When you're producing cattle, variables are the name of the game. You manage those you can control and deal with those you can't.

But in cattle feeding, sometimes it seems like the can'ts outnumber the cans. That's why, when you find a variable that works, you tend to stick with it. Like heterosis.

That's what Danny Herrmann, owner/manager of Ford County Feed Yard at Ford, KS, told those attending the “Herefords, Heterosis and Headlines” tour this spring. Ford County Feedyard is a family-owned, 50,000-head finishing yard that participates in several premium beef programs, including Certified Hereford Beef (CHB).

Based on his experience, comparing a black baldy from a planned crossbreeding program with a straightbred or a mongrel, the baldy steer tends to be healthier and perform better in the feedyard. However, he's quick to point out that it's nearly impossible to make hard-and-fast statements because of the many variables he deals with — such as whether the calves were preconditioned and backgrounded or weaned on the truck; whether it was warm and sunny or a howling blizzard when the calves arrived; or whether they are calves direct off the ranch or a yearling.

But in spite of those variables, or perhaps because of them, Herrmann likes buying calves that he knows will have good hybrid vigor. For the cattle feeder or the rancher who retains ownership, Herrmann says the baldies offer another advantage — they can qualify for almost all the premium programs available, including not just CHB but Certified Angus Beef (CAB) and the various Angus-branded programs that CAB's success has spawned.

Research proves advantages

The thing about heterosis, Herrmann says, is that it works for everyone — the rancher, the feeder and the packer. Research bears this out. A project sponsored by the American Hereford Association and conducted at Circle A Ranch, a registered and commercial black and Red Angus operation at Iberia, MO, found black baldie calves weighed 11.9 lbs. more at weaning than straightbred calves and the baldy steers had about 13 lbs. more carcass weight and slightly larger ribeye area than straightbreds at harvest. The project used 600 straightbred cows randomly bred AI to Hereford bulls.

In addition, the heifers kept for replacement showed a 7% increase in conception rate over their straightbred herdmates. Taking everything into consideration, Vern Pierce, University of Missouri associate professor of agricultural economics, developed a model projecting the added value of the heterosis in the black baldies over straightbred cattle. He found a planned crossbreeding program would add $514 net over the life of the black baldy cow or approximately $51/year.

A project in California produced similar results. This project, also sponsored by the American Hereford Association, is being conducted by California State University-Chico with cooperation by Lacey Livestock of Paso Robles and Independence, CA, along with Harris Feeding Co. and Harris Ranch Beef of Coalinga, CA.

The project started with 400 straightbred cows and increased to 600 the second year, bred natural service under range conditions. After the second calf crop was harvested, the crossbred black baldy steers showed a $45/head advantage over straightbred steers.

While that's certainly nothing to sniff at, Mark Lacey says the crossbred females were the biggest payoff for them participating in the project. The first-calf baldy heifers showed a 7% advantage in conception rate compared with their straightbred herdmates. “It is allowing us to get some heterosis back in our cow herd,” Lacey says. “In the cattle business, fertility and longevity are what make us money.”

Tour Summary
Packer, Retailer Segments Examined

In addition to viewing the production side of the beef business, participants on the “Herefords, Heterosis and Headlines” tour this spring got an inside look at the packing and retail segments of the business.

National Beef, the nation's fourth-largest packer, is a very brand-oriented company, according to Mike Louderback, Certified Hereford Beef (CHB) business leader, and black baldies give the company lots of flexibility.

“We want to grow our branded efforts and we're trying to create excitement in the middle meats,” he says. Since branded programs are “made to order,” they look at their orders, then work backward through their supply chain to ensure their customers get the product they want. So while a black baldie will go to the Certified Hereford Beef program first, it can also fit into one of their many Angus programs as well.

Since National began its partnership with CHB, it has been certifying 200,000 head/year and producing about 30 million lbs. of beef. To qualify for CHB an animal must, in addition to its Hereford genetics, produce a carcass between 600 and 1,000 lbs. with Slight 0 to Modest 99 marbling and A maturity. The CHB program offers beef products in both USDA Choice and Select.

One retailer that has taken advantage of CHB product is Hen House Markets, a 29-store Kansas City area chain. Hen House has been selling CHB product for 10 years (CHB is now the only beef it sells in 12 of its stores). According to Jon Wissman, the chain's meat director, both the stores' butchers and its customers are satisfied. It's estimated that the CHB tonnage sold each year by the 12 Hen House stores that handle the product equates to about 20,000 cattle.