With more tools and technology available in our rapidly changing industry, we can easily miss the forest for the trees. So, let'sget back to the basics of beef production.

Cow's Job Description:

* Calve early (24 months), then annually (every 12 months) and live long (12 years or more).

* Give the optimum amount of milk for each calf to grow well and for the cow to rebreed every year in her environment.

Bull's Job Description:

* Start breeding cows at one year of age.

* Thrive and breed for at least five years.

* Supply traits that best complement the cows to produce the calf that best fits each producer's market.

Beef Producer's Job Description:

* Humanely and ecologically improve the efficiency of converting forage into healthy, nutritious and great-tasting beef.

Identifying The Target Now, beginning with the end in mind, let's identify the targets at which we need to aim our beef cattle production.

To discover the target that best fits the entire industry from conception to consumer, I surveyed producers in every production segment alliances, packers, retailers and consumers. I also reviewed research from the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center and major universities. The following target was the common denominator for fed steers and heifers - improved efficiency with superior eating quality (tender, flavorful and juicy). See Table 1.

Considering the strengths and weaknesses of each breed type, the target breed makeup that best hits this target for fed steers and heifers is: 1/2 English x 1/2 Continental with substitutions of minimal amounts of Bos indicus (i.e., Brahman) and/or tropically adapted non-indicus (Senepol, Bonsmara) genetics to help the cattle fit their production environments (raising, growing and finishing phases).

The ranges of acceptable levels to hit this target are:

1/4 to 3/4 English

1/4 to 1/2 Continental

1/4 or less Bos indicus

1/4 or less other

Now that we've identified the target, let's look at the rules we have to follow to get there.

Rule 1: Fit the cows to the environment. The cow is our factory. Money is lost every time a factory is not running at peak efficiency.

We have long been taught to use crossbred cows. Crossbred cows dominate because of their improved reproductive efficiency and longevity, which is the result of heterosis and breed complementarity. See "Cowboy Definitions."

Let's compare straight breeding and crossbreeding. Straight breeding (Angus x Angus) is like a checking account. What you put into it, you get out of it.

Crossbreeding, on the other hand, is like a savings account in that the practice provides added returns in the form of increased performance due to heterosis. The most dramatic increase in performance comes from improved reproductive efficiency, thereby improving the efficiency of our beef factory, the cow.

Remember, the key is making sure the cow can produce in the environment where she lives, both in terms of feed efficiency and suitability to environmental conditions. Crossbred cows out-produce purebred cows because of the benefits of heterosis and breed complementarity, which combined spell more pounds of calf weaned per animal unit.

To hit the target for fed cattle (defined above) and thrive in most environments, the cow can be made up of the following breed combinations: > or = 1/2 all English; < or = 1/2 Continental; < or = 1/2 Bos indicus; and < or = 1/2 other.

Once you've selected the cows that fit your environment and the market, you must select bulls and breeding systems that fit best. These "rules of cattle breeding" will be discussed in this column next month.

Donnell "Donald" Brown is co-owner and manager of the R.A. Brown Ranch, a family business since 1895. He and father Rob produce and market Angus, Red Angus, Simmental, SimAngus and Hotlander composite cattle, semen and embryos. The Browns are founders of the Rancher's Renaissance Alliance. For more information, write: R.A. Brown Ranch, Box 789, Throckmorton, TX 76483; 940/849-0611; www.RABrownRanch.com.

Heterosis (also known as hybrid vigor): Increased performance achieved through crossbreeding. Its most positive impacts are on reproduction traits and longevity. Improvement on growth rate and other traits is also significant.

Hybrid: An F1 (first generation cross) between two animals that are from different breeds - for example: an F1 Braford or F1 Black Baldy (Hereford x Angus).

Composite: Two hybrids of the same breed combination bred back to each other for 2nd, 3rd and successive generations - for example: Brangus, Hotlander and Stabilizer.

Straight Breeding or Pure Breeding: Continuing a purebred line of cattle - for example: Hereford x Hereford.