Seedstock producers are important. But so are the commercial cattle breeders who are the bread and butter of the cattle industry and rely on seedstock producers for adding profit-making genetic traits.
Shane Bedwell, COO and director of beef improvement for the American Hereford Association (AHA) spoke recently at a field day held at Deer Track Farm in Spotsylvania, VA. Bedwell’s commercial cow-calf operation includes three breeds in rotation — Hereford, Angus and Red Angus — so he’s familiar with the value of hybrid vigor, or heterosis.
Bedwell says producers are realizing the opportunity to use Hereford bulls on black or red cows to capture the value of heterosis, a trend that started in the 1960s. But in order to fully capitalize on that advantage, the purebred side must be the very best.
Bedwell works with the association’s genetic evaluation, the EPD program and the young sire program. “We develop tools that we can pass on to seedstock producers to make them profitable,” he said, “then hopefully in return, make commercial producers profitable.”
The breed association’s number one goal is to protect the interest of the membership. “The lifeblood of any breed association is taking care of the pedigrees,” said Bedwell. “We track and record pedigrees and work with members to get those as accurate as we can. In return, that protects those who purchase seedstock cattle. That now involves DNA and sire verification.”
Another important breed association goal is to deliver the most cutting-edge tools. For the AHA, this aspect began with performance recording — producers weighing calves and submitting that information. “Then we developed EPDs, and that evolved over time to the EPDs we use today,” said Bedwell. “It seems like the association keeps coming up with so many EPDs and tools that it’s sometimes confusing, but we’re developing traits because they have economic importance. It’s our job to work with membership to educate the best we can and pass that information down to commercial producers.”
The third goal of the AHA is to remain relevant. “We can’t produce a set of cattle that are non-functional and take the breed in a direction that can’t survive in the commercial world and can’t make a profit in the feedlot or on the rail,” said Bedwell. “We stay relevant through working with our breeders, developing new traits and doing research.”
Bedwell says that the Hereford breed’s National Reference Sire Program, which started in 1999, is the oldest young sire testing program. Through the program, breeders nominate young bulls, then those young bulls are collected and semen is distributed to commercial operations. “Each bull that’s nominated is bred to 60 cows,” he said. “We track information from birth all the way through harvest, including feed intake data. We know more about that commercial cowherd than we know about some of our registered cowherds because we have multiple generations of those females that are A.I. bred, and we have individual data. That information flows directly into our genetic evaluation and impacts the EPDs that you pick up in the A.I. catalog.”
When it comes to selecting bulls, Bedwell encourages cattlemen to have a plan. “Look at the operation, study the pros and cons and evaluate it honestly.” Progressive operations often start at the back end with the question ‘how do I sell my calves?’ Are they marketed at weaning or sent to a feedlot with retained ownership? Are females kept, or is the entire calf crop sold? “Having that kind of assessment before you visit a seedstock provider is really important because no one knows their cows better than you do,” said Bedwell. “People who are in the business stay in the business because they’re backed by integrity and have a reputation.”
The impact of a bull on a program is significant, especially when heifers are retained. “If you’re retaining female offspring from that bull, he will have a lasting impact on the herd for 10 to 12 years,” said Bedwell. “Rather than a 50/50 impact, it’s more like 60 to 79 percent of the genetic impact is coming from the bull, and you can’t afford to make a mistake.”
The AHA’s Whole Herd Reporting program, which began in 2001, has magnified breed improvements over the past 16 years. “Before 2001, we were on more of an individual calf system, and it was weaning weight-based,” said Bedwell. “Producers were only reporting their best calves and not reporting bottom calves. That hurt them because it skewed the ratio. Now we’re reporting the whole calf crop.”
Bedwell explains that Whole Herd Reporting is a cow inventory based-system in which all cows in the herd are recorded, then calving ease or reproductive status is submitted for each cow. From there, the AHA initiates a birth weight worksheet and a weaning weight worksheet. Every trait is mandatory and producers can access information about TPR (Total Performance Records) breeders online.
It’s important for all segments of the cattle industry to understand each other’s roles: feedlot operators have to take care of cattle after weaning and have to make a profit on those cattle. “Just like a seedstock provider can’t sell a bull then turn his head and not guarantee the bull,” said Bedwell. “Not doing anything from a marketing standpoint is a disservice. So even though the calves were profitable for you, maybe they didn’t grade or they had health problems. That order buyer isn’t going to come back and bid a premium price again.”
Bedwell encourages producers to start building brand equity and add value wherever possible. “We have to try to connect ourselves more from the seedstock producer to the commercial producer to the feedlot. It doesn’t matter where you’re located — those trucks run all across the U.S.”
For optimum profit, producers who are running commercial cowherds should be taking advantage of heterosis. When having more than one breed is difficult to manage, A.I. is an option. Bedwell noted that the more unrelated two breeds are, the bigger the impact of heterosis. Genetic research shows that Herefords are more unrelated to any other cattle breed, so the breed is a good choice for crossbreeding.
“I don’t care if it’s a black bull on a Simmental cow base or a Charolais bull on black cows, the advantage in heterosis and hybrid vigor that was started as science and research in the 1960s is still relevant today,” said Bedwell. “The biggest bang you get for that is the lowly heritable trait of fertility. When you bring two unrelated breeds together, there’s a significant improvement in conception, pregnancy rate and longevity of females.”
Bedwell doesn’t think the national cattle herd will ever be straight black, Hereford or any other single breed. “Our focus is the commercial cattleman and making the black baldy as relevant as we can,” said Bedwell. “The way we do that as an association is by making the tools to make commercial production profitable, and giving seedstock producers the information that can make that happen.”