Sometimes, the cure costs more than the disease. Just ask well-intentioned commercial cow/calf producers struggling to find the optimum middle ground between production and marketing.

"We like simple solutions, but simple answers usually won't solve the problem," says Rick Bourdon, associate professor of animal breeding and genetics at Colorado State University.

He says the industry embraced frame size for a number of years. Others thought crossbreeding was the magic potion. Now, some chase marbling. Alone, however, none address the complexities of beef cattle production.

A Systems Approach Is Needed For producers trying to figure out if they have the genetics that can position them for the future, Bourdon recommends a systems approach. For instance, to identify the breeds and mating schemes that best fit their resources, Bourdon suggests producers take the commercial operation and break down the variables that impact it: cattle (genotype); physical environment (location, climate, etc.); resources and management (from feed to labor, including the mating system); and economics (prices and costs).

At this stage, he says producers should also know how their herd is producing today, using measures like pounds of calf weaned per cow exposed, and cost per pound produced.

"They really need to follow a couple of calf crops through to the rail. Without that, they don't have a basis for knowing whether they're on target or not," adds Jim Gosey, beef cattle specialist at the University of Nebraska.

"If you're looking at the breeding question, figure out the potential impact of interactions between genotype and the other categories - here's my baseline, my genotype and where I am today. Then, from a systems standpoint, if I tweak something, what happens?" says Bourdon.

As an example, he says when environmental stresses are low, high levels of milk production don't impact fertility much. Conversely, lofty milk levels can hammer fertility when environmental stress runs high. So, the perfect cow in one environment can be a wreck waiting to happen in another.

Likewise, Bourdon explains, you may have the perfect factory, but the wrong goal. "You may have a cowherd that doesn't seem productive, but if you turn it into a terminal sire herd, you might have the perfect female."

Herd goals should be the starting place, yet some producers operate without a destination in mind. In many cases, producers just need to do a better job of goal setting, says Patsy Houghton, manager of Heartland Cattle Co., McCook, NE.

Before Houghton's firm develops heifers for customers - some 4,000 each year - she helps producers figure out where they're at and where they want to go. "The first thing a commercial producer in today's world needs to figure out is whether they're positioned to be a maternal supplier or a terminal breeder," she says.

Or both. For instance, at Quinn Cow Co., near Pine Ridge, SD, Connee Quinn says, "We need replacement heifers to keep the herd, and we need acceptable feeder calves. You can't stumble with any of that."

Quinn and husband Reuben run several hundred commercial cows. They sell 70% of their calves at weaning, then typically retain ownership in a percentage of the remainder through the feedlot, after running them through their yearling grass enterprise.

In order to hit both ends of the production spectrum in their environment, the Quinns combine Simmental and Angus genetics. They believe in the power of heterosis, but also understand the challenges of planned crossbreeding.

"Our two-way rotational back-cross was causing some challenges. We liked it, but it required a lot of different breeding pastures, and a lot of sorting," says Quinn.

Maintaining steer performance (they typically wean at 600 lbs.) and suitable replacements were the goals when the Quinns sought to simplify management and reduce phenotypic variation several years ago. Today, they rely mostly on crossbred bulls to stabilize the herd at half Angus and half Simmental.

"The balance of all economically important traits is our goal. To achieve it in the most cost-effective manner, unit cost of production must be the overall driver in making decisions," says Quinn. They were able to identify a more efficient solution because they set goals for both the product and the system that would let them build it most efficiently.

How Critical Is Heterosis? Bourdon says a systems approach allows producers to account for the mating strategy at the same time they're identifying genetic interactions. For instance, one of the most obvious questions faced is whether or not to utilize heterosis in the cowherd.

Combine bull-of-the-month genetics without a plan, and you can wind up with a four-legged rainbow that goes begging in the marketplace. Paint the herd a single color, and you may sacrifice pounds and increase input costs.

Loren Berger of Berger's Red Angus and Simmental at Stapleton, NE, sees both sides of this coin through his customers. Weary of crossbreeding management challenges, and seeking market premiums, some customers went all black a few years ago.

Now he's hearing from several: "My weaning weights are declining more than the price premiums I'm getting can justify." And, "I'm having more open cows than ever before."

That's not a condemnation of any breed that offers black, red or any other color of cattle. It just underscores lost opportunities at the hands of heterosis. This particular dilemma highlights the many questions producers face as they assess their herds' ability to meet the demands of today and tomorrow.

"The hard thing is really knowing how these interactions work ... It's very easy to say, 'Take a systems approach.' But, it's difficult to do," Bourdon says.

Bourdon says he's learned that first-hand. He helped build the original models that became the Meat Animal Research Center's (MARC) Decision Evaluator for the Cattle Industry (DECI) software. The software allows producers to simulate different management scenarios and play a game of what-if with genetics and management.

While the software is available from MARC, Bourdon says producers can take an intuitive approach to simulation, much as he and other members of the Beef Improvement Federation did back in the 1980s (Table 1).

"We built a table of major factors in the environment and tried to determine the best genetic inputs, given those environmental factors," he says. While he won't place any wagers on the accuracy of the information in every situation, he says it's a sensible, logical approach to identifying genetic inputs.

Getting There Figuring out where you want to go is just half the battle. Next, you have to figure out how to get there, whether the journey is one of subtle genetic evolution or a 180-degree facelift. As always, it's a matter of time and money.

For the record, there are obvious economic advantages to a cowherd that exploits heterosis, within reason. The goal should be on hybrid vigor in the cowherd, but not at all costs, says Gosey. It's more important the cows fit their environment than getting 100% maximum hybrid vigor, he says.

Houghton suggests producers start by getting rid of the extremes in the cowherd - all those that add to variation and cost the program money.

Obviously, the quickest way to massive change is selling females and buying ones that fit new specifications. But, few producers can do that. By the same token, the cost of buying replacements for several years might surprise some producers.

"Even in larger herds, many people don't recognize the dollars they tie up in replacement heifers," Houghton says. "We talk about shrink at the feedlot level. There's huge shrink with heifers, too."

When Heartland first started developing heifers for customers, the pre-breeding cull rate was running 9%; now it's 5%. They're getting 90-91% conception rates ahead of industry average using synchronization and AI to breed for a 30- to 45-day calving season. That means there are still 10-12% that drop out, plus another 1-21/2% culled after breeding.

Bottom line, handling a heifer for almost two years gets expensive, Houghton says. She shares an example (Table 2) of performance factors that can save or cost money. And, that's before considering indirect returns such as opening up more grass at home for mature cows, and the subsequent re-breeding performance of first-calf heifers managed right on the front end.

"Just the difference in the percentage of calf crop weaned from heifers that are pelvic examined and sold bred to guaranteed calving ease bulls; just one or two more calves more than pays for the premium you have to pay to get those cattle," says Kerry Paul of Paul Angus Farms at Albany, MO. He's sent his own heifers to professional developers and purchased replacements from them carrying embryos from his program

A Cull And Buy System In fact, Paul devised a cull and buy system for customers looking to make a quick, complete genetic overhaul in their herds. In a nutshell: cull 10% of the herd the first two years, replacing them with bred heifers of the desired breed.

Paul points out that buying sexed heifer pregnancies speeds the process and sets the stage for building a herd with 1/2-and 3/4-blood sisters. The third year, 20% are culled, leaving room for the heifers from year one, while turning over another 10%. Using the same math, another 25% are culled in the fourth year, and 10% purchased. The final 35% is sent to town the fifth year.

For folks who need to build their own replacements within their own environment, and want to make the leap in one year, Gosey says he'd consider AI. Rather than use 10 bulls, Gosey says a producer might elect to use one or two proven AI bulls for two years to build a pool of females that will lead the program in its chosen direction.

"It costs about $30 per cow, including synchronization, semen and getting the conception," he says. That assumes semen at $15-16 per unit.

Of course, reality says most will evolve with the bull battery, be it purebreds, composites or hybrids.

No matter how a producer gets there, the product has to do more than fit the environment and work on the cost side of the ledger. "The reality is someone has to buy them. We need to have what the customer wants," says Quinn.