Strategies for breeding cattle must be reinforced by multiple targeted objectives that factor in operational goals, marketing possibilities, environmental demands and resource availability. For the cow-calf producer, the two basic objectives are quality and uniformity.
One of the leading factors affecting calf uniformity is distribution throughout the breeding and calving seasons — a long breeding season results in a long calving season
Large operations are often able to withstand a lack of consistency as enough animals of similar size and conformation are available to make into groups, but smaller farms and ranches don’t have this option and must create it from management practices, says Matt Spangler, a professor and extension specialist in beef genetics at the University of Nebraska — Lincoln.
“A long calving season could be related to a long breeding season,” Spangler says. “When bulls run with cows for an extended time, calves will have a wide range in age when they wean, and consequently their weight is going to vary.”
Spangler says it’s a solid plan to buy bulls of similar traits, genetic merit, values and EPDs, which should deliver a consistent genetic package to the calf crop.
For example, many ranches sell at weaning or after a short preconditioning period, so weaning weights are important. Value should be based on how much improvement in a particular trait is desired. “Is something in the top 10 per cent of the breed for that trait wanted, or maybe top 20 per cent is good enough? Try to buy a group of similar bulls to match this,” Spangler says.
He emphasizes another simple method to increase uniformity is patience with a well-thought-out approach. “System design has a large impact. If I’m all over the place without a real plan, buying random bulls of varying breeds year after year, it will lead to issues of poor consistency in calves. Try to select bulls by their EPDs and use good management decisions. This multi-pronged strategy will make uniformity improvements.”
Reproductive technologies and pregnancy rates
Sarah Thorson, beef marketing manager at GENEX, agrees and points out that artificial insemination is another option beef producers should consider to achieve breeding goals and yet reduce the number of sires required.
“Breeding a hundred heifers in an AI project uses one or two bulls for the entire group,” Thorson says. “Some of them could be the cleanup sires. That maximizes uniformity and cuts back the bull battery.”
She says for smaller producers with large pastures requiring long-distance travel, at least two bulls are needed for 50 females, especially if the goal is to achieve a calving season of approximately 45 days. Adding estrus synchronization (ES) to the blueprint or breeding strategy generates more calves born earlier in the calving season, leading to a heavier crop and a shortened window.
“By using these protocols (AI and ES), the first day of the breeding season can end with 60 to 65 per cent of females pregnant, as conception or pregnancy rates are now in that range,” Thorson says. “It tightens the calving season; more calves are born earlier creating bigger and more consistent calves come weaning time. Fewer sorts are needed when sold on the Internet auction or at the sale barn.”
Logistics and superior genetics
Thorson adds while logistics and lack of facilities have discouraged producers from using reproductive technologies — they don’t feel they have the facilities to administer AI And ES treatments — the fact is they’ve never been easier to incorporate. Most semen representatives provide staff to handle the entire process. Often, only small and inexpensive tweaks, some mobile panels and a portable trailer are required.
“If the owners have people there to move cattle through the chute, trained crews will take care of the details,” she says. “They’ll handle semen and do all the arm work.”
Thorson believes the biggest advantage of these technologies is the best genetics from anywhere in the world are available at a reasonable cost.
“Most commercial producers aren’t paying $50,000 or $60,000 or $100,000 for bulls on a regular basis. With AI, those high-value genetics can be accessed for $20 to $25. Plus, especially for commercial operators, the ability to use highly proven sires is extremely valuable. They’ll feature whatever traits are desired to maximize a herd, be it retaining replacement females from highly maternal males, or knowing the offspring from terminal sires will perform in the feedlot. That kind of information adds a lot of value.”
Quality and uniformity are never instant, but when given an opportunity for success they can become reality. Focused management practices such as using EPD-targeted bull selection and a defined breeding season, together with superior genetics and reproductive technologies for higher conception and pregnancy rates, make all the difference.