Pressure to produce for end-product traits is changing the way "smaller" ranchers are looking at their breeding management.

Traditionally, hobby ranches of 20-30 head of cattle have been a source of quality concern to the mainstream beef industry. The thinking was that these small operators worked against the industry's desires for uniformity and consistency in quality and performance.

In today's industry structure, however, even a 300-head outfit sometimes has trouble assembling enough sorted and sized feeder calves to gain much buyer attention.

The impetus is an ever-increasing demand for “program” beef a trend impacting the type of cattle ranchers are asked to breed. Smaller operations, lacking the economies of scale of larger operations, are caught in a pinch between breeding their herds for the necessary maternal traits or managing for end-product characteristics.

Darrell Brown, Artesia, NM, is among those frustrated ranchers. With a home place of about 150 head, and as manager of four other stand-alone operations, he's continually trying to put together enough “like” feeder calves to fill a potbelly trailer.

“It seems like you can't ever be big enough,” he laments. “We run in areas that are different geographically and all are tough on female cattle. Plus, they all require different maternal genetics. That makes it hard to commingle market calves from our places.”

No question life would be easier if a rancher didn't have to worry about managing his breeding programs for traits that can take cattle in different genetic directions, says Matt Cherni, rancher and veterinarian from Dayton, WY.

It's universally agreed that crossbreeding and the resulting productivity boost from heterosis is a prime factor in staying competitive. Therein, however, lies the rub.

“The question for ranchers with limited land and financial resources is where to put heterosis in the breeding herd or in terminal traits?” says Cherni. “It's almost impossible to serve those two masters.”

Jim Gosey, University of Nebraska beef specialist, believes confusion on breeding program direction is common among cattle producers, but it can be more frustrating for owners of smaller herds. Their problem comes in applying a traditional rotation or a rota-terminal crossbreeding program because the breeder ends up with too many groups of cattle.

Breeding alliances may permit the efficiency smaller ranchers need to manage their genetics. One alliance program is promoting the concept that all breeding heifers should be purchased from large ranching operations in preference to heifers originating on smaller units.

“Maintaining another herd to produce your own crossbred replacement heifers is most likely going to be difficult to justify for all but the largest operators,” explains Ryan Reuter, Admore, OK, livestock specialist for the Noble Foundation. “However, buying your replacement heifers is usually more economical than raising them anyway. So, that may not be a downside after all.”

This may be a great idea if a producer knows where to purchase good breeding females on a long-term basis. “But, finding a large ranching operation with your same management and breeding goals may be difficult,” says Cherni. A better choice may be to look for a neighboring ranch with 100-400 head to raise your replacements.

“These operations may be family-managed with a consistent pattern of heifer selection and bull purchases,” explains Cherni. “With all the attention directed at herd health issues, it may be wiser to purchase cattle from the same geographical location where the animals will live and produce.”

Other Breeding Programs

Putting replacement heifers in a development program for a few months prior to breeding is another option.

“This can optimize the number and type of calves produced,” Cherni adds. “Specific bulls with low to moderate calving difficulty, which still produce desirable carcasses, can be used by artificial insemination much more efficiently than by natural mating.”

The breeding battery also may be improved by purchasing bulls from seed-stock producers who want to regain control of the progeny. They can turn the cattle around and present feeders a package of calves with like genetic potential.

“The cooperation of a backgrounding feedyard near where the calves are born and raised may be necessary to make this program work,” suggests Cherni. “It can only work, however, if producers are willing to identify their calves and add them to larger potload groups.” This system may improve the consistency of the lots being offered to finishing feedyards.

The problem posed by opposite, often antagonistic traits can be solved with a composite as opposed to a single, straightbred herd. This is particularly true when the composite is a blend of maternal and terminal types (i.e., British and Continental), Gosey says. “A carefully chosen composite is a one-pasture system of crossbreeding,” he says.

Using a composite breed allows a producer to have the simplicity of a straight breeding system and retain some heterosis, Reuter points out.

He offers a warning, though: “Maternal heterosis is not an excuse to mongrelize your herd. Heterosis is most effective in a planned breeding system that uses top-quality base genetics.”

Gosey says some people have gotten into trouble by operating with the assumption that a composite is just another crossbred. “The absolute key to composites depends on who put them together and the planning that went into the composite,” he says.

The composite has to fit the environment, management and marketing scheme of the breeder the same as straightbred cattle.

Gosey says a general-purpose composite may not have the lean-meat yield of some terminal sired calves (i.e., Charolais-sired) or the intense maternal traits and low maintenance of some breeds (i.e., Tarantaise, Red Poll, some Angus, etc.).

“But, a carefully constructed British X Continental can come a lot closer to hitting most of the targets for reproduction, production and end-product than any straightbred I'm aware of,” he explains.

For a wide array of situations, Gosey likes ¾ British X ¼ Continental. “My first choice is Angus X Simmental. But, it could easily be Angus X Charolais, if Charolais had a better carcass database.”

He says for certain harsh environments, a British X British composite makes more sense due to the greater need for ability to store fat, moderate milk production and emphasize reproduction.

“I don't think a straightbred commercial herd, however, is the best solution,” he says. “However, there are many commercial breeders that will continue to choose that route.”

The idea that there is inherently more variation in crossbreds or composites than in straightbreds is a myth, says Gosey.

“The U.S. Meat Animal Research Center's research analyzing several composite breeds and their nine straightbred parental breeds show no greater coefficient of variation,” he says.

Within-Breed Terminals

The within-breed terminal angle is widely touted by many Angus breeders, says Gosey, “largely because they are realizing the tremendous variation within the large population that Angus has become.”

However, it's a stretch to pretend that a commercial breeder can change retail product yield with an Angus terminal bull on his Angus maternal cows similar to what a Charolais bull could do.

“Many commercial herds have stacked black bull on top of black bull and have become high percentage Angus herds herds which have lost heterosis and have also lost retail product yield, muscle and pay weight,” explains Gosey.

“If the intended marketing scheme is to continue selling calves in the local auction market, then things like perceived uniformity (black color) will probably be important,” he adds. “But for those who want to be in the meat business, I think a different route will be taken.”

Brown is considering any and all suggestions he can find. For now, he's looking to work with neighboring ranchers to commingle production so they can sell and ship together.

“We'd need to synchronize our breeding seasons, genetics and management, though,” he says.

He also sees the advantages of buying his replacement heifers. “I can see where it would work if you have a say in how they are bred and developed.”

Brown knows the cow business is changing, and smaller ranchers need to keep up with the trends, find a niche or get swept away by the big boys.

“A guy is just going to have to find his place in this business and do best with what he has,” says Brown. “I know I have to make some changes it's just a matter of deciding which way to go.”