Current wisdom holds that the best feedlot steer has a pure lineage that can be traced back to the British Isles. At the very least, their ancestors must have originated on the European Continent.
But Sam Hands of Triangle H Feedyard, Garden City, KS, doesn't hold to that philosophy. In his opinion, the best feedlot steer is one that comes from a good commercial manager.
In other words, a Brahman-influenced steer from a well-managed program can perform just as well as a straight Angus.
"If those cattle have performance genetics, their efficiency and gain will be commendable and their carcass traits will be highly acceptable as well," Hands says.
He should know. In the last two years, he's fed several pens of F-1 Brahman-cross calves, including Brahman X Angus steers produced by Angus breeder Arthur Corte of Corte Land & Cattle Co., Fairhope, AL. Even in blizzards, the F-1s consistently have performed as well as English or Continental breeds at Triangle H. As an example, a May 14 pen of F-1s owned by Corte produced 73.3% Prime or Choice carcasses, with 51.1% Yield Grade 1s and 2s. On the rail, they brought $3.58 over market price.
Those kinds of performance have been no surprise to Hands or to the calves' owner.
"Our F-1s feed just as well as straight Angus," Corte says. "Side by side in the same environment they perform equally."
The Breed Debate Continues As beef cattle organizations continue to debate the merits of one breed over another, cattlemen like Corte and feeders like Hands are busy producing America's high quality beef. To them, the debate is curious. The secret, as Hands points out, isn't as much breed as it is expertise.
"If the animal comes from a good health program and good genetics, then it will perform well," Hands says.
Jim Sanders, an animal scientist at Texas A&M University, takes it one step further. He says good management is important but good cattle are as well.
"Recent research we've conducted with steers from 15 Bos indicus bulls crossed with Hereford and Angus cows has shown two things," Sanders says. "There is some difference among Brahman bulls. But more importantly is that when these steers were fed under conventional management, they did very well."
Yet Brahman crosses in today's marketing environment are often docked. In branded programs and alliances, they're often excluded. This is despite the fact that Bos indicus influence is essential for many producers to run cattle in hot, humid areas.
In Sanders' opinion, after completing the research, it would be unjustified to continue to blacklist Brahman-influenced cattle based on the current wisdom that an English animal is a supreme beef-producing machine.
At the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station at McGregor, Sanders and David Lunt evaluated 208 non-implanted F-1 steers over three years beginning in 1995. The Brahman sires in the study represented all major breed bloodlines.
At 14 months of age, the calves were slaughtered at Sam Kane Beef Processors, Inc., at Corpus Christi, TX. After the carcasses were electrically stimulated, graded and inspected, the results showed:
Sanders and other meat scientists also measured the tenderness of the F-1 calves' ribeyes with a Warner Bratzler Shear Force device after 14 days of aging. The results showed an average shear force of 6.45 lbs. Of the 208 steers, only five steers measured over 10 lbs.
"Eight pounds or less shear force is good enough for the best restaurants," Sanders says. "The point is that 98 percent of the F-1 cattle tested were very acceptable on tenderness."
To compare with straight Angus, Sanders and Lunt evaluated 31 Angus and 31 of the 208 F-1 steers in 1997. The comparison was striking.
Even in tenderness, the F-1s compared favorably to straight Angus. The average Angus shear force was 5.42 lbs.; the average F-1 shear force was 6.22 lbs. Three F-1s scored a tenderness score over 9, but one Angus carcass measured a marginal 8.7. On the other hand, one F-1 also measured an exceptional tenderness score of 3.87.
Even those feeders who advocate Bos indicus blood often advise no more than 11/44 Brahman in feeder calves. But, Sanders says his F-1 data compares favorably with previous research on 11/44 bloods.
"The critical thing in the research is that when Bos indicus are evaluated compared to British breeds, 11/44 Bos indicus kill just as good as the Angus and Hereford do," Sanders says. "But, this research shows that halfbloods are highly acceptable, too."
Acceptability Plays A Role That acceptability is something that Alabama cattleman Arthur Corte has long benefited from. His family has been a leading breeder of registered Angus cattle for more than 75 years. But 30 years ago, he introduced Brahman bulls to generate hybrid vigor in his terminal cross. He hasn't stopped since.
"In our commercial herd we use only Brahman bulls on our Angus cows," Corte says. "We pay particular attention to low birthweights. Our average mama cow is 1,100-1,150 lbs. This is adequate to cross on a Brahman bull to produce a 1,100-1,150 lb. F-1 calf."
Gentleness too is one of Corte's major concerns. He wants cattle that focus more on grazing than on combativeness. And, as an Angus breeder, he's well aware of the current buyer preference for black-hided cattle. He sticks with light gray Brahman bulls rather than the ones with red pigment that might dilute the Brangus-type color of his F-1s. His commercial calves are 99% all black. Many of them qualify for the Certified Angus Beef program, which enrolls just one of every six carcasses identified for the program even out of straight Angus pens.
But the most important factor, Corte says, is to find the right Brahman genetics to match with his Angus cows' background.
"We think we're in the business of producing a superior F-1 animal," Corte says. "Our Angus herd is considered above average among Angus herds. And, we want the same kind of Brahman bull to put on them."
Since the 1970s, Corte has bought his Brahman bulls exclusively from J.D. Hudgins at Hungerford, TX.
Retained Ownership Paid Off Prior to 1991, Corte sold all his commercial calves at weaning. As he became increasingly frustrated at the price discrimination against his Brahman-cross calves, he decided to retain ownership.
"We were selling a larger F-1 calf than we could by using straight Angus," Corte says. "Then, we realized we were being docked for them, and we didn't think we should have been."
Corte began feeding his F-1 steer calves in 1991 (his females are all sold at weaning to ranchers in Alabama, Florida, Mississippi and Texas for crossing on a variety of Continental breed bulls). He felt so confident in his calves' carcass performance that he has retained anywhere from half to full ownership of each pen. In recent years, the calves have been fed either at Hands' Triangle H Feedyard in Kansas or at Cattle Town Inc. at Hereford, TX.
"These F-1 calves have performed well in any feedyard," Corte says. "They're way above average in percent of Choice, average daily gain and conversion."
Few Management Changes Hands has never hesitated taking the F-1s in any season despite the Brahman breed's reputation for being a hot weather animal. He remembers one of Corte's shipments that came in last winter right before a blizzard.
"It was tough on them," Hands says. "But, we had cattle that came at the same time from north of us, and it was just as tough on them. These (Corte's) cattle are managed well and have good genetics. They perform better than similar appearing cattle in feedlot performance and on the rail as well."
Hands, who says he runs a conservative yard, makes few management alterations for the F-1s. The ration is a little less hot than he would feed to Bos taurus cattle. "We don't push them to that fine line we do with British and Continental cattle," he says. But in days on feed and average daily gain, he says the F-1s perform fairly comparable.
Corte is looking for ways to make the comparison even more equal. This winter he began artificially inseminating his commercial Angus cows to Brahman bulls. His goal is to narrow his calving season to produce more uniform calves as well as cut down on the number of bulls he has to maintain.
"We AI'd 100 cows this spring," Corte says. "I'm anxious to see the results."
It may not be current wisdom to use Brahman semen, but Corte has years of results on his side. He has the favorable opinions of his feedyard operators. And, he has the research from Texas A&M to bolster his opinion.
"We have premium animals on both the dam and the sire side," Corte says. "That gives us a superior steer. We feel our steers can compete with any of them out there. Time has proven that to be true, and there is no basis for docking these calves."