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.

BEEF Video: BIF Commercial Cow-Calf Award Winners Use Genetics, EPDs To Improve Herd

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.