Today's cattle industry often turns to numbers — in the form of EPDs — to evaluate genetic potential of animals. But Rose Bud, AR, cattle specialist Gearld Fry believes observation of physical characteristics like hair coat, width of chest and rump, and testicle shape can yield equally meaningful information on an animal's genetic and reproductive abilities.

Fry has extensively studied the reproductive principles established by animal scientist Jan Bonsma, fertility expert James Drayson, and others who influenced the development of early cattle breeds. He also has more than 40 years of experience in cattle artificial insemination, embryo transfer, carcass ultrasound techniques and linear measuring of livestock.

As a result, he's developed a reputation for solving reproductive problems in cattle. Over the past 25 years, he's also run his own reproductive center and consulting business, and authored two books on the subject.

From those experiences, Fry says the common denominator in fertile, productive, efficient cattle is selecting animals — no matter the breed — proven to perform on grass.

Fry is the first to admit this selection emphasis is unorthodox for today's mainstream, grain-finished feedlot protocols. But he says, “Today's ‘grain genetics’ may excel in the feedlot, but those animals often don't do well on grass. Producers need to realize they have grass to sell and should aim to produce cattle that use forage more efficiently.”

That said, even if you have no intention of grass-finishing your cattle, placing selection emphasis on grass genetics may still be worthwhile for bringing economic efficiency to your herd. “Any animal that does well on grass will always do well on grain,” he adds.

As an example, consider that animals selected for grazing efficiency can graze longer — for less cost — and, as a result, require fewer days on grain in the feedlot.

“Grass animals are earlier maturing and may only need 80-90 days on grain, compared to the traditional 120 days for most animals,” Fry points out.

To that end, to identify forage-efficient, early maturing, fertile genetics, Fry offers these guidelines:

Begin with observation

Fry says his approach to cattle evaluation begins by trying to get people to really “see” their cattle. He says hair coat, body condition and body type speak volumes about an animal's fertility and health. Here are some indicators:

  • Hair and hooves

    Fry calls these items a window to an animal's health. A short hair coat with an oily sheen represents a healthy animal with a properly functioning gland system.

    Conversely, an animal that develops a shaggy hair coat, long hair on the top of the neck and shoulders, long hair on the udder, or a manure-caked tail — particularly at calving — should be cause for concern. He says these animals likely suffer from low glandular function, aren't healthy and won't produce calves with the desired performance.

    Additionally, he looks at the animal's hooves. How smooth they are or how distorted they've become is an indicator of glandular dysfunction and mineral deficiency.

  • Body condition and backfat

    Fry likes to see cows regain condition while suckling a calf when the grass is lush. He says, “If your cows need extra nutrition or the calf must be weaned to gain body condition, it's a sign of a fragile cow poorly adapted to grazing.”

    He also advocates females have 0.2-0.3 in. of backfat by one year of age, and bulls have 0.2 in.

    “This indicates the animal has the ability to utilize grass and forages,” he explains.

  • Shoulders, hip and rump

    Based on a linear measurement process dating back to the 15th century, Fry recommends selecting animals with wide shoulders and rump, and no taller than 50 in. at the hip — 47-48 in. is even better, he adds.

    “Tall cattle are later maturing. If an animal gets too big, it takes extra grass and/or grain to finish him. Shorter animals utilize feedstuffs more efficiently and reach maturity earlier,” he says.

    Meanwhile, a wide, deep chest and shoulders indicate a low-maintenance animal. The wide rump allows animals to have a large loin, the most valuable cut from the carcass, he says. A narrow or square rump can be cause for calving problems.

  • Masculinity and femininity

    Along with body type, Fry advocates extremely masculine bulls and very feminine females because these are direct signs of fertility.

A bull, by one year of age, should have masculine shoulders, a crested neck, and 38- to 40-cm. testicles. It's a sign they have enough testosterone, Fry says.

Additionally, he says coarse, curly hair about the bull's head, face and neck are signs of fertility, as is the shape of the testicles.

“Irregularly shaped testicles are correlated to low-quality semen counts from a bull,” Fry says. Ideal testicles should hang straight down side by side and be the same size and shape with no long hair on the scrotal sac.

In females, Fry says fertility is directly linked to the width and depth of the rump. A narrow rump is an absence of red meat and a higher maintenance.

“Without the wide, deep rump, fertility is low and will suffer with slow calving through the life of the cow,” he says. Cows don't need to be long bodied or long necked, but should be balanced from front to back and moderate in weight so she can perform efficiently on grass.

Fry also advocates keeping cows that have a calf every 12 months, calve in the first 21 days of the breeding period, are never sick or bothered by insects, and produce 55-65% (or more) of her body weight each year.

Making changes

After Gillette, WY, rancher, Glenn Barlow first heard Fry's list of selection criteria for grass genetics nearly two years ago, Barlow went home and could hardly find a cow in his 500-head commercial Angus herd that he liked.

“We've had Angus for 25 years, and you get pretty attached to your cows, but we still didn't feel they were performing in our environment,” says Barlow, who operates the ranch with his wife, Joy.

After visiting more with Fry, the Barlows decided to change their selection strategies.

“We have a few Angus cows we felt did what we wanted, but we wanted a whole herd,” he says.

The Barlows switched to Devon genetics to grass-finish their cattle. Their first crop of Angus-Devon was born in June 2004.

Barlow admits his switch is drastic. “We jumped off a cliff,” he says. But, he's already had a lot of interest in his grass-finished beef, and believes he now has the genetics that will perform and be profitable for his ranch.

Ranchers Joe and Shannon Fritz are also changing the genetics selected to sire calves in their 300-head black baldy herd near Beach, ND. Working with Fry, the Fritzes have used linear measurement to help select their Angus herd sires the last three years.

“This process has allowed us to analyze the bulls better, and it's helping moderate the size of the animals in our herd,” Joe says. He and his wife have ranched the rolling Badlands of western North Dakota since 1987.

“We're hoping to produce animals that will mature with less inputs. We want our cattle to be self-sufficient,” he says.

As one example, he says Fry taught him to look at an animal's shoulders as an indicator of doability.

“Cattle narrower through the heart girth typically have less stamina; it becomes very evident during our cold winters,” he says.

Joe recognizes changing his herd's genetics will take time. To speed the process, he's considering switching to other, more grass-efficient breeds such as the Devons Barlow is working with.

“We'll dabble in it some. I'm not breed focused. Our eventual goal is to be connected with a grass-finishing program, or provide genetics for it, so we need the kind of animals that can do that. We see grass finishing beef cattle as a more sustainable method,” he says.

Fry realizes not everyone will move toward grass genetics as enthusiastically as Barlow and Fritz, but he sees opportunity for those who do.

“The American consumer wants healthier food. We're already seeing some change take place in an increase in demand for grass-finished beef. It's not likely to be mainstream but, even as a niche market, it still provides producers a pretty good profit margin,” Fry says.

Fry also has advice for producers who intend to stay with mainstream breeds and conventional grain finishing.

“Within every herd of cattle, there's a set of animals that can produce gourmet beef. It takes no more knowledge to produce gourmet beef. Just recognizing those good cows and bulls could change the industry,” he says.

For more on Fry's selection philosophies visit www.bovineengineering.com.

Kindra Gordon is a Spearfish, SD-based freelance writer and a former BEEF managing editor.

Nutrition is critical, too

Along with genetics, Gearld Fry says mineral management plays a key role in enhancing an animal's reproductive soundness and health.

The utilization of well-balanced minerals can help control scours, pinkeye, foot rot, retained placentas and more, Fry says. In addition, cows stressed by winter, low-quality forage or sickness may require extra minerals for a period of time to reestablish health.

Additionally, Fry says the bioavailability of micronutrients like selenium and copper are low. As a result, it's not uncommon for animals to be deficient in these minerals, and producers to be unaware of the situation.

To combat such problems, Fry suggests paying attention to animal performance.

“Before treating a sick animal, ask yourself: ‘What caused the breakdown in the animal's immune system? Why is one particular animal sick or open when others aren't?’” he says.

Matching animals' nutrition needs to forage availability during the year should minimize most nutrition problems. Long-term problems that can't be fixed with grass or mineral management, however, are genetic problems that can only be corrected by culling the animal.

Fry's heifer fertility tips

  • Keep only heifers born in the first 21 days of the breeding cycle.

  • Keep only heifers that begin cycling by 8-10 months of age.

  • Keep only heifers with light birth weights.

  • Keep only heifers with wide rumps and a deep heart girth — signs of lower maintenance requirements.