When it rains, this country is the Garden of Eden.” And when it doesn’t? Well…

Wayne Cockrell should know. In his 12 years as manager of the Carter Ranch near Oakwood, TX, halfway between Dallas and Houston, he’s seen the Trinity River bottomland at its very best and its very worst – all within 24 months.

In 2009 and 2010, “the ranch had its weddin’ clothes on,” as they say in those parts. Ample rain left the commercial cow-calf operation awash in green grass and fat, sleek calves.

Then came 2011 and a veil of austerity fell across the land. “It was the driest year on record,” Cockrell says.

Normally, the area averages 38-40 in. of precipitation annually. The ranch ended 2011 at around 21 in. total.

In some parts of Texas, that’s a lot; for the Carter Ranch, that’s a wreck. “I’ve got a guy who works for me, been here 42 years,” Cockrell says. Wayne Cockrell“And another employee, his grandfather was on the ranch back in the ’40s and ’50s. Both say it’s never been this dry in this part of the world.”

Typically, when times get tough, breed-up is one of the first things to suffer. But thanks to tight management and technology, Cockrell not only didn’t lose any ground but his first- and second-calf heifers held the line in reproductive efficiency.

Genomics at work

In an effort to speed up his genetic progress, particularly for carcass traits, Cockrell began incorporating DNA marker tests into his selection decision for replacement heifers three years ago. The first set of 230 Brangus heifers he selected using genomic information will have their third calf in 2012.

For their first set of calves, born in 2010, he got about a 95% breed-up, using Angus bulls in a 90-day breeding season. That was about average, he says.

“Then, in 2010, the rebreed on those same heifers after they had a calf was 100%,” he says. That was a pleasant surprise, he says, but they had a good year with plenty of rain and lots of grass.

Then came 2011 and everything changed. The operation received several rains last spring, which put a patina of green on the landscape. But the water valve was shut tight and the Carter Ranch suffered through a hot, dry summer unlike any it had ever seen. Still, Cockrell says, the operation recorded a 98% breed-up on that original set of heifers selected using DNA marker results for fertility as well as carcass traits.

And it’s not because they have it easy. “They did it under pretty tough conditions, no special care other than just the proper supplementation, which is important. You can’t ask a cow to perform miracles.”