Thoughts on Cattle in a Commercial Setting

It seems to me, that the current direction of our Industry is to breed cattle for the feedlot, rather than to focus on what’s best for the producer. This is understandable, as that is the bread and butter of the cattle market. Unfortunately it has become all too common for Beef Cattle associations to promote the cattle genetics that may be marginally better in the feedlot, but which lack the maternal qualities that are of the most benefit to the folks raising the cattle up to the point that they leave the ranch.

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It has been my observation over the years that any time you push Mother Nature too far, she will push back. Selecting for maximum feedlot growth often leads to increased dystocia. It only stands to reason that if a calf has outstanding growth after birth, it’s very likely that he also grew rapidly during late gestation. In order to alleviate this natural phenomenon, it has become increasingly common to use bulls with shortened gestation traits. This may alleviate some birthing issues, but this creates its own set of problems with under-developed and weak calves at birth. I can well tolerate some birth weight if the newborn has a long, slender shape conducive to sliding through the birth canal. I also believe that excessive “bone” development is responsible for causing a high percentage of calving difficulties. This is a problem that will not disappear as long as we have show ring judges selecting the heavily boned type for the ribbons. I may have overlooked something—if a reader has a good dinner recipe for Bone, please share it, as I may be missing out!

Shorthorn Cow Raising Twins

Shorthorn Cow Raising Twins

A consequence in Man’s quest for perfect carcass quality is that the structural soundness of our animals can be overlooked, especially in our cows. When I think of ideal “Maternal” qualities, I think of highly fertile cows with rumen capacity, medium size, and outstanding structural correctness to include udders, feet, legs, and a good, correct top line. In a commercial setting it is critical that our cattle have sound, correct feet & legs. We need to remember that a cow is a harvesting machine. She often has to travel long distances over sometimes less than ideal terrain harvesting the forage produced on lands unfit for other uses. Her leg structure must be conducive to bearing her weight as she does her job. We must also be critical of udder/teat structure as it is imperative that a newborn receive colostrum as soon after birth as possible. Not only does poor udder structure make this much more difficult for a newborn, it also lends to further udder damage occurring. Personally, there is nothing more frustrating than trying to stuff the end of a large teat into the small mouth of a calf who is actively resisting my attempts at saving him!

For sheer meat production efficiency, beef cannot compete with chicken or pork. A hen has the potential to produce a fertile egg every day. A sow is expected to have a minimum of 10 piglets in a litter and usually 2 litters/year. Due to this reproduction propensity, rapid change in genetics is much easier to achieve versus a beef animal where we wait 2 years to see what a heifer’s newborn is like, and won’t know for another 18 months (or so) before that animal is harvested or retained for breeding what the consequences of our breeding decision has produced.

A good cow should provide a minimum of 10-12 years of production in our herds. To the Cattle Feeder, this is irrelevant. He/she wants economic growth in that: “X” amount of feed will produce “X” amount of beef in the feedlot. To him, it matters little that the average age of a cow leaving production has been reduced to 6-7 years according to surveys and University studies. A developing replacement female does not return any money to the ranch until she is at least 2-1/2 years old and has successfully weaned a calf. She can’t really become profitable until she’s at least 4 and potentially nearing the end of her career in the “average” herd. As cattle producers, maybe we need to focus more on what’s good for us as producers when we develop our breeding decisions.

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It may be a wise move for the average cow/calf breeder or purchaser to plan a pre-sale tour of the prospective supplier of his next herd bull. Not to wade around in a pen of bulls while studying data sheets, but rather to study the cow herd that produced these bulls. Are they thriving in an environment similar to yours? Are the type of cows what you envision your herd to be? These are serious questions because they reflect what your cattle will become.

Raising good maternal genetics may not be as “romantic” as raising high performance types. Seldom (if ever) does the bull who sires females who are outstanding in their fertility, udder quality, structural soundness, and docile nature receive the accolades that the performance sire receives. Few breeders take into consideration the increase in dystocia, sub-par skeletal structure, lowered fertility, higher turnover rate, and added cost of maintenance that superior feedlot performance often creates. These problems become common when performance is the most important selection criteria.

YY Adam 294A

YY Adam 294A

In my “perfect world”, commercial cattle producers would be using a 2-way highly maternal British crossbreeding system. The three most common British breeds are the Angus, Hereford and Shorthorn. These three breeds have interchanged popularity standings over the years. All three breeds have lines left that are “Maternal”. All three breeds have cattle which have moved to the “Terminal” side. Selecting two highly maternal strains from these three breeds to cross will produce increased Heterosis (Hybrid Vigor) in the cow herd. When these good crossbred cows reach maturity, they would then be mated to one of the myriad of superior growth bulls which can be found in almost every breed of today.

Keep in mind that if you raise your own replacement females, you will have to resist the temptation to keep any of the terminal crosses for breeding replacements. If you do, you can expect the maternal qualities will slide downhill. It’s a “Nature” thing.


Author: Ralph Larson (Y Lazy Y Shorthorns)

Mr. Larson was born in Choteau Montana in 1952. His parents raised sheep and cattle near Heart Butte, MT. Growing up, Ralph never missed an opportunity to urge his dad to get rid of the sheep and just run cows! When he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army in 1975, he returned to the ranch and purchased a few Texas Longhorn heifers. The Longhorn cows provided insight into truly “low maintenance” cattle, which sparked interest in thinking about what truly “makes a cow a cow”. Where 4 season grazing was a necessity, Ralph found that these cattle and their ½ to ¼ female descendants excelled under true range conditions, yet their calves from Hereford or Angus bulls weren’t discounted at the sale ring. They were cattle who truly worked for the ranch, not the other way around.

The ranch had one Shorthorn cow in the 1960’s. She was roan, horned, and shaped like a barrel on legs. Her calves always outweighed their contemporaries by over 50 lbs. at weaning. That cow produced a calf every year past 21 years of age. One year she lost her calf in a severe spring blizzard. After moping around her dead baby a couple days, she then disappeared for 3 days. When she finally showed up, she had a little black baldy calf that she had evidently “adopted” at the neighboring place.

Ralph decided to raise purebred cattle with that prime example of maternal excellence in mind. He had a several year learning period in the purebred business before the idea finally took hold that the pursuit of Maternal Excellence was a better choice than Terminal Performance. A good set of “Maternally” selected cows can always be bred to the terminal type bulls that are so common today in every breed.

Ralph would like to publicly acknowledge the appreciation he has for men like Dr. Ron Bolze, Mr. Roy Lovaas, Mr. Larry Leonhardt, and others who helped shape his thought process that “it is the cows behind the bulls” and to achieve females that “work for the ranch”.


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For more articles about cattle breeding, cattle selection and other management topics, please visit The Shorthorn Bulletin.