In the mid-1950s western movie masterpiece Giant, which was about Texas, an Oklahoma world champion Brangus bull, two-fifths Brahma and three-fifths Angus, named Clear View King Tut, had his 15 seconds of fame in the movie by merely standing in front of the Victorian-style ranch house. Author John Wooley, in his book Shot in Oklahoma: A Century of Sooner State Cinema, chronicles Tut’s epic Hollywood appearance.
Would-be cattle identifiers have often mistaken Tut for a Santa Gertrudis probably because it sounds more intellectual. The way Wooley tells it, you would think the story centered on Clear View King Tut instead of being about a generation of cattle ranchers. ‘Both Texas and California,’ he writes, ‘get their comeuppance and have to call us Sooners before they can film a story about our neighbor across the Red River on Lone Star ground.’ Writer Mark Sarchet explained that ‘When Hollywood needed a bull for Rock Hudson to brag about, they wanted no part of those Texas runts.’ So Tut was cast in the role, all 2,500 pounds of him, a product of generations of breeding at Raymond Pope’s Clear View Ranch.
“If I had a hammer,” as the famous folk song begins, “I’d hammer in the morning…” and in the evening, and so on. The obvious parallel is the hammer being a tool, and you have to use the right tools to get the job done. Mike Firestine, a board member of the Pennsylvania Livestock Association and Treasurer of the Keystone International Livestock Exhibition, agrees. Firestine chatted with me about some of the new tools in bull selection, specifically EPDs.
Having watched a webinar on the subject, I remember hearing “Thou shalt select superior sires!” This is nearly every breeder’s dream but not always as easy as it sounds (as most commandments go). Firestine also has a herd of 30 Hereford cows in the Lebanon-Berks area of the Commonwealth, so he speaks with sound credentials. “Some tools are breed-specific,” he said. “In the Herefords, we have the calving ease, in which you want a positive number or higher number which indicates the calving ease. Then you have birth weight. You should not use both of them. Use one EPD [Expected Progeny Differences] or the other. If you do use both, it tends to over-emphasize the birth weight, frankly.” Another EPD measure is weaning weight. “In general, you should do that around 205 days. It is important to know how your cow is milking.”
Studying case scenarios in breeding, if I opt for greater calving ease, I can expect to lose growth potential. And if I decide in favor of more muscle or less fat, I can expect the loss of maternal qualities. “That’s exactly right,” said Firestine. “You don’t want a higher birthrate, you want a lower birthrate. An 85-pound calf can out-birth EPD by 6.5, but that also depends on what your contemporary groups are. On my farm, I go by a contemporary group. All my calves are born in a certain period of time. Weather has an effect on that. Your pasture is also a factor. But how do you balance all those EPDs? For instance, in the Hereford industry you now have rib fat. You want an animal with a lower fat EPD to produce leaner progeny.”
If you have a bull with a low fat EPD and a high birth weight, which one do you select? “You like that bull because he’s showing you a lot of muscle, it is structurally correct, and you know some of the offspring from that bull. They were good milking cows. How do you handle some of that? There’s another EPD for rib-eye area. The rib-eye area is measured in square inches. But by the same token, if you breed your cows to the bull that has that good rib-eye, has a low-fat EPD, and the intra-muscular fat EPD is outstanding, suddenly you’re looking at the weaning weight. Those EPDs are low. So you find yourself giving up some growth. It might take a little bit more corn and more feed to get that animal up to the desired weight, but when he reaches that level, it’s going to have a good rib-eye, hopefully low fat, and good intramuscular fat.” Firestine continued.
Are the predictions in EPDs always dead-on accurate, or is there room for maneuverability? Or skewing? “That is the key,” Firestine said. “All these numbers are gathered at the Hereford Association. If I decide to fib on my EPDs, and someone is being honest about it, and someone else is being honest about it, all of a sudden what can happen to those EPDs? Because you have all these contemporary groups that are reporting, those EPDs can change. I bought semen on a bull that had low birth weight EPDs because I’m always cognizant of that, especially with heifers. You want to have small calves coming out of heifers, right? I bought the semen and two years later the birth weight EPD really went up. And I’m thinking ‘oh my word, now what?’ If someone is not totally honest with their EPDs, it can hurt other ranchers.”
When you cross breed, does that strengthen or weaken EPDs? “In the Hereford EPDs, there is what’s called the Baldy Maternal Index [BMI] for the commercial cow-calf producer. The Baldy is a British cross cow. And they also use Hereford a lot on Brahmas which falls under the Brahman Influence Index. Like if they use it in a cross-breeding program with Brahman Influence cows,” said Firestine.
“The most important thing is for the rancher to understand these EPDs; not to just say ‘okay, Birth Weight EPD, that’s good, I’m set.’ Firestine continued. He should study all the EPDs. It’s one thing to have a low Birth Weight. It’s another thing to have a low weaning weight EPD, because what good is having a low birth weight if you have a 300 pound calf at weaning?”
Firestine says it also depends on what you want to do with that progeny. His caveat to wannabes is to read everything you can get your hands on about EPDs and breeding livestock. Also every association has field men. Question those field men so you have a true understanding of what you’re looking at when you’re looking at the Expected Progeny Differences. It’s a tool. It’s no different than having a hammer in your toolbox if you want to drive a nail. Like a workman you have to understand how to use those EPDs. If you have the hammer and don’t know which end to use to pound in a nail, what good is that tool?
And if you have the right tools, as Uncle Bawley says in Giant, “When the breeding program is finished, we’re going to have an animal that’s 99 percent beef and the rest exaggeration!”