by Sally Colby
Rich Brown says five generations on all sides of his family tree have been in some kind of livestock business, so it’s natural that he’d continue the tradition.
Brown’s involvement with beef cattle began at his parents’ farm in Antwerp, NY. “I was working off the farm,” he said. “My parents were no longer milking, and the pastures were growing up in brush. I decided it made sense to put beef cattle there.” Brown put five registered Angus heifers on the farm in 1995, and in 2000, moved to Port Byron, NY, to grow the herd.
As Brown started to build the genetic base for Equity Angus, he sought as much information as possible about the industry. “We used A.I. bulls and concentrated heavily on EPD information,” he said. “We used ultrasound, and became involved in the early stages of DNA testing.”
But the improvement program ramped up when Brown pulled a team together to determine where the industry was going and how to raise cattle that would best suit the needs of the industry. Brown and his team researched what restaurants and supermarket customers would want, what feedyards and packers would want, and the type of animals would make sense for future cow/calf operations.
“We have to double food production over the coming years, and we need animals that are efficient and that will yield and quality grade,” said Brown. “We concentrated on the heritable traits that would help us make the most progress for the cattle industry. We looked at all those entities, talked with a lot of people and put together an index that would allow us to make genetic progress that we think are the cattle of the future.”
Brown says there are tradeoffs when selecting for certain traits. For example, back fat and kidney fat increases when cattle are selected for marbling traits — which isn’t good for yield grades. Too much growth is also undesirable. “We don’t want large carcasses with large ribeyes,” said Brown. “Customers don’t want a 16 or 18 ounce steak any more.”
The 60 cows at Equity Angus are assigned to predetermined groups. The team searched a database of 5,000 Angus bulls to select a bull for each group. Using their own index, Brown and his team run the numbers for every potential calf that would result in that group before breeding starts. “We know what those calves will be before they’re conceived,” said Brown. “Every group has a definitive direction for the future.”
Brown says calving ease is important in the northeast because many beef producers work off the farm and may not be present when calves are born. “Calving ease direct is a better EPD to work with than just birth weight because it gives us an indication of how easily that calf will be born, regardless of what it weighs,” he said. “But a herd that continually concentrates on calving ease direct can end up with females that have narrow hooks and pins and potentially more difficult calving.” Brown says this can be avoided by breeding some of the mature animals to bulls that are ‘normal’.
Another important trait is rapid growth, but the goal is a 5.8 to 6.0 frame animal at maturity. “We also look for cattle that marble extremely well, have a medium size ribeye, and low back fat,” said Brown.
Equity Angus has been using their own indexing for about four years, and will continue to tweak the program. Now that the second and third generations are in the herd, Brown is seeing the traits he was looking for.
Several other northeast breeders are using Equity Angus bulls or semen so that Brown can continue to amass data on calves. “We’re working with breeders to market their feeder calves and collect data on those calves so we have genetics data,” he said. “We’re collecting carcass data, ultrasound, weights and other data.”
As herd genetics evolve, herd health is a top priority. Brown works with the New York State Cattle Herd Assurance Program (NYSCHAP), which involves local and state veterinarians who help develop cattle health programs. “NYSCHAP is another set of eyes,” said Brown. “We’ve been in the program for about 12 years and we’re in the top rating as far as maintaining a sanitary farm with healthy cattle.”
When it comes to working with cattle, Brown says there are two aspects to humane handling. “There’s no question that animals have to be handled to keep stress low,” he said. “The animal with less stress has better performance. Economically, we have to have animals that we can work with easily — that’s why one of the factors in our genetic index is docility.”
The other factor in cattle handling is the ‘people’ aspect, which Brown says is often ignored. “We talk about handling animals humanely, comfortably and to reduce stress,” he said, “but what about the person who’s trying to get something done without getting hurt? We’re working with a 1,400 to 2,000 pound animal, and they’re powerful. Calves can be as dangerous as larger animals because they’re fast.” Brown believes that maintaining proper handling facilities is critical to the safety of people on the farm and others such as A.I. technicians and veterinarians.
Brown has already seen that focusing on highly heritable economic traits is resulting in animals that are phenotypically correct. “It was a sidebar benefit that we hadn’t even discussed,” he said. “The cattle became more competitive in the show ring. It gave us confirmation that we were on target with the other work we selected for.” Equity Angus markets primarily bulls, semen and embryos, and will be holding an online sale this fall.
In addition to past service as president of the New York Angus Association and the New York State Beef Producers, Brown is currently serving as an advisor for the New York State Beef Industry Council. In 2012, Brown and his wife Marianne received the Beef Promoter of the Year award. The Browns welcome visitors, and often host chefs and nutritionists who are interested in learning about beef production.
For more information about Equity Angus, visit www.equityangus.com .
Raising cattle for the future, today
by Sally Colby