Two producer-panelists speaking at the recent BEEF Quality Summit shared their perspective on what it means to manage costs and product quality for profit.

For Alan Sears, the simple answer is heterosis because it boosts production using the same inputs. Art Brownlee, on the other hand, prefers to measure and manage the factors that can impact quality during a calf’s life.

Cow-calf producers looking to optimize their resources in a cost-critical environment need to ask themselves, “Do I want to pick up an extra $50/calf/cow, or $100?” Sears asks. He speaks from more than 10 years’ experience marketing bulls to upscale commercial cow-calf ranches and funneling the resulting feeder calves into branded-beef programs.

“Crossbreeding, with an emphasis on heterosis, is where most of the advantages lie when we look at cost savings at the cow-calf level,” Sears begins.

The bonus is twofold, but stems from the mating of diverse genetic packages: first in the calf that will be sold in the marketplace (growth, efficiency and leanness), and secondly in the retained maternal female (longevity, fertility and udder durability).

According to Lee Leachman, general manager of Leachman of Colorado in Wellington, crossbreeding is the most important strategy most ranchers forget. Sears prefers the adage: “Heterosis – don’t ranch without it.” Why? “Because it’s the only free lunch in this business,” Sears says.

Pick and choose. Crossbreeding is more effective today than 30 years ago because of the type of cattle being used, Sears says. In the ’70s, Continental cattle were tall and lean; British were just the opposite. “We wondered why we got such a spread in phenotype and performance levels,” Sears jokes.

Today, breeds are more complimentary in size and stature, but with distinct separate core traits from British and Continental breeds. Over time, phenotypic differences can be minimized, he says. More importantly, composite genetic providers are using documented pedigrees and performance measurements, similar to what the purebred producers have been doing for years.

“The well documented purebreds provide an important core foundation for a successful composite or crossbreeding system,” Sears says.

He favors a Continental/British cross. The Continental breeds bring red-meat yield, efficiency and growth performance. The British base adds maternal and marbling. Even when the breed balance is 7/8 or 15/16, there’s still a 12.5 to 25% advantage from heterosis.

“Most businesses would take a 10-12% margin and be pretty happy about it,” Sears says. Here’s a breakdown of how heterosis boosts production.

  • Calving rate (number of calves weaned per cow exposed): +6%
  • Calf-survival rate: +4%
  • Weaning weight: +8%
  • Yearling weight: +4%
  • Carcass traits: +0-2%
  • Weaning weight per cow exposed: +23%
Given those figures, over 10 years, a rancher with 100 cows and an average calf weaning weight of 575 lbs. could expect to see:
  • 60 additional head (calf-survival rate, 6%)
  • An extra 20,000 lbs. at weaning (4% advantage in weaning weight)
  • 105,000 lbs. (23% increase in weaning weight per cow exposed)
With an additional 18 calves/year, heterosis is worth $100/cow/year. In addition, the crossbred calf opens up more marketing opportunities by providing access to yield or quality markets and get there with additional pounds.

“The calves are versatile and attract multiple buyers,” Sears states.
But he cautions cattlemen that in order for crossbreeding to be done right, it starts with attainable goals. Producers should consider available marketing endpoints, replacement females, environment and management ability in selecting a crossbreeding plan. “Then you’ve got to stick to that plan,” Sears says, be it with Simmental, Gelbvieh, Limousin, Chi-Angus or South Devon on the Continental side or Angus, Red Angus, Hereford or Shorthorn on the British side.

Measuring from the get-go. But once calves are on the ground, the task of managing for optimum harvest quality takes precedence. Brownlee, along with his wife Merry, inherited a 1,400-head cowherd in the western Nebraska Sandhills near Ashby. At the time, their cowherd was 70-80% Continental and graded less than 40% Choice. But they wanted to increase the herd's marbling and make the end product something they would serve their friends.

Brownlee plainly states they’re not single-trait selectors, but seek moderation. But by measuring and managing data the past 14 years, they’ve been able to take their herd from producing 40% Choice calves to above 80% with 40-50% in the upper two thirds.

“Genetics to me is the baseline,” Brownlee says. “When I look at genetics, I look at potential. What’s the potential of that individual mating?” To assist him in those decisions, he looks back on individual datasets examining how each cow’s progeny performed out of different sires.

“We’ve got a starting point of genetic potential and it starts at conception. We have the end point at harvest,” Brownlee says.

There are several challenges along the path that can impact end-product quality, says Brownlee, who adds that over the course of time, he’s tinkered with and botched each individual area. But he hasn’t experienced a complete wreck. Here are his areas to watch:
  • Nutrition. “Anytime nutrition is compromised on a calf, the potential for losing marbling is there,” Brownlee says; the same is true for ribeye.
    This emerging field is called epigenetics, or in utero programming. The dairy industry is already working this field. Researchers have experimented by programming the feed given to pregnant cows while calves are still in the womb. The result is progeny with elongated mammary cells capable of producing more milk. More and more research is being conducted in utero, emphasizing the importance of pre-calving management.
    “We can get hammered by it if we don’t treat our cows right in the wintertime,” Brownlee says.
  • Environment and weather. Looking back two years ago, Brownlee says the harsh winter conditions his cows endured on cornstalks impacted the calves (in utero) they harvested this year. “Environment and weather can compromise a calf when they’re growing and need nutrition,” Brownlee says, be it fighting against cold, heat, parasites or chest-deep mud in the feedlot. Even sunlight can affect the quality grade of a calf.
  • Harvesting practices. This includes excessive hotshot use, extended trucking, facility design, stress and overcrowding. “In a non-Beef Quality Assurance atmosphere, all those things can affect an animals’ stress level that will affect the gain, which affects marbling,” Brownlee says.
  • Treatment philosophy. Everything from managing calves for natural programs to mass treatments can impact quality. “Do you wait until you can catch on foot before you treat it?” he says.
  • Implant strategy. Brownlee questions producers about their timing and frequency protocol for implant programs. Giving an animal probiotics, beta antagonists and various hormones can impact quality.

Brownlee closes the discussion by telling of an employee on his ranch who, being miles from anywhere, saw the electric fence was down. He figured out a way to repair the electrified barbed wire fence by using an old plastic ear tag nailed to a hedge post.

“What we’ve got here is a system that isn’t right,” Brownlee points out. The wire shouldn’t be barbed wire, but high-tensile because it carries electricity better over long distances. The pole should be fiberglass with a proper insulator; otherwise power could be lost to the fence.

“Basically, that’s what I see as I look at the cattle business,” Brownlee says. “There are lots of places we could rob the spark from what we’re doing. Until we haven’t compromised the animal in all those different aspects, we won’t know its potential.”