by Troy Bishopp
PETERBORO, NY — When John O’Brien was a young lad and saw his first cow standing in a field, his mum said, “It was all over for him; this fascination with bovines.” Nearly 55 years later, the Australian CEO of Nature’s Blueprint Cow, renowned international livestock judge and cattle industry maverick is still spreading the news that we need uncomplicated, efficient cattle.
The cow connoisseur brought his highly opinionated perspectives, experiences and observational skills to help identify the most economically functional animal to Central New York, in front of a capacity crowd of 100% grass-fed dairy & beef farmers. “A cow’s level of efficiency in naturally converting available resources into nutritious consumer food is the key to a farmers’ profitability, sustainability, lifestyle and consumer health,” emphasized O’Brien.
“I have always been drawn to the moderate framed, wide-based cow (whether dairy or beef) because all my observations reveal this body type does well in all environments,” said O’Brien. “It’s refreshing to see the consumer’s interest in grass-fed and meat products; however the availability of these genetics to function efficiently in our pasture environments and provide profit from this market is very low.”
Why are we so confused about modern genetic improvement? O’Brien said, “we have been riddled by decision-making based on production, ‘promotable’ genetic traits and everything predicated around the perfect season mentality, of which I’ve never witnessed. This has led to frail cows that need too many inputs, management time and cannot thrive in a pasture environment. We have been an industry that is far easier to deceive than to enlighten. All decisions are paid for by the commercial farmer but not commercially based. Everyone is making money out of the modern cow except the farmer.”
O’Brien’s views were prejudiced in favor of the old-world master cattle breeders he knew growing up who practiced intense observation, rigorous culling and knitted pedigrees together for prepotency, repeatability and longevity. “We should emulate the few people endowed with these qualities especially that of discriminating very slight differences whereby judgement can only be acquired by long experience. They never stopped looking for the ‘thrivers’ from within the survivors and sought the survival of the fittest within their own environmental conditions,” he said.
John took the farmers on a slideshow journey back to the 1940’s cow and bull traits that were thriving on forage-based systems and made stark comparisons with today’s modern genetics. He reiterated that a cow is your biological bovine harvester and the herd of cows is your engine room. “How efficiently your herd is in converting available resources into a saleable product whilst satisfying their maintenance requirements is the key to your sustainable margin/profit level,” said O’Brien.
O’Brien described his favorite grass-based cows as “The ones you don’t notice, that look the same 365 days a year and still do everything. They are not lazy, are moderately framed and wide-based, have a large rumen and rump, great hair coat, doesn’t have a dirty tail and calves every year.” He continued, “Research reveals that cows like this, with larger body volume, have much larger rumens than taller, narrower cows; hence they are able to process feed at a much slower rate and therefore can extract much more goodness from forage, than the taller, narrower cows with smaller rumens.”
The cow whisperer detailed his free gains (productivity) from correct genetic design: lower herd maintenance requirements, reduced dystocia, improved components, better foot structure, reduced calving interval, easier calves/yearlings to rear, reduced vet requirements, lower animal husbandry costs, less replacements required and net seller of females. Selecting the bull that helps fill the uncomplicated cattle mantra spawns these considerations: Does he thrive in your similar environmental constraints? Can you see his dam, full sister, and sire’s daughters? Is he wide based and have a proper jaw and muzzle? Is he masculine? Ask many questions and go with your gut on how his relatives will perform under your forage management.
After a local lunch and fellowship around the table, Mr. O’Brien and farm host Nathan Weaver of Grünen Aue Organic Dairy Farm led the large contingent of graziers out into the lush paddocks to evaluate cows and some of the offspring from John’s Nature’s Blueprint Cow genetic pool. Seeing and sharing the cow man’s eye first-hand was a valued perspective that led to many conversations on improvement. “We have been using Nature’s Blueprint Sires for the last six years with offspring in their fourth lactations. It is evident that these cows have the genetic makeup to perform well on our all-forage diet,” said Weaver. “We enjoy providing the learning opportunity to others who share in our passion of grass-based farming systems.”
“In the final analysis, nature is the barometer,” stressed O’Brien. “Get out of the road and let nature do it. Always default to nature. Hard times give you the chance to identify the best animals. Keep coming back to the same question: What would happen in nature? Learn to evaluate how an animal will respond to your environment. To be profitable and sustainable, and have a quality of lifestyle, farmers must have cows which work for them. As well as great cows, farmer profitability has always been a high priority and I firmly believe efficient cow design is the key. Strive for uncomplicated cows.”
The event was sponsored by Maple Hill Creamery, Organic Valley Cooperative, The Nathan Weaver Family, The Peterboro Amish Church Community, The Madison County Soil & Water Conservation District and the Madison County Graziers Group.