Different environments, same challenges. That’s a recurring theme with four of this year’s nominees for the Beef Improvement Federation (BIF) Commercial Producer of the Year Award. From the subtropical heat of central Florida to the high deserts of Montana and California, the basic profit drivers for commercial cow-calf producers don’t change. Thing is, the four cattlemen wonder, is the seedstock segment paying attention?

“Our breeding program is really focused around a maternal composite,” says John Maddux with Maddux Cattle Company of Wauneta, NE, this year’s BIF Commercial Producer of the Year Award winner. “We stress maternal traits and making sure we’re focused on fitness and convenience traits as opposed to the traditional production traits that are represented by EPDs.”

To that end, they stress a low-input, low-labor type of cow that has a good udder, breeds back every year, calves easily, and is docile. They run 2,000-2,500 cows and keep the calves until they’re yearlings.

“For most breeds out there, we have more-than-optimum levels of production,” he says. That means having a high-growth calf is relatively unimportant to them, he says, because it’s relatively easy with moderate growth to make a nine-weight steer at 16 or 17 months of age.

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As for a commercial cow-calf producer, the most economically important trait is fertility. “The only way to make a big genetic change is by crossbreeding,” Maddux says. “We just need to keep focused on that most important economic trait and try to attack it by making sure we generate females that have a high level of hybrid vigor and, subsequently, a high level of fertility.”

Ditto, says George Kempfer with Kempfer Cattle Company in St. Cloud, FL. “Being from Florida, in a sub-tropical climate, we can certainly grow a lot of grass,” he says. “We don’t grow much feed in Florida, so we have to rely on cattle that can perform and get things done on grass. So the reproductive efficiency in a cow that can maintain herself with very little supplement and a weak, low-quality forage is important to us.”

The operation runs around 2,500 mother cows on 25,000 acres. Given those conditions, he needs cattle that won’t try to keep growing, “that will moderate out and raise a calf every year and do it without a lot of supplementation.”

Ditto again, says Todd Swickard with Five Dot Land and Cattle Co. in Standish, CA. He runs about 5,000 cows on around 750,000 acres of high desert in Northern California, much of it public land under the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service. Most of their calves are carried through into a branded beef program the ranch operates, selling beef to white-tablecloth restaurants and high-end grocery stores in the San Francisco Bay area.

So, in addition to running cows in big pastures on rough country, he’s selecting for carcass traits as well. “It’s a balance,” he says, “trying to take care of all the traits all the way through and not get anything pushed too far out of whack where it takes a whole bunch of expenses in the production cycle.”

So he’s looking for cattle that fit the country. “They’re not going to be as high performance as the direction most of the industry is headed,” he says. “We’re just trying to minimize our costs and still provide an economical product for our consumers.”

“This,” says James Palmer with Matador Cattle Company, Eureka, KS, “is going to be a broken record. If you’re going to be in the cow-calf business, your focus is going to be on profitability and that’s going to be driven by animals that can produce in their environment.”

Matador Cattle Company operates three ranches in three different environments – the Rolling Plains of Texas, the Flint Hills of Kansas, and the high desert and mountains of southern Montana. They run around 10,000 cows on about 400,000 acres. “Genetic improvement is an animal that’s efficient in each of those environments,” he says.

But, he adds, you have to be careful how you define efficiency. They experimented recently with breeding for a smaller cow size, thinking that would improve cow efficiency. “We did make the cows smaller, but we didn’t save enough dollars in feed costs to offset (lower) weaning weights or sale weights.”

So, while the most efficient cow size will differ depending on the environmental constraints you run in, all four say a moderate cow size is something to shoot for. “It may not be for everybody, but for our program, we want moderate size, a 1,200-lb. cow max,” Maddux says.

Here a bull, there a bull

However, in a genetic world that’s pushing the highly heritable production traits of milk production, weaning weight, yearling weight and carcass traits, finding the right genetic package is difficult.

“Probably the biggest challenge is finding the type of bulls that match what we’re trying to do,” Swickard says. “There’s so much emphasis in the seedstock industry in pushing higher numbers, pushing cattle real hard trying to get high EPDs.”

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However, he says that seedstock producers are simply responding to market signals. “There’s certainly a large segment of buyers out there, that’s what they’re looking for,” he says. “But a lot of times, those cattle don’t work in our real rough system.”

As a result, Swickard looks internally. “We’re doing a lot of artificial insemination work, trying to choose our genetics, and we’re doing some embryo transfer on some of our own cattle and then raising them the way we want them raised,” he says. “So we’re trying to work on our genetics more internally rather than go outside to a sale.”

Kempfer agrees. While the ranch is primarily a commercial cow-calf outfit, they also raise replacement females, have a purebred Brahman herd and often retain ownership in their calves through a feedyard.

“Finding the right genetic package is difficult,” he says, because you’re trying to make a stew out of traits that can be antagonistic. “We’ve got to have a female that will work and have positive carcass traits to go with it,” he says. “You’ve got to have cattle that marble right and grid well, but they’re not the right kind of cattle that fit what you’re trying to do at home as far as the frame size of the cow or the body type of the cow.”

While that’s a challenge they fight continually, he says those types of bulls are out there. They’re just hard to see from the highway. “If you get out there and really look, in most cases, they’re out there. They’re just a little bit harder to find.” To that end, Kempfer recommends that cow-calf producers develop a close relationship with their seedstock supplier.

And he says the high-growth, high-performance bulls fit well in a terminal breeding program, something that seedstock producers should be commended for.

The key, Palmer says, is to have a plan for what you want to accomplish genetically and make sure it’s workable. “For commercial producers, if you’re going to make genetic change, know what you’re going to change. You really have to have a map of what you’re going to do,” he says.

But, Palmer adds, the important traits remain. “The first and most important thing you need to do is have a live calf,” he says. “And then some of the things we don’t have EPDs for, such as mothering ability, longevity, those kind of things. Then you can get into production traits.”

Swickard concurs. “The most important traits in our operation are moderation and economic survivability in the environment that we have. And I haven’t found an EPD that measures that.”