(Graphic: DALL-E)

By Austin Snedden, Ranching Contributor, Valley Ag Voice 

I recently received a call from a bull customer. I always appreciate getting calls from folks who have purchased bulls from us as almost all of them are my friends and I am humbled by their patronage. I use the word “appreciate” referring to the call rather than “enjoy” because sometimes I enjoy the message of success. Sometimes, I appreciate feedback on what we can be doing better. For this particular call I am referencing, I enjoyed. This customer and friend who runs a no-nonsense commercial operation told me of a Hereford cross cow that they had just sold that had given them 14 calves. He was very happy with what hybrid vigor had provided his operation in terms of longevity and fertility. It made me realize that we would be living large if ranchers had a whole herd of cows capable of what this cow did. 

Thinking about the call later, I realized that in today’s market, that cow has produced roughly $28,000 in progeny! Then, I started thinking about the marketing demands of today’s calf market and wondered — ‘What is keeping folks from aiming their genetic selection at this target?’ Current market forces are pushing the limits on yearling weight (YW) and carcass traits.  Making our calves have the capability to satisfy retail desires is important in order to garner return buyers of our commercial calves, but should we sacrifice fertility and longevity to maximize terminal traits? Are folks chasing nickels and throwing away dollars?  

Fertility is the number one profit driver of a commercial cattle operation. In its simplest form, fertility equals more units of production, but there are tantalizing programs out there to make your calves worth more dollars, even hundreds of dollars per head. There are vertically integrated bull vendors that will offer to buy your calves at a premium if you purchase your bulls from them. These bull vendors are marketing bulls that are pushing the limits of YW and carcass traits to produce calves that maximize end-product value, but what is the cost to your cowherd (factory) of these genetics being introduced for multiple generations? In western ranching, there is a threshold of cow size where too big of a cow results in lost efficiency and fertility, and too small results in progeny that lack marketability. Commercial producers need to make sure that their seed stock provider has a strong grasp of this threshold. If I am pitching bulls that are purely aimed at maximizing growth, ribeye area, and marbling I may be offering shiny nickels to a commercial cattleman that is throwing away dollars if he raises his own replacement heifers.  

Let’s use a reasonable example that isn’t exaggerated, using two herds and estimating a calf price of $2,000. Let’s say there is a commercial herd (herd A) that has purely used bulls to maximize growth and carcass and has produced a cowherd that averages four calves before coming up open, another cowherd (herd B) has used genetics emphasizing fertility and longevity and only moderate growth and carcass traits, however the more range adapted “B” cowherd averages six calves per cow before coming up open. Because of the end product genetics of the calves of herd A, those calves receive a $200 premium at market, making them worth $2,200 per head. The herd “B” calves receive no premium and get $2,000 per head. The average lifetime production of the herd A cow is $8,800 with the premium. The average lifetime production of the herd B cow is $12,000. herd B has a distinct advantage before you even take into account the the added cost of replacements herd A will incur due to high turnover. There is no premium that will match fertility. 

Industry experts have mistakenly told folks over the years that fertility has very low heritability; this is absolutely untrue. This mistaken assumption is due to the fact that overall fertility results from a combination of many traits. Fertility is a function of soundness, foraging ability, instincts and behavior, and more, all traits that are highly heritable! Regardless of breed, shop for genetics that can satisfy market demands but maximize fertility. Don’t get distracted by shiny nickels in the form of program premiums that will cost dollars in your cowherd. 

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