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Reflecting on cow herd changes

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By Rick Greenwell

We received this article from Dr. Roy Burris, University of Kentucky Beef Specialist, and thought we should share it with our local beef producers.

What’s Happening to the Cow Herd?

If you’ve been in this business for a while, you’ve seen how the nation’s cow herd is always changing.  History can sometimes be a good teacher, so it is probably good to consider where we are now, and to reflect on where we have been.

You can’t help but notice that most of our cow herds are black hided.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does raise some questions – (1) are commercial cattlemen ignoring the benefits of crossbreeding or (2) are we practicing single trait selection on things like coat color and marbling while ignoring some of the more functional traits?

Let’s take a look back at our history.  In the 50s, we selected for small-framed, blocky, compact animals until genetic defects like dwarfism started showing up.  We don’t see much dwarfism anymore, but now we are getting concerned about things like Arthrogryposis Multiplex (Curly Calf Syndrome), Neuropathic Hydrocephalus and Fawn Calf Syndrome.  Maybe that is what happens when we focus on a few traits which cause us to draw from a very narrow gene pool.  For example, a lot of Angus cattle, which we have been using have one bull (Precision 1680) which appears several times in their pedigrees.  I’m no geneticist, but that seems to increase the odds of recessive genes “pairing up”.  That is kind of like “putting all of your eggs in one basket.”

I ran across some old on-farm performance testing records for Kentucky which show how much the cow herd has changed after the small, compact cattle of the 50s.

The on-farm data likely reflected what was going on in the state and country.  It became obvious that continental breeds like Charolais would dramatically improve weaning weight.  Until that time, we had mostly British breeds of cattle, but with the influx of the continental breeds (Charolais, Limousin, Simmental, Chianini, Main Anjou, etc.)the “chase” was on again.  Selection for growth and frame size with many ignoring functional traits like reproduction occurred.  Meanwhile, Hereford cattle numbers began to decline.  Single-trait selection for the polled trait or looking to increase frame probably didn’t do the breed any favors.

In the 80s, the other (more maternal) breeds followed suit as they got bigger and bigger.  But it would soon be time to shift directions again.  As the American Angus Association began to emphasize Certified Angus Beef (CAB), which has been widely successful, the cow herd suddenly became black-hided.  Let’s be clear about one thing – I believe that CAB has been good for the beef industry and good for the Angus breed.

I certainly don’t have any problem with black-hided cattle (that’s about all we have at the West Kentucky station) but there are a few things that we should now consider:

What about crossbreeding?  Hybrid vigor has been described as the closest thing there is to a free-meal.  When I was at Mississippi State, our work indicated that, when compared to straight bred cattle, two-breed cross calves weighed about 30 pounds more at weaning.  Results were even better for three-breed cross cattle.  Calves averaged about 80 pounds heavier at weaning when they were out of a two-breed cross cow and a third breed of bull.  That’s a lot of extra weight to give up.  Maybe it’s time to rediscover crossbreeding.  They can still be black-hided.

Don’t select for marbling to the detriment of other functional traits.  You don’t want to end up with a bunch of fine-boned, thin-muscled feeder calves even if they are black.  It seems that we are seeing more of these in our graded calf sales now.

Seedstock producers should remember that the commercial cattleman is their customer.  Produce bulls which will keep them in business in the “real world”.  Commercial producers should build their herds with cattle that are functional and reproductively efficient, and resist change just for change’s sake.