I liken the breeding of cattle to fishing. It takes patience and the willingness to throw a line into depths that don't allow you to see what you've hooked or might hook.

For example, probably the biggest advancement the beef industry ever made was the introduction of artificial insemination, followed by expected progeny differences (EPDs), then ultrasound and now DNA markers.

Each can be powerful a tool. But, they all exist in the murky waters of chance. Which, if any of them, plays a major role in the profitability of a commercial cowherd?

I believe many seedstock producers have oversold all these tools to their customers. They've used them more as gimmicks to sell bulls rather than as real opportunities commercial producers can use to make immediate profit.

Start With Your Own Records

On the other hand, an amazingly valuable tool for commercial producers — one that you don't hear many seedstock producers talk about — is standardized performance analysis (SPA).

The SPA program, designed to compare production and financial records in the commercial operation, has opened at least as many doors to commercial profitability as genetics and genetic evaluation.

It tells us things about our genetics and our management that none of the more publicized and promoted technologies can.

For instance, in our own operation and across the SPA system, this analysis tool proves that pounds of calf weaned/cow exposed and cow feed costs comprise a primary profit center for any ranch that sells beef by the pound.

Table 1. Cow/calf profitability
25% most
profitable producers
25% least
profitable producers
lbs. weaned/cow exposed 462 437
cost of raised and purchased feed $38.46 $64.40
Source: Texas Agricultural Experiment and Extension Service, Stan Bevers, economist

In fact, across nine years and 93 herds (ranging from 36 head to almost 14,000) here in the Rolling Plains of Texas, the data says that producers in the upper quartile of profitability put $25.91 fewer dollars of raised and purchased feed into their cows (Table 1), yet wean calves an average of 25 lbs. heavier. Multiply these pounds by a conservative price of $95/cwt., and you're talking an extra $23.75/calf.

Add that to the savings in feed costs, and the producers in our region who are in the top 25% are returning $49.66 more/calf back to their operations, compared to those in the bottom 25%.

Plus, this economic advantage only considers fertility, calf survivability to weaning and the increased efficiency of transferring roughage into pounds of beef.

You won't find any of this information in a sire evaluation report, but I'll guarantee that your banker will understand the importance of an extra $49.66/head with or without an EPD.

Yes, genetics for growth can add to weaned pounds. EPDs can predict the odds of getting a live calf on the ground through calving ease. DNA can improve our future calf crops by determining accurate parentage in multi-sire pastures; perhaps in the future it can even tell us about other traits of economic value.

But, currently none of these technologies get directly at profitability. Where can we find an EPD for structural soundness, direct fertility, mothering ability, livability, natural fleshing ability, environmental adaptation or longevity?

Perhaps we will never have EPDs for economically relevant traits, as opposed to the predictor traits we evaluate today. And, this fact should remind us that for all of the promise of technology, we as cattle producers must still rely on our eye and our own records if we want to be profitable.

Fish For What You See

The bottom line is that breeding profitable cattle still depends on the eye of the master to select the cattle that fit his own unique operation, and his own accurate records to verify that. EPDs, DNA, ultrasound and other technologies may be helpful in solving the puzzle, but none of them are the solution.

If you dangle your fishing line into the unknowable depths of the semen tank, you might retrieve a good investment, or you could land a man-eating bull shark. Cast into the depths of genetic evaluation, DNA and all of the rest, you might snag what you want or you might not.

Drain the pond, however, get rid of all the shadows and reflections by dredging up accurate and objective records, and you can see the big fish of profit and how close or far away you are from catching them.

SPA does require investing some time, but the information it provides can turn an entire operation around. It's helping us and our customers thrive rather than merely survive. It can do the same for you.

The Bradley 3 Ranch at Memphis, TX, has raised “Ranch-Raised Angus Bulls for Ranchers” since 1956. In 1986, the Bradley family opened its own beef processing facility and began marketing its own branded beef products under the B3R Country Meats label.

The program currently includes producers in 17 states and retailers in 18 states. Minnie Lou runs the ranching operation, while daughter Mary Lou runs the beef business. For more information, call 806/888-1062, visit www.bradley3ranch.com or e-mail bradley3@srcaccess.net.