Don Guilford, who farms near Clearwater in southwest Manitoba, says there is no doubt in his mind that to make ranching sustainable in the future, producers need to plan their herd to meet a specific market.
“You need to capture every opportunity,” says Guilford. “You have to think about what breeds you want to produce, assess your financial and land resources, target a market and design the herd to produce for that market.”
Guilford says many producers miss a huge opportunity by not introducing hybrid vigour into their breeding program. “I think that crossbred vigour is important because with a properly managed program and for no added cost, on a 300-head cow herd there’s nearly $50,000 added value from increased production related to hybrid vigour as opposed to a straight bred cow herd,” says Guilford, who was one of the speakers at the 2012 Manitoba Rancher’s Forum.
But the crossbreeding program needs to be properly planned. “Quite a few operations have a cow herd that is every colour under the sun,” he says. “And if they are doing that they are probably compromising about 50 per cent of that $50,000.”
WHAT IS HYBRID VIGOUR?
Hybrid vigour is the boost to production achieved by crossing different breeds. It’s expressed as the percentage amount by which the crossbred progeny is better than the average of the two parent breeds. Direct hybrid vigour is the extra performance in calf weight achieved in the first cross of two purebreds. Maternal hybrid vigour is the extra performance from breeding a crossbred cow (known as a F1 female) with another purebred breed.
Guilford’s own research in producing F1 females showed him a Hereford heifer crossed with an Angus bull adds 15 to 18 per cent higher weaning rates in the first-cross calf. If that F1 female is then bred to a totally different breed such as Charolais or Simmental, it boosts weaning rates by around 22 to 23 per cent.
“If a first cross adds 15 per cent to the weaning weight of a 500-lb. calf, at $1.50/lb. that’s $112.50,” says Guilford. “On 300 calves that’s $33,750 a year. A three-way cross adds 22 per cent, which is $49,500 on 300 calves.”
The degree of hybrid vigour depends on the specific traits and genetic diversity of the breeds being crossed. It is a system that can allow a producer to almost custom design calves by changing the sire breed to meet certain markets. The program can be used to produce calves with either more marbling or a leaner, heavier carcass, for example.
A FEW CHALLENGES
There are some challenges with the system, however, one of which is finding a supply of replacement F1 females that are a first cross and have not been interbred with multiple breeds. Keeping the different groups separate to maintain the integrity of the crosses requires additional management.
Guilford says the main problem with a hybrid vigour system is that it’s hard to achieve alone. He believes producers need to work together to develop a system that benefits everyone involved.
In order to get hybrids, producers need to start with straight-bred cattle, although they don’t need to be purebred, says Guilford. If needed, those straight-bred cattle can later be sold as replacement animals to someone else with a crossbreeding program. Each person along the chain has to specialize for the system to work well.
“You can’t be everything and you have to decide ‘am I going to be the guy that raises terminal cross steers and heifers for the finishing market?’” says Guilford. “Or am I going to raise F1 females to supply to the cow-calf guys? Or am I going to be a straight-bred breeder to supply the F1 females to the guy to breed them to Charolais bulls?
“When I was raising hybrid heifers people would say ‘why would you sell those great heifers.’ And I said, ‘I can’t be everything; I am the seedstock producer.’”
NEED TO FIND VALUE
Probably the hardest part of making the system work is building in value for everyone along the chain. “If I am the primary guy who is using straight-bred Herefords crossed with Angus bulls to get that F1 female, I need to be compensated for raising those straight bred cattle to provide the F1’s,” says Guilford. “If someone else takes those F1 cows and breeds them with a Charolais, he is the guy getting the $50,000 added advantage.”
Guilford’s own collaboration with another producer in a hybrid vigour program didn’t pan out at that time because of low cattle prices and market volatility. It was difficult to pencil out adequate compensation for both operations.
But, although primarily a purebred operator, he continues to build his program slowly over the years, using two important management tools.
After taking holistic management courses more than 20 years ago, he has gradually switched his grazing program to a planned rotational system that has extended the grazing season to nine months on 70 native grass paddocks. His program further maximizes the nutrients that stay on the landscape by winter bale-grazing cattle on pasture for the other three months of the year.
Trying to maintain his 225-head of purebred Hereford and 70-head of purebred Black Angus initially proved difficult with the grazing system because he had to separate the herd into smaller groups to run with the bulls. That interrupted the rotational grazing cycle.
Instead he adapted his 60-day breeding program in a way that allows him to maintain the purebred herds and simultaneously produce hybrids, which he now backgrounds and sells in the fall.
“We do still raise F1 females but our focus here is still to raise purebred Herefords and purebred Black Angus,” says Guilford. “But what’s happened is our grass-management program has kind of led us back into this F1 female market. We run our Hereford bulls with our Hereford cows for 21 days and the same with the Angus cows on the Angus bulls and then we flip them,” he says. “The only purebred bulls we sell are conceived in the first 21 days. All females born on the second and third cycle are black baldy. So they become the F1 females we sell to other producers.”
PROPER PROGRAM HAS VALUE
Guilford is convinced a good breeding program will bring more money at auction, where it’s not uncommon for calves to be sold in small groups or even in ones and twos as buyers select for certain traits. In a multicoloured diverse herd these traits may not be obvious.
Guilford has sold almost 70 head of cattle in just two lots because he was able to breed in the uniformity buyers are seeking.
“One year when I was living in Alberta we sold our calves in Lethbridge and our first draft in the ring was 46 head because they were all genetically the same and all coloured the same,” he says. “That tells buyers there’s a proper breeding program in place. The next draft was 23 head, so I basically sold my calves in two lots. Buyers continually will pay four to five cents per pound more for big groups of calves that are genetically the same — and for the most part all that is required of the producer is proper management. Hybrid vigour in many respects is the only thing that is free in cattle production.” †