When it rains, this country is the Garden of Eden.” And when it doesn’t? Well…

Wayne Cockrell should know. In his 12 years as manager of the Carter Ranch near Oakwood, TX, halfway between Dallas and Houston, he’s seen the Trinity River bottomland at its very best and its very worst – all within 24 months.

In 2009 and 2010, “the ranch had its weddin’ clothes on,” as they say in those parts. Ample rain left the commercial cow-calf operation awash in green grass and fat, sleek calves.

Then came 2011 and a veil of austerity fell across the land. “It was the driest year on record,” Cockrell says.

Normally, the area averages 38-40 in. of precipitation annually. The ranch ended 2011 at around 21 in. total.

In some parts of Texas, that’s a lot; for the Carter Ranch, that’s a wreck. “I’ve got a guy who works for me, been here 42 years,” Cockrell says. Wayne Cockrell“And another employee, his grandfather was on the ranch back in the ’40s and ’50s. Both say it’s never been this dry in this part of the world.”

Typically, when times get tough, breed-up is one of the first things to suffer. But thanks to tight management and technology, Cockrell not only didn’t lose any ground but his first- and second-calf heifers held the line in reproductive efficiency.

Genomics at work

In an effort to speed up his genetic progress, particularly for carcass traits, Cockrell began incorporating DNA marker tests into his selection decision for replacement heifers three years ago. The first set of 230 Brangus heifers he selected using genomic information will have their third calf in 2012.

For their first set of calves, born in 2010, he got about a 95% breed-up, using Angus bulls in a 90-day breeding season. That was about average, he says.

“Then, in 2010, the rebreed on those same heifers after they had a calf was 100%,” he says. That was a pleasant surprise, he says, but they had a good year with plenty of rain and lots of grass.

Then came 2011 and everything changed. The operation received several rains last spring, which put a patina of green on the landscape. But the water valve was shut tight and the Carter Ranch suffered through a hot, dry summer unlike any it had ever seen. Still, Cockrell says, the operation recorded a 98% breed-up on that original set of heifers selected using DNA marker results for fertility as well as carcass traits.

And it’s not because they have it easy. “They did it under pretty tough conditions, no special care other than just the proper supplementation, which is important. You can’t ask a cow to perform miracles.”

Rebreeding early

Calving season for the mature cows begins in January and runs through early April. “We’re going to wean those heifers in May and turn bulls back in on them in January,” he says. “So we’re breeding those first-calf heifers at anywhere from 10-12 months old.”

Those heifers are calving from October to the first of January the following year, and they mother their calf for up to seven months, until weaning time in May. “So, by the time they’re two years of age, they will have a calf and have to rebreed.”

With that kind of selection pressure, reproductive efficiency is a big part of the genetic package that Cockrell’s replacement heifers bring to the herd. But he wanted to do more, particularly with carcass traits.

“We weren’t making progress by just selecting the bulls. I felt we needed to do some selection on the replacement side as far as marbling,” he says.

While that’s a desirable goal, Cockrell is fully aware that what makes a ranch money is a female that rebreeds on time and weans a hefty calf. And he’s also fully aware of the genetic antagonisms that exist between reproductive traits and growth and carcass traits.

“So I guess you could say I wanted to make some progress on the carcass side in the cowherd, but I didn’t want to give up the things that have a direct payback to us,” he adds.

So, with that mindset firmly in place, Cockrell began DNA testing his heifers. Based on what he’s seen, he’ll continue the program, he says. Heifers from his 2011 calf crop will be the third set of replacements to be selected based on their DNA profile. He’ll test every heifer that’s a candidate for the cowherd and lets the DNA marker test results drive his selection decisions.

“We get the DNA numbers back and we sort through what we want to keep, then pick phenotypically for bigger-boned, more feminine-looking heifers.”

However, when he shifted his selection criteria to the DNA marker tests, he also had to shift his approach. With the marker tests driving the selection decision, outside of structural soundness and capacity, what the heifer looks like is less important.

“If a man was smart, he wouldn’t care what the cow looks like. The DNA is the DNA; you have to retrain your way of thinking.”

Cockrell enjoys looking at heifers as much as anyone. “I think there’s a lot to selection. But you can’t correlate that to the carcass side, average daily gain, feed efficiency, those things that pay. Phenotypically picking them, we weren’t making any progress.”

In addition to using DNA marker tests on his commercial replacement heifers, Cockrell also tested his bull battery. “I wanted to see where my bull herd was and match the strengths of the bulls with the weaknesses of the cows,” he explains.

He knew which herds the heifers he had DNA tested were coming out of, and that gave him some idea as to the genetic strengths and weaknesses of their dams. Using that as a compass point, he looked at the marker-test results on his bull battery and targeted the genetics of the bulls to the genetics of each set of cows.

While three years is too soon to fully evaluate the plusses and minuses of any management change, Cockrell is pleased with his progress. In addition to a great breed-up in a tough year, he says the calves from the heifers selected using a DNA profile are performing well.

Sealing the sale

Part of the first set of calves born to his “DNA dams” sold to a small, local retail meat company in Houston. “I was able to sell those calves to him based on the DNA numbers,” Cockrell says. And not just the heifers. The fact that Cockrell had DNA data on the bulls, as well as the heifers, helped seal the deal.

“What was neat about it was, he was interested in tenderness. I didn’t select on tenderness per se when we profiled the heifers, but I put a threshold” on the tenderness score, culling anything below average. He also had tenderness profiles on the bulls, many of which scored near the top. “That added value to the calves and I was able to pay for the DNA profile by selling those calves.”

The calves that didn’t go into that value-added, direct-marketing opportunity were sold on a video sale, and topped that day’s sale. Cockrell thinks having the genomic data on both the dams and sires helped bring the extra money. And he anticipates it will help bring extra money in the future as the cattle build a reputation for themselves.

Any time you change management strategies, particularly when it adds cost, you have to look carefully at the bottom line, Cockrell says. While DNA profiles for commercial heifers are less expensive now, each test cost $38 when he started.

“I looked at it this way. Let’s say I’m sitting at a special sale and have two groups of heifers that come in. If I know the genetic information of one group – reproduction, feed efficiency, gradeability, average daily gain, docility, etc. – would I give $38/head more for those? Absolutely.”