Keeping the right females is something every rancher struggles with, even when it does rain, says Ty Watkins. “However, in a drought year where you’re forced to make decisions within your cowherd that you wouldn’t otherwise make, you really want to be sure you’re keeping the most efficient, most productive cows possible.”

Then, when it does rain and you begin to rebuild, you can build from that base of efficiency and productivity to bring your cowherd back better and more profitable.

At least that’s Watkins’ plan. He and his wife Samann manage her family’s ranches in the Texas Panhandle near Childress and in West Texas around Kermit and Monahans. But the question now in a drought is the same as it’s always been: how do you know which cows need to be fired?

Ty & Samann WatkinsLike just about every other commercial cow-calf rancher who ever had to cull a cow, Ty and Samann (right) approach those decisions with all the information they can put together mixed with a healthy dose of gut feel. And while, by outward appearances at least, it looks like they’ve done an exceptional job of keeping the ranch’s legacy intact for great grass and better cows to graze it, they have always looked for more tools to put in their toolbox to better identify the best cows.

Now, they think they have it, and it’s all wrapped up in a drop of blood.

DNA and drought

At the urging of their bull supplier and neighbors, James Henderson and Mary Lou Bradley-Henderson with the Bradley 3 Ranch, the Watkins took blood samples last year when they worked their cows and calves. At the time, they hadn’t made the decision to spend the money on a DNA marker test, but were leaning that direction and collected the samples in case they did.

 

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They pulled the trigger this year; long-term, Ty says, it will be money well spent. “Drought really makes you look within your operation to be sure that the cows you’re keeping are as efficient as they can be.”

Historically, that effort, even in good years, has been based on a lot of assumptions supported by phenotypic data – reproductive performance, age, defects such as udders, eyes and feet, and some measure of average performance, such as pounds weaned per acre.

But culling on those criteria really doesn’t tell you which cows are making you money and which cows are losing you money, or whether you’re producing the kind of calf that will perform well enough to not only make a profit for the ranch, but for everyone else in the marketing chain.