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The Carter Ranch near Oakwood, TX, uses genomics to attain great breed-ups in its heifers, despite record drought.
Calving season for the mature cows begins in January and runs through early April. “We’re going to wean those heifers in May and turn bulls back in on them in January,” he says. “So we’re breeding those first-calf heifers at anywhere from 10-12 months old.”
Those heifers are calving from October to the first of January the following year, and they mother their calf for up to seven months, until weaning time in May. “So, by the time they’re two years of age, they will have a calf and have to rebreed.”
With that kind of selection pressure, reproductive efficiency is a big part of the genetic package that Cockrell’s replacement heifers bring to the herd. But he wanted to do more, particularly with carcass traits.
“We weren’t making progress by just selecting the bulls. I felt we needed to do some selection on the replacement side as far as marbling,” he says.
While that’s a desirable goal, Cockrell is fully aware that what makes a ranch money is a female that rebreeds on time and weans a hefty calf. And he’s also fully aware of the genetic antagonisms that exist between reproductive traits and growth and carcass traits.
“So I guess you could say I wanted to make some progress on the carcass side in the cowherd, but I didn’t want to give up the things that have a direct payback to us,” he adds.
So, with that mindset firmly in place, Cockrell began DNA testing his heifers. Based on what he’s seen, he’ll continue the program, he says. Heifers from his 2011 calf crop will be the third set of replacements to be selected based on their DNA profile. He’ll test every heifer that’s a candidate for the cowherd and lets the DNA marker test results drive his selection decisions.
“We get the DNA numbers back and we sort through what we want to keep, then pick phenotypically for bigger-boned, more feminine-looking heifers.”
However, when he shifted his selection criteria to the DNA marker tests, he also had to shift his approach. With the marker tests driving the selection decision, outside of structural soundness and capacity, what the heifer looks like is less important.
“If a man was smart, he wouldn’t care what the cow looks like. The DNA is the DNA; you have to retrain your way of thinking.”
Cockrell enjoys looking at heifers as much as anyone. “I think there’s a lot to selection. But you can’t correlate that to the carcass side, average daily gain, feed efficiency, those things that pay. Phenotypically picking them, we weren’t making any progress.”
In addition to using DNA marker tests on his commercial replacement heifers, Cockrell also tested his bull battery. “I wanted to see where my bull herd was and match the strengths of the bulls with the weaknesses of the cows,” he explains.
He knew which herds the heifers he had DNA tested were coming out of, and that gave him some idea as to the genetic strengths and weaknesses of their dams. Using that as a compass point, he looked at the marker-test results on his bull battery and targeted the genetics of the bulls to the genetics of each set of cows.
While three years is too soon to fully evaluate the plusses and minuses of any management change, Cockrell is pleased with his progress. In addition to a great breed-up in a tough year, he says the calves from the heifers selected using a DNA profile are performing well.
Sealing the sale
Part of the first set of calves born to his “DNA dams” sold to a small, local retail meat company in Houston. “I was able to sell those calves to him based on the DNA numbers,” Cockrell says. And not just the heifers. The fact that Cockrell had DNA data on the bulls, as well as the heifers, helped seal the deal.
“What was neat about it was, he was interested in tenderness. I didn’t select on tenderness per se when we profiled the heifers, but I put a threshold” on the tenderness score, culling anything below average. He also had tenderness profiles on the bulls, many of which scored near the top. “That added value to the calves and I was able to pay for the DNA profile by selling those calves.”
The calves that didn’t go into that value-added, direct-marketing opportunity were sold on a video sale, and topped that day’s sale. Cockrell thinks having the genomic data on both the dams and sires helped bring the extra money. And he anticipates it will help bring extra money in the future as the cattle build a reputation for themselves.
Any time you change management strategies, particularly when it adds cost, you have to look carefully at the bottom line, Cockrell says. While DNA profiles for commercial heifers are less expensive now, each test cost $38 when he started.
“I looked at it this way. Let’s say I’m sitting at a special sale and have two groups of heifers that come in. If I know the genetic information of one group – reproduction, feed efficiency, gradeability, average daily gain, docility, etc. – would I give $38/head more for those? Absolutely.”