The 1990s have been a time when our industry has been looking for the "silver bullet" to cure all that ails us. And, programs are starting to add value to our product by paying us "what they are worth."

One question worth asking is "worth to whom?" Who actually does and who should establish the true value of the product we produce? For the cattle producer, establishing and receiving a true consumer-driven value will prove to be the challenge for the coming decade.

The rise of grid and formula programs has paid added value over the current market. How much value was actually added to the calf at the time it left the ranch is hard to say, and it can be debated whether it has added anything at all.

The fact is we must still be consistent in our attempt to lower production costs while increasing the demand for and value of the finished product. Weighing input costs vs. any premiums received is key in establishing whether or not we have met the target and/or were cost effective in doing so.

There are a great many antagonisms within our industry. Attempting to produce carcass animals that are highly desirable under our current system can sometimes lead to lower fertility, higher maintenance requirements and lower milk production in cowherds where females are retained as replacements.

All this lowers the productivity and, more importantly, profitability of the cowherd. In meeting certain targets with our cowherds, it's important we do not actually decrease our profitability.

The formation of a composite breeding herd program at Schroeder Cattle Co., began in 1978. The goal was to use the best in scientific research, genetic selection and breeding. The aim was to develop highly fertile animals that would gain quickly and efficiently, and produce desirable carcasses at a low cost of production.

Breeds with the desired composite characteristics were defined, and individuals within those breeds were chosen to meet these goals. Discipline had to be strict to avoid selection of outlying individuals that would not allow us to meet our goals.

The formation of a four-breed composite allowed us to utilize heterosis from generation to generation and become more efficient. We obtained our market target of producing carcasses within the top parameters of the industry by blending breeds known to produce such traits. Our composite allowed us to produce a desirable product for all areas of the production chain, faster and at a lower cost than more traditional programs.

To date, progeny from our composite program have been tested in all areas from conception to the rail. Replacement females are selected from within the gene pool while steer mates are tested for carcass traits.

Due to heterosis, the composite has proven to produce females with excellent fertility and longevity. Less maintenance is required for these females to obtain a level of production above that of their non-composite counterparts.

Steer mates are fed to finish and their carcass and feedlot performance evaluated. Over the past 12years, the steers have averaged 74% Choice and 79% Yield Grade 2 or better, slaughtered at 12-14 months of age.

It's essential to not give up cowherd productivity to single-trait selection for carcass traits that may have little payback to offset added production and maintenance costs within the cowherd. We feel that desirable carcasses can be obtained from cost-efficient cows with a properly planned and developed breeding program. The key is knowing your costs of production and the most efficient means of reaching your objective.

Composite cattle will continue to be used more extensively in progressive programs. A silver bullet? Probably not. But, certainly it's an option that many producers will look at to load their gun in the future.

As cattlemen design breeding programs, the resulting level of heterosis becomes a primary objective. But, how much heterosis do we need?

I think it's really quite simple. Plan your breeding program to capture as much hybrid vigor as you can, while considering the economic implications of those decisions. In other words, I can design a complicated breeding system that results in consistently high levels of heterosis. But ask yourself the following questions:

* Are the animals marketable?

* How does it impact my grazing system?

* What about labor resources?

* How many breeding pastures?

* How many seedstock sources do I need to identify?

* How much labor is required to manage the system?

* Is my herd large enough to manage a rotational cross or terminal system?

* Do I want to raise or purchase replacements?

As a student, I learned a variety of complex crossbreeding systems that allowed producers to capture heterosis as well as take advantage of breed complementarity. Yet, as I travel through the U.S., I rarely see them implemented. More typically, you see the "Heinz 57" herds - I call them members of the "breed of the month club."

But complicated breeding programs are extremely difficult to implement. Simplicity is essential, especially in range country or with small herds.

I became interested in using composites as an alternative to complicated crossbreeding systems primarily because of their ability to fit into a controlled grazing system with minimal labor, coupled with breed complementarity. Composites fit the "low input" philosophy that I think is essential to profitability in the cow/calf sector.

The level of heterosis achieved with composites is not as high as the traditional planned crossbreeding system, however, the tradeoff must be predicated on solid economic planning.

Chasing a high level of heterosis as a single goal is not advisable. It makes no more sense than single-trait selection for any trait. Optimal levels of heterosis are dictated by management, labor, natural resources and marketability of the end product.