Producer pushes for more profitable herd
Terry Slusher of Floyd, VA, received a wake-up call several years ago. Slusher sent five steers to a feedlot as part of a commingled truckload in an Extension demonstration project. The Blue Ridge Mountain cattleman expected his calves to be top performers.
“I picked my best black steers, but their feedout results and profits weren’t the best in the load. In fact, some of my steers were below average for the group.
As a result, I changed my herd as quickly as possible,” says Slusher.
Over the next few years, he used artificial insemination (AI) to fast-forward genetic improvement in his herd. Today, he runs 165 cows on land that has been in his family since 1892.
For about $20 per cow (plus labor), AI gives Slusher access to America’s top beef sires. He now retains ownership of his calves through the feedlot and sells on the grid. Recent groups of finished cattle have averaged 95 percent Choice (and above) and 46 percent Certified Angus Beef.
Every year, Slusher breeds all of his cows by timed AI at least once. Timed AI includes estrous synchronization so a whole group of cows is in standing heat for breeding at one time. As his experience and techniques have improved, Slusher’s first-time AI conception rates now run 65 to 75 percent, and it’s not unusual to score 80 percent rates on mature cows.
When selecting AI sires and cleanup bulls, Slusher picks bulls that produce calves with high growth and good carcass traits, but also sire female replacements with moderate frame size. The cows at Slusher Valley Farm weigh an average of 1,250 pounds (at Body Condition Scores of 6 to 7); weaned steers weigh 625 to 650 pounds, and heifers average 590 pounds.
In recognition of his herd improvements, Slusher received the 2009 Virginia Commercial Cattleman of the Year Award.
Pressure on fertility
Fertility is the heart of a profitable cow/calf operation and Slusher emphasizes early pregnancies in replacement heifers. He limits virgin heifers to a 45-day breeding period and sells those that remain open.
“We put a lot of pressure up front on fertility. Some years we have a lot of open heifers, but we send them to the feedlot while they have good value as feeder calves,” he notes.
To remain in the herd, mature cows must maintain high levels of fertility with low maintenance costs. In the last few years, Slusher has moved his herd to a 300-day grazing program and cut back on winter feed expenses.
In addition to high-octane genetics, Slusher harnesses the power of heterosis to speed up profitability. He uses combinations of Angus, Hereford, Simmental and Sim-Angus bulls. The hybrid vigor of crossbred calves alone improves weaning weights by 4 percent (20 pounds on a 500-pound weaned calf). Slusher calculates he makes $40 to $50 per head as a result of crossbreeding and careful selection of bulls based on expected progeny differences (EPDs).
Slusher keeps records of each cow’s background and breeds cows that reach seven-eighths Angus blood with Hereford or Simmental bulls. “In our last four calf crops, we’ve gotten more aggressive about making F-1 heifers for replacements,” he notes. “AI makes it simple to do crossbreeding without keeping too many bulls on our farm.”
Increasing heterosis and leveraging breed strengths with crossbreeding are good ways to speed up genetic progress and profits from a cow herd. Crossbred calves get a growth kick from hybrid vigor, but the largest economic benefit of heterosis comes from running crossbred cows, according to University of Missouri beef genetics specialist Bob Weaber.
Compared to straightbreds, crossbred cows have calving rates nearly 4 percent higher and remain productive an average of 1.4 years longer than straightbreds.
On average, a crossbred cow produces one more calf and 600 pounds of extra weaning weight compared to a straightbred, according to research by the USDA Meat Animal Research Center of Clay Center, NE.
For producers that can’t use AI or rotational breeding systems, Weaber recommends mating hybrid bulls to crossbred cows. The heterosis generated is about half that of mating a purebred bull of a third breed to
F1 cows, but the calves still benefit greatly from hybrid vigor.
“Crossbred cows may be the only free lunch in this world,” says Weaber. Selection tools As he selects bulls for his commercial cow herd, Slusher uses EPD indexes, which are a weighting of multiple traits and their relative economic impact in one value.
EPD indexes are handy; they result in directional change for multiple traits.
When selecting Angus bulls, Slusher uses Beef Value, shown as $B, an index value expressed in dollars per head that gives the expected average difference in future progeny performance for post-weaning and carcass value compared to progeny of other Angus sires.
A producer who sells calves at weaning may be more interested in Weaned Calf Value ($W), an index EPD that covers the expected average difference for preweaning merit. $W includes both revenue and cost adjustments associated with differences in birthweight, weaning direct growth, maternal milk and mature cow size.
As he selects Hereford bulls, Slusher looks closely at the Baldy Maternal Index, shown an BMI$. This index maximizes profit for commercial cow/calf producers who use Hereford bulls in rotational crossbreeding programs on Angus-based cows.
When picking bulls of breeds other than Angus and Hereford for cross breeding,
Slusher uses across-breed EPDs. The Beef Improvement Federation has released tables of adjustment factors used to estimate across-breed EPDs for 18 breeds. Acrossbreed adjustment factors have been calculated for growth traits, maternal milk traits and carcass traits. — DTN