Convenience Traits: Are your cows working for you or are you working for your cows?
It is said that those who do not study history are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. That is why it so important to learn from the original masters of the performance movement in the cattle industry—to find out what traits they felt were important for highly profitable, maternal cattle.
Some of the best of these trailblazing breeders were George Chiga (1913-2007) and Roy Beeby (1931-2002). Though these breeders both raised Red Angus, their concepts are universal. They were known to be among the most important figures in the performance movement in their eras; however, it is interesting to note that at the time these two men were in their prime, many of the traits they deemed of tremendous importance didn’t necessarily have EPDs or ratios.
They just both wanted working cows that were moderate in size, with perfect udder structure, balanced milk, soundness, good disposition, and terrific fleshing ability.
Although the term “convenience traits” is bandied about in today’s cattle industry, it is believed that George Chiga was the person to coin the phrase, and there have been no greater champions of efficient, maternal, and problem-free cattle than Chiga and Beeby. Some of the attributes of “convenience cattle”—those that will be covered in this article—are reproduction, soundness, foraging ability, calving ease, mothering ability, optimum milk, good temperament, polled character, cow size, longevity, and cow efficiency.
Chiga recognized that “convenience is an efficiency tool.” This is because it has been demonstrated that high profit commercial cow/ calf producers only have a small advantage in payweight at weaning compared to medium and low profit producers. The major advantages belong to the low cost producers: lower labor inputs and feed costs.
Beeby felt that a cow should be able to wean at least 50 percent of her weight, but growth is important only to a point. This is because growth is obtained at a cost, and many ranchers would be surprised at what those “bragging rights” at weaning time are actually costing them.
Chiga knew, years before there were studies to prove it, that convenience is an efficiency tool. “How much performance do you need?” Chiga would ask rhetorically. And then, in answer to his own question: “Just enough to make money (revenue); then add convenience to it (lower costs).
You don’t have to have the biggest this or the biggest that. Nature has very little use for freaks. Nature is interested in only one thing; perpetuation. You can do what you like, but nature will win out.” Chiga’s advice was spot-on; it has been demonstrated that reproduction is the most economically relevant trait impacting cow efficiency.
According to Beeby, “Superior females must mature sexually, cycle, conceive and calve without assistance as a two-year-old and every 12 months thereafter.” Perhaps a high demand, but not when you consider that reproduction has been shown to be the most economically important trait; twice as important as growth traits and 2-10 times more economically important than carcass traits.
Therefore, reproduction is the foundation of a good cow/calf herd. Since growth and carcass traits tend to be easier to influence (because they are higher in heritability), it certainly pays to focus first on reproductive and maternal traits. To sum it up, reproduction is “difficult to change genetically, so it’s critical to begin with genetics that are proven to be reproductively sound.”
Calving problems are a major source of labor, and females having calving difficulty have been shown to be slower to rebreed. Although birth weight (BW) is the major driver of calving ease, master breeders learn early on that different sires with progeny of similar birth weights may have very different results in terms of calving ease.
According to Chiga, “One profits by paying attention to birth weights and to selecting for strains that calve unassisted.” He also noted that, “A number of Canadians, with somewhat larger cattle, suggest that ‘assisted’ or ‘unassisted’ should be the record and the tool for making calving ease improvement. A breed association could do worse.”
Luckily, today we have an EPD (expected progeny difference) that takes into account both birth weight and calving ease scores. The calving ease direct (CED) EPD is the percent probability differences of sires’ calves being born unassisted. Being an economically important trait, CED EPD is a much better predictor of calving ease than birth weight EPD.
Without sound cattle, you have nothing. Traits such as good feet, structural correctness, functional udder structure, sound mouths, etc. are all considered when determining soundness. Chiga even went a step beyond these obvious traits: “Sound structure in bulls that look like bulls and cows with trim lines and sex appeal are paramount in herds rightfully termed ‘Convenience Cattle,’” he wrote.
Soundness of structure, like any trait, is best evaluated in contemporary groups of cattle raised in a production setting (as opposed to pampered show cattle with trimmed feet). In terms of breeding allaround sound cattle from a seedstock perspective, Chiga said he “wouldn’t use a bull that couldn’t stand some inbreeding, proving freedom from undesirable traits and an abundance of those desirable.”
If the last two years of drought and high supplement costs have taught the industry anything, it is that too much milk can be a detriment. Beeby explained:
“Heifers and cows should give enough milk to wean a heavy calf; [however,] they should not be bred for maximum milk. For example, dairy cows give too much milk and their maintenance requirements are too high for regular reproduction and sound udders in a beef cattle environment.”
This holds true not only when the cow is lactating, but also in her dry season, because high-milk-potential females have higher maintenance requirements year-round. Beeby goes on to point out that because of higher maintenance requirements, “work at USDA found that any breed whose selection has been for [high] milk production is less efficient in either the breeding herd or the feedlot.”
There is no EPD for mothering ability, only your sharp observation skills and a pencil to record what you see. According to Beeby: “Sound udders are essential. Heifers and cows should be rated on how they nurture and attend to the calf after it is born and how they protect it to weaning.” There is simply not enough margin in the commercial cow/calf industry to fool with a cow whose calf needs aid in nursing her problem udder. These cows need to go on the cull list in the fall no matter how big a calf they wean.
Since the majority of agricultural land is unsuitable for crop production, grazing this resource and turning it into nutritious food for people is the most basic reason we have beef cattle. However, some cows are better foragers than others. “There are breeds of cattle and cattle within breeds that are better at foraging,” said Beeby. “It may be associated with appetite. Some cattle will eat less palatable grass, weeds, and browse what others do not utilize.”
Grazing behavior is also very important, since cattle on the Western range must spread out when grazing instead of bunching together (which is typical for intensive grazing situations more common in the Midwest and East). If cattle bunch together in very extensive pasture situations, it can lead to poor utilization of forage resources and overgrazing. Since many Angus bloodlines have been developed in the West in recent decades, Angus now display the type of grazing behavior once mainly lauded for Herefords. It is important to remember that cows were made to walk and grass was made to stand still, making cows a highly efficient, low-cost way to harvest solar energy. Temperament “Temperament, fostering ease of handling, is a laborsaving, gain-saving convenience on the ranch, in the feedlot and for the packer,” said Chiga. Depending on the operation and facilities, it’s important to avoid both extremes of inherent temperament. Just like bad disposition cattle are a problem; extreme pet-like disposition cattle can display poor vigor, lack of mothering ability, and can just plain be difficult to work through well-planned chutes. On the other end, as Beeby so aptly summed it: “Life is too short to deal with wild cattle.”
For Chiga, polled character (naturally without horns) was a major convenience trait. Today, given the strength of Angus’ bull market share and other polled breeds available, producers almost take for granted the polled characteristic. However, one trip to a commercial feed yard demonstrates that there are still too many horned feeder calves coming through the production cycle; calves that have to be dehorned at some point. Since the polled gene is dominate over the horn gene, and genomic testing for the trait is easy, there is almost no reason that a commercial cow/calf producer shouldn’t easily design a breeding program that eliminates the stress to the cattle and labor involved in dehorning.
About 1970 or ‘80 Chiga wrote, “‘Bigger is better’ was the philosophy in the bounce-back from ‘Belt Buckle’ cattle of mid-century. Sadly, some have gone overboard on cow size. Result: the inconveniences and financial drain of soaring maintenance cost, delayed sexual maturity, irregular calving and shortened longevity. Mid-size, strongly feminine cows are ‘Convenience Cattle.’” Since Chiga wrote this, the industry went through a period of downsizing its average cow. Now, unfortunately, the industry is back on the upswing to bigger cattle again. The U.S. Meat Animal Research Center reports average cow size in Angus and other British breeds to be over 1,400 pounds.
The major problem with this upswing is that with high grain prices, backgrounding calves before they reach the feed yard is highly desirable. Yet if cattle are too big, with very high growth potential, they need to go straight to the feedlot at weaning in order to produce carcass weights inside the window of acceptability, thus missing the advantage of backgrounding.
On the keys for longevity, Beeby wrote: “Cows that give enough milk, but not too much milk, cows that are big enough, but not too big, have a better chance for a long productive life with less stress. Soundness and regular reproduction keep cows from being culled. Many of the traits that contribute to longevity are heritable, and so are the traits that cause cattle to be culled.”
The cost of developing or buying replacement heifers, as well as the annual cost of keeping a cow, is expensive. Therefore, researchers estimate that an average commercial cow must remain productive in a herd for five to six years of age to be profitable. Stayability is an EPD that was pioneered by Colorado State University in 1995 to be a genetic prediction of a cow reaching the six-year-old threshold. The stayability EPD was first implemented by the Red Angus Association. Today, Angus Genetics Inc. is working on an EPD to predict total longevity of a cow’s productive life, called “Life of Production EPD.” In the end, cattle that excel in convenience traits will excel in longevity.
Even though we have made amazing strides in terms of cattle performance, it is important to make sure—as an industry—that we are making genetic improvement, not just genetic change. Because convenience is an efficiency tool, that means some of the most economically important traits cannot be measured with a set of scales or an ultrasound machine; only with sharp observation skills and a pencil. Master breeders like Chiga and Beeby knew this innately. “In other words, get rid of your excuses,” said Beeby.
“You don’t want to propagate faults in your cow herd.” Working hard toward convenience now will save you work and money in the long run. As Chiga said, “Convenience is of growing importance as dependable labor becomes increasingly difficult to obtain and as efficiency becomes increasingly important, those things about cattle that require special attention can be inconvenient.” In the end, to be a high profit producer means making the investment in the right kind of genetics that will produce cattle with necessary convenience traits. — Dr. Bob Hough [This article originally ran in the Sinclair Cattle Co. 2014 Newsletter and was reprinted with permission]