Practical genetics: knock out the props

By Allen Williams

Genetic selection is often complicated and confusing for many livestock producers. We try to decipher numerous trait measurements. We pour through and try to interpret breeding values and EPDs. We like to use weighted or adjusted values for various traits. In the past couple of decades we have added DNA marker technology to the mix.

We read breed promotion literature, look at the glossy pictures in breed association catalogs, and ask neighbors and friends what they are using. Some of us pay attention to sale barn owners and operators, feedlot managers, the packer or processor, the lender or whoever is selling us something.

The one glaring item missing from these sources is context. Your context.

Any genetics you select must work on your farm under your management, and must generate reasonable net profits. No one else can provide your context. You know your goals and objectives, you know the challenges on your farm, and you know your economics.

What are the most important traits relating to net profitability and productivity? Longevity, adaptability, fertility and soundness.

These traits are very hard to properly measure and ascertain using breeding values, EPDs or DNA markers, because none of those address your specific farm context.

What produces profit?
For more than 15 years, I worked with the IRM-SPA program, collecting data from many beef farms across multiple regions. I found that the most profitable operations were not those with the highest weaning weight calves, highest annual pregnancy rates, greatest ribeye areas or the highest marbling.

Instead it was all about longevity. The average beef cow in the dataset was culled after 4.3 calves. This included culling for not breeding as a virgin heifer, failing to rebreed after her first calf, poor udder and other reasons.

However, based on investment in each cow, it took an average of five calves before the cow broke even. That means the average cow never made a net profit for her owner.

The beef farms with the highest net profits, year after year, were not those with the greatest performance in any of the traits we typically use for our selection protocols. They were the ones whose cows averaged more than five calves during their lives on the farm.

To achieve longevity, cows have to be highly adapted to your farm and management, be able to breed back and produce a live calf every 365 days, and have a high degree of soundness.

Knocking out the props
Livestock that perform on your farm without having to rely on large amounts of inputs are the ones you want to select for.

Can they survive and thrive without all the props? Are they mostly trouble free? How do you determine whether they are trouble-free stock?

To answer these questions, you have to knock out all the props and stop treating individual animals differently.

You also have to stop mass treating all animals for parasites, respiratory problems and other issues. This is the only way to expose the animals more susceptible to these issues.

Once exposed, cull them at the earliest convenience and best market opportunity. Stop making excuses for animals that do not perform as well and are not well adapted to your environment.

By formal training, I am a geneticist and physiologist. I spent way too many years thinking I knew how to select superior breeding stock. I poured through EPDs, individual trait data, linear measurements and other data points.

I kept different age groups separate. I managed for the weak in the group rather than the strong, thus catering to those not nearly as well adapted. I would put first calf heifers in a calving pasture, and check on them every four hours around the clock.

I thought I was being an excellent husbandman, but in reality I was facilitating calving issues and selection of less-than-desirable genetics.

The things I no longer do
So, what do I do now? I no longer spend inordinate amounts of time measuring specific traits, studying EPDs or other genetic indicators. I no longer have a “heifer calving pasture”. I no longer check heifers every four hours.

All heifers, regardless of measurements or other genetic indicators, get a chance to breed for calving as two-year olds. Bulls are turned in for 60 days. Approximately 30 days after the bulls are removed, I use an ultrasound to pregnancy test the heifers.

Heifers confirmed pregnant are put back in with the cow herd and will spend the rest of their productive lives there. Open heifers are moved to the grass-finishing herd and become sellable end product.

I do not strive to have 85% or 90% of my heifers pregnant. I simply let nature and the heifer’s adaptability to my environment determine the breeding percentage.

If they are bred, then great, as I will have replacements and perhaps additional bred heifers to market as breeding stock. If they are open, I turn them into high-quality, grassfed beef.

The results? Calving issues, especially abnormal presentations, have practically disappeared.

I do not have to keep a separate pasture for heifer calving, so I don’t have to interrupt my grazing management. I do not have to check calving heifers every four hours.

The heifers that best fit my environment, including my management, are the ones that breed and become the new cows. The rest become meat and no longer propagate inferior genetics. First calf heifers get checked once daily when the cow herd is moved to their new paddock.

This breeding management has eliminated the vast majority of our problems and created a herd that is mostly trouble free. They require far fewer inputs, and perform far better.

What about dairy?
For decades now, selection in many dairy herds has been centered around fluid milk production, with some selection pressure on components. This has caused the gene pool to excessively narrow, and led to individual cows that are highly productive when intensively managed with high amounts of feedstuffs.

As a result, modern dairy cows are large-framed, high-maintenance, and live short lives.

Which of these two cows is more likely to stay in your herd? Photo: Allen Williams

The picture on this page shows a contrast between two cows, one a Jersey cross and the other a Holstein, in a dairy herd located near Cold Springs, Minnesota. They were born the same month of the same year, and both are in second lactation.

The day that I took the picture, they just happened to stand side-by-side in the barn. I immediately noticed the contrast and had to ask the owner several questions.

From his records, the Jersey cross ate about 70% of what the Holstein consumed daily. As the photo indicates, the Jersey has maintained a far better BCS than the Holstein despite the feed intake difference. The Jersey is certainly more moderate in frame score.

The Jersey has excellent udder attachment and conformation, while the Holstein’s udder is already starting to show signs of weakening and breaking down.
That Jersey was producing slightly more total milk than the Holstein, with higher components.

In talking with the producer, he noted that that Jersey would likely last at least eight lactations in his herd, while the Holstein would be culled after the current lactation.

Which cow will make him more money over her lifetime? The answer is obvious.

The dairyman could cater to the Holstein and provide her with all she needs. Yet she will still be genetically inferior, and any heifers she produced would also be inferior.

By culling her and not using her heifer calf as a replacement, the dairyman is selecting for cows that fit his environment and will be far more profitable.

We are often our own worst enemy in terms of genetic selection.

Often, allowing nature to help us with our selection is far more advantageous and profitable than spending time and money on mainstream selection indexes and managing intensively in dealing with the problems created by those numbers.

Bakewell was right
I believe that Robert Bakewell, an English livestock breeder in the 1700s, had it right with his three principles of genetic selection:
• Have an ideal type.
• Breed the best to the best regardless of relationship.
• Progeny test.

Bakewell never knew about genes, nor DNA, chromosomes, EPDs, Breeding Values and DNA markers. Yet in following his three principles, he would beat the socks off almost any modern-day animal breeder.

We can do the same by following these principles.

Dr. Allen Williams is a partner in Understanding Ag, LLC, based in Starkville, Mississippi.