This new composite breed is tailor made for producers in the Northern Great Plains.

The Northern Great Plains (NGP) is the ideal spot for cattle ranching if you manage the land and the cattle to meet the special challenges there, says Pat Currie.

Land-wise, the former USDA researcher says that means managing the grass resource to prevent grazing too early and too heavy in the spring, as well as managing for drought and winter. On the cattle side, it means good foraging animals with a low incidence of calving difficulty, moderate calf birthweight and milk, rapid growth, moderate mature size, good temperament, sound feet and legs, and offspring that produce a high-quality, marketable carcass.

Exploiting Heterosis Unfortunately, Currie says, not all these traits are found in one cattle breed. Structured crossbreeding programs can be used to exploit heterosis (hybrid vigor) and heritable differences among breeds, he adds. But many operations are hindered by the number of breeding herds or source of female replacements needed to maintain the system.

Currie's answer was to develop a composite cattle breed he calls "Ranchstar" for use as a terminal cross sire. Composed of 50% Red Angus, 25% Charolais and 25% Tarentaise, Ranchstar is an acronym using three letters from each of those breed names.

"Ranchstar is an outgrowth of the CGC (crossbred genetic combinations) composite - utilizing the same three breeds - that was developed at the Ft. Keogh Agricultural Research Service (ARS) station in Miles City, MT," Currie says. He served there 11 years as a range scientist and research leader prior to leaving in 1989 to help Ken Harding set up and operate his 56,000-acre ranch - Harding Land & Cattle Co. (HLCC), now headquartered in Terry, MT. Currie retired earlier this year. His son Dan now manages the operation.

Currie says the three parent breeds were selected to optimize specific attributes necessary for efficient production on the Northern Great Plains. Red Angus (RAN) was selected for maternal characteristics and the consistent Angus carcass quality; Charolais (CHS) for its rate of growth, carcass merit and contribution to milk production; and Tarentaise (TAR) for its sustained milk production, range "toughness" and efficiency of overall production in a less than ideal environment.

Currie and Harding set up HLCC with the intent on scouring the available body of peer-reviewed research in rangeland management and cattle production, and putting what they could to practical application. That research emphasis is obvious throughout the operation. Its cornerstone, however, is the cattle breeding program under range conditions.

It was in 1989 that HLCC began assembling available surplus research animals from the Ft. Keogh CGC composite work. Through careful mating and selection, HLCC evolved those genetics into the Ranchstar composite. The composite, Currie says, has been developed upon specific merits that are genetically linked but are independent of the Ft. Keogh research.

Sires Are Only Half The Story Sires, however, provide only half the genetics necessary for producing high-quality beef. The cow side provides the other half and must also have a sound genetic foundation, Currie says.

"The black baldy has long been recognized and shown by research to be one of the most efficient beef-producing animals in the Northern Great Plains. It's the F1 generation or first cross of purebred Hereford and Angus which maximizes expression of heterosis," Currie says.

Therefore, HLCC selected a commercial cow herd composed of reputation F1 black baldy females to be the primary parent female stock. Mating of the Ranchstar sire to the black baldy female produced offspring with highly desirable attributes for both the producer and consumer, Currie says. Those offspring carry the attributes of:

* Efficiency of growth and production for Northern rangelands.

* High predictability and conformance of these production characteristics in nearly 100% of the calves.

* High carcass merit relative to industry standards.

The Ranchstar herd numbers 160 brood cows, 210 total animals. Thirty bulls are sold each year in November; 800-900 steers and heifers, the offspring of black baldy F1 crosses bred to Ranchstar bulls, are finished annually in the HLCC feeedlot in Terry, MT.

Specifically, Currie says, here are the benefits of the Ranchstar composite as a terminal sire:

* Produces offspring with an average birthweight of 88 lbs. Cows bred to these terminal sires have been easy calving and had thrifty offspring.

* Weaning weights average 499 lbs. for steers and 473 for heifers.

* Of 4,600 finished steers and heifers marketed marketed since 1991, more than 76% of steers have graded Choice with more than 96% achieving a yield grade of 1-3. In 1997, 94% of the steers were Prime and Choice with 98% falling in Yield Grade 1-3. Most of the calves were marketed within 15 months of age.

* The calves produced are vigorous and "quick starting" at birth, usually on their feet and nursing within 30 minutes, Currie says. This is an important trait for range calving in the Northern Great Plains where temperatures can still be sub-zero in April.

* Fertility is high, with breeding percentages consistently hitting 94-97% in range service under natural conditions.

"The bulls are aggressive breeders," Currie says. "Breeding pastures on the ranch measure 411/42 to 5 sections each. A 94-97 percent conception rate under those conditions is exceptionally good."

The commercial herd sires from the Ranchstar herd are selected on EPDs relative to the entire parent population, actual production records, within herd indexing, and visual appraisal, Currie says.

"Our total program evaluation shows that Ranchstar cattle can provide beef producers in the Northern Great Plains with a consistently superior genetic animal for cost-effective beef production in an extreme environment," Currie says.

More Discipline Is Needed Currie admits the development of composites is "growing like topsy." He believes widespread concerns regarding mongrelization of the U.S. cattle herd are valid.

"But mongrelization and designed crossbreeding programs are two different things. I'm afraid that, in a lot of cases, this industry is into mongrelization rather than putting genetic characteristics together to accomplish something," Currie says.

"We set out in 1978 to use the heritabilities and the heterosis in crossbreeding to accomplish certain goals. That's why the breeds were selected the way they were into this Ranchstar composite," he adds.

But the sire side is only part of the equation, Currie says.

"You must have a good female side to use a composite effectively," he says. "That means using F1s. Many people keep their own calves and raise a bunch of heifers. But as you begin breeding that animal back to its offspring, you immediately start losing heterosis and you lose it in substantial amounts.

"That cow doesn't have to be a black baldy, but it should be an F1 or another purebred in order to maximize heterosis," Currie says.

Selling On Performance Bill McKinney runs the six-generation, V-Bar-C Ranch in Birney, MT. He first tried Ranchstar terminal cross sires in 1993 on 100 of his 500 Red Angus/Hereford F1 cross cows. He says he saw a definite difference in the calves. He now uses Ranchstar bulls exclusively.

He was attracted to the Ranchstar composite, he says, by the indexes and frame. "We also wanted to take the guesswork out of our calves in the feedlot. We know the genetic potential and history of our females and we knew from the data on the Ranchstars that we'd get the performance we wanted."

McKinney says he foresees a day soon when calves will be marketed on feedlot performance history. It's already paid off for his operation, he adds. In bad markets, he says, he's been able to move his calves because the buyers knew the performance would be there.

"Our buyers have been very happy with carcass performance," McKinney says. One group of 200 steers fed out at HLCC's 2,000-head feedlot recorded 90% Yield Grade 1s and 2s and 98% Choice, he reports. "I think this type of breeding program is what will keep a lot of people in business," McKinney says, "especially with all the crossbred cattle out there."