Management Topics

Oct 18, 2013

Data collection season for seedstock producers

When calves are weaned is arguably the busiest and most important time for data collection for seedstock producers. Proper contemporary groups must be formed, as well as weaning data, disposition scores, cow weights, body condition scores, reason codes for culling and genomics, all collected this time of year for spring calving cows.

Weaning weights are the single most important weight trait collected by seedstock producers because they determine contemporary groups, are used as correlated traits for most other EPDs, and allow for accounting of selection for later traits. Collecting weaning weights seems self-evident, but many producers do not do it properly.

First and foremost, to have unbiased data, all calves must be weighed within the particular breed’s age range limit. Any selective reporting at this stage will bias most of the EPDs calculated. By the same token, calves that have been chronically sick or received favorable treatment (show and sale calves) must be put in single head contemporary groups to maintain the integrity of the main contemporary group. I cannot overstate the importance of getting this most basic of stages of performance data collection correct.

Most breeds collect disposition scores at weaning, with the notable exception of Angus, which collects those scores as yearlings. Disposition data is collected as chute scores and each breed association has a simple explanation of their scoring system.

Most all breeds choose weaning time to collect chute scores because the full contemporary group is still intact.

The importance of disposition in our industry is becoming paramount, and since disposition is heritable, genetic predictions can be calculated for the trait. Most importantly, crazy cattle gain below genetic potential, and fed progeny are prone to dark cutters and can be downright dangerous. The average age of ranchers has become alarmingly high and their appetite for “cowboying” wild cattle just isn’t there anymore.

Cow weights and body condition scores (BCS) should also be collected around the time of weaning. This is extremely important data to collect, and both weight and BCS must be collected for the data to be useful. The combination is used to calculate mature weight EPDs and maintenance energy EPDs or indexes. The reason that both must be collected together is because all breeds calculating these EPDs and indexes adjust mature weight to a constant BCS basis. Although only a few breed associations now have these EPDs, many are in the process of formulating maternal or weaning indexes.

A vital component of these indexes is accounting for either the mature weight or maintenance energy of the cow. This is necessary because for these indexes to be useful, the expense part of the equation (maintenance energy) is needed to put into perspective the revenue potential (weaning weight or payweight).

Talking to breed executives, this is the data they are most lacking in order to develop this next generation of objective selection tools.

Fall is generally when people cull cows for a variety of reasons and breed associations want to know these reasons. Most breeders just check the box “other” when completing inventory sheets for culling. It is important that the associations know why cattle are being culled, whether it is for reproduction, disposition, performance, soundness, etc. Breed associations cannot address breed-wide problems unless they know about them through objective data. This whole area is one that can be vastly improved by seedstock producers.

Genomically-enhanced EPDs have either been implemented by most major breed associations or are on the verge of being implemented. The joy of genomics is that they can be collected anytime in the lifecycle of an animal to enhance EPDs. Currently, most producers wait until cattle are yearlings to collect samples, while I am a proponent of doing it at weaning. It is a tool to double check parentage and provides the most information possible on those cattle that are candidates for development as replacement heifers and bulls.

The number of incorrect pedigrees found in the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s (NCBA’s) carcass merit project was alarmingly high, and many feel about 10 percent of cattle have incorrect pedigrees. Because of this error rate, as well as earlier discovery of genetic merit, I feel collecting genomic data at weaning is a good investment, although it is self-evident that it is a waste of money to test those cattle that are obvious culls.

Weaning season is a busy time for data collection. For too many breeders, fall just means collecting weaning weights on cattle they are going to retain. This attitude leads to biased EPDs and does not fully describe an animal’s genetic merit. In today’s era, seedstock producers should and must go far beyond this bare minimum to supply both themselves and their customers with the objective data necessary to make the best possible decisions. — 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.]