the Commercial Cattlemen’s Symposium at the 69th annual National Red Angus Convention at the Hilton Garden Inn in Kalispell, Montana.
Jordan Thomas, Ph.D., assistant professor and state beef reproduction specialist in the Division of Animal Sciences at the University of Missouri, kicked-off the symposium with his keynote address titled, “The Building Blocks of a Profitable Commercial Cow: What Do Heifers Need to Do?”
Thomas began his address by defining the job description of replacement heifers. Thomas shared that heifers have to be structurally sound; in good health and of good disposition; have a low likelihood of calving difficulty by having an adequate pelvic area and bred to a calving ease bull; conceive early in their first breeding season; be of high genetic merit for profitable traits and have the desired visual phenotype and confirmation.
Thomas explained the “Red Choice” program launched by the Red Angus Association of America is not just a marketing program, it’s a program to elevate Red Angus females in future generations. The primary goal of the program is to take better-managed females and increase their retention in the herd of origin, where their extra value will be measured over time. Females eligible to sell as a Red Choice female provide buyers with confidence that she has been managed to the highest quality standards possible.
Pelvic area measurements are important in selecting replacement females however, they don’t control for everything. The service sire still matters, and producers need to remember there is always a bell-shaped curve to the collected data.
“Being honest about what contributes to whether a heifer breeds early or late is all about management, environment and randomness. It depends on the operation and how it fits into their management system,” explained Thomas.
The symposium highlighted a heifer-nutrition panel featuring Jeff Heidt, Ph.D., beef technical services lead and U.S. ruminant innovation lead with Micronutrients USA LLC, and Brian Fieser, Ph.D., nutrition support specialist for ADM Animal Nutrition, which discussed the “Pros and Cons of Low versus High Input.”
As genetic progress changes, the nutrition process also adjusts to feed the animals. According to the panel, many producers underfeed their animals to maximize their genetic potential, but they should be careful when they cut corners on nutritional inputs to avoid sacrificing future opportunities of cow productivity.
“Don’t get so consumed in minimizing the checks you write, that you minimize the checks you receive,” said Fieser.
Forage testing is crucial so producers know which nutrients are available and which ones to supplement. They should never cut an animal short on available protein, the most important nutrient. With drought conditions, it is important for producers to maximize on the created risk and advance their operation instead of setting themselves back as pregnancy rates tend to suffer two years after a drought.
Producers who plan to keep their drought heifer calves for themselves, should manage them differently than heifers sold as breeding stock by slowing the gain on their replacement heifers and pushing sale heifers harder. Bigger heifers bring more money than smaller heifers sold as replacements. They should avoid extremes but optimize their planned output.
“The quality of cattle replaced during drought sales are exponentially better and may be the result of such exponential genetic progress,” explained Fieser.
“The Importance of Good Heifer Nutrition” was the keynote address of John Hall, Ph.D., professor and Extension beef cattle specialist at the University of Idaho Nancy M. Cummings Research, Extension and Education Center, where he also serves as the station superintendent.
Hall explained that nutrition management in replacement females can be difficult and is not similar for every operation. Producers need to comprehend the effects of undernutrition at various gestation periods. Studies have shown that supplementing protein to cows grazing protein-deficient range altered pregnancy outcomes in heifer offspring. Strategic use of supplementation, weaning and specific nutrients are useful as first-calf heifers that delivered during the first 21 days remained in the herd longer than heifers who calved later.
“We have to be aware that the point we decide to raise heifers to in the pre-breeding period may have subsequent effects on future generations,” discussed Hall.
A heifer marketing panel provided opportunities to collaborate and innovate with Dave Patterson, Ph.D., chancellor’s professor in the Division of Animal Sciences at the University of Missouri, and producers John Maddux of Nebraska and John Price of Colorado.
The panel explained that programs like Red Choice add genetic improvement to operations that aren't suited to develop their own heifers. Producers can develop a heifer of value that isn’t bred to calve at their ideal time of year, but but might be a fit another producer, adding value to both operations. Heifers that breed in their first cycle will optimize their lifetime production by producing offspring that will be profitable in other operations.
“Having a sale with a large volume of females hasn’t required us to adjust our production system at all. The key point is we make sure the female leaving the ranch is pregnant and that adds a tremendous amount of value to her,” said Maddux.
To increase competitiveness in the global market, the panel recommended that producers adopt the concept of traceability by applying RFID tags. This management practice provides an opportunity to control animal disease but allows the traceability of animal data to improve genetics at an increased rate of time.
“We have used the Feeder Calf Certification Program since 2001. This is one of the most successful marketing programs from a breed association. Red Angus has been so great because they put so much focus on commercial cattlemen and don’t forget about us. We DNA test every calf to utilize the data to make our breeding decisions,” explained Price.
The panel expressed the importance of continuing to invest in developing females while much of the country is experiencing drought. This time of hardship can be used to capitalize on a strong market coming forward with time and rain.
“We have faith that the market will come. We have faith that there will be some really good times ahead and we will keep our inventory around to build as much volume as we can so we can take part in the better times ahead,” said Maddux.
The symposium concluded with the keynote address, “Genomic Technologies for Selection of Replacement Heifers,” from Jared Decker, Ph.D., Wurdack Chair in animal genomics and an associate professor in the University of Missouri Division of Animal Science, Genetics Area Program.
Accordig to Decker, performance data, contemporary group information and genetic similarity are the three essential pieces for accurate replacement heifer selection. Producers need to understand the definition of Expected Progency Differences - or EPDs. "Expected" refers to the future, average and mean; "progeny" focuses on the offspring; and "differences" implies comparison between animals.
“The most loaded word in this acronym is 'expected.' In an EPD, expected means the discussion of average or the mean. We’re predicting the average performance of the progeny of the animal. With an EPD, we are not trying to predict the performance of that animal, but instead the offspring of that animal. The difference allows the EPD to be compared to another animal or to the breed average,” explained Decker.
Genomic predictions of heifers provide additional information for ranking replacements, increase precision of genomics for re-ranking heifers and provide information equivalent to 10 to 20 progeny. Producers need to test many more heifers than they plan to keep and must use the information to see the return on their investment. When testing a registered animal, breeders should use the association’s genomic prediction to produce GE-EPDs for the animal. Commercial straight-bred cattle should be tested on a breed-specific test as it will outperform a multiple-breed test.
"When you DNA test your heifers, you now have the genomic profile for the rest of her life. The test results should be used as a keep-cull decision and will allow you to select bulls to account for her strengths and her weaknesses,” said Decker.
Decker also reminded attendees that when selecting replacement females, she is a candidate, not a replacement, until she is pregnant within a desired breeding season. Producers should select females for performance and genetic improvement; ones that are meeting performance metrics or are well positioned to do so in the future. Additionally, he said to select heifers to improve the genetic merit of the calf crop and herd.
The Commercial Cattlemen’s Symposium fueled the collaboration of producers through the discussion of industry innovations to elevate the industry’s most-favored female. The discussion sparked ideas that producers can incorporate into their herds when developing replacement females and left attendees optimistic about the future of the beef industry. To learn more about how Red Angus breeders are elevating the industry, visit RedAngus.org