Management topics

Apr 20, 2012

Convenience traits

A large seedstock operation had bull sales in the spring and fall. I asked the owner, who has since passed away, how he decided which bulls to put in the spring sale and which in the fall sale. He said it was simple; he put the lowering performing calving ease sires in the spring sale when the timing of his sale put it that most of his customers would be at least mid-way through calving and sick of problems. In fall, his customers were mainly fixated on what they had been paid for his/her calves and didn’t think so much about calving season. This was the smartest thing this gentleman ever said to me, and speaks volumes about the attention span of many cattle producers. That is why it so important to write down data on convenience traits in the spring, so it can be used for management decisions in the fall.

The first issue is udder problems, which should be evaluated at calving. Teat sizes should be small and thin enough that a calf can easily nurse off all 4 quarters after it is born. Any teat that becomes blown out or will probably be blown out the next year, so it requires you to put the cow in the chute to be milked before a calf can nurse, should go on cull list. After that, it does not matter much what they look like. The same goes for suspension. A cow must carry her udder tight enough that she can have a productive life without the udder becoming too pendulous that it is prone to injury or mastitis, dragging in the mud, or hard to nurse. When a cow brings in a good calf in the fall, it is easy to forget what headaches you are going to have with her the following spring.

The above may not sound very critical on udders, especially to the many producers who are self proclaimed udder “freaks.” However, I personally see no reason to put extra selection pressure to strive to have beef cattle udders look like those of Ayrshire dairy cattle first calf heifers. Some breeds/cattle do have legitimate udder soundness problems which constitutes the collections of data, etc., while other breeds might just have some cosmetic problems in which fixing them would not increase their production or longevity and result in a decrease in focus on selection of other more economically relevant traits.

The next trait is disposition. Bad disposition cattle are a real problem as studies have shown that these cattle grow slower and grade poorer. They can really rear their head at calving time. There is a Beef Improvement Federation disposition scoring system for young cattle that can help identify outliers for culling and gather data for genetic evaluation of purebred cattle. For practical considerations, I personally put cattle into four categories: 1) crazy, stupid; 2) crazy, smart; 3) calm, smart; and 4) calm, stupid. All breeds have some cattle that fit into all four categories, but most breeds tend have a larger percentage in one category. At calving, you can really tell a lot. The crazy/stupid cattle are unpredictable and will hurt you. Life is too short to have them around. I don’t like the crazy/smart cattle, but they are predicable, and if you are a professional ranch hand who always stays in the correct position around them, you can get along with them well. I find this to be the case with some of the “ear” cattle.

The calm/smart cattle are a joy to be around. They work well and still have vigor. The calm/stupid cattle can be a bit of pain for the opposite reason of the crazy/ smart. They are harder to work through the chute and do not have as much vigor at birth, but if you are raising cattle part-time with questionable facilities, they definitely may be your answer.

Raising cattle does have some inherent risk, but there is no reason to extenuate this risk beyond what is reasonable by keeping cattle with dangerous dispositions. It is not worth getting hurt over, it is highly heritable to the next generation, and costs money downstream in the lost production.

The other thing you might see up close is feet. Remember, it takes five to six years for a commercial cow to break even and make money. This means letting feet go as long as possible, as long as you calculate with some degree of certainty that the cow will make it to the sale barn in whatever year she is culled with some degree of soundness. You do want to flag any female offspring from a bad-footed cow for extra scrutiny before entering the herd. Certainly buying bulls with acceptable feet should be a basic.

Also, mark down any unusual treatments in the spring like a partial prolapse or mastitis. Those will only come to haunt you the next year, so these cows need to be culled in the fall, no matter what size calf they have.

Remember not to be as short sighted as that purebred producer mentioned at the top of the article counted on you to be. Write down the data now, so you can use it for culling decisions in the fall. In a commercial herd, cull on functionality and safety and do not worry so much about cosmetics. Be sure when selecting replacement heifers in the fall that anything out of these questionable cows gets a double going over or is culled, depending on the trait. — Dr. Bob Hough

[Dr. Bob Hough has served as the executive vice president of the Red Angus Association of America and more recently as executive vice president of the North American Limousin Foundation from 2009 to early 2011. He is now a consultant, freelance writer and semi-retired.]