Image by Nathan Hutchcraft/Adobe Stock

Originally published in July 2023 print edition.

Cattlemans corner Austin SneddenAustin Snedden, Ranching Contributor, Valley Ag Voice

Purebred cattle are often perceived as “royalty” compared to their commercial counterparts, who are seen as “peasants.” I think the analogy is fitting—purebred cattle have a proud lineage, get more notoriety, and often live a more pampered life, while their commercial counterparts toil as peasants on the hillsides, often unnoticed.  This perception becomes problematic when carried out in the production of genetics that will enter the commercial industry.  Royals aren’t famous because of their ability or accomplishments; they are famous only because they were born to the right family.  Rather than looking at pampered cattle as inherently better than the commercial peasant cow, seed stock producers should view their operations as a challenging ground to see if cattle are worthy of being used in the commercial industry.   Seed stock operations should be less like Buckingham Palace and more like biological boot camp.

Seed stock producers should challenge their genetics at least as hard as their commercial customers.  I recently heard a prominent seed stock producer talking about his protocol for herd health, parasites, nutrition, and calving. This operation vaccinated their cow herd three times per year, deworming and doing parasite treatment three times yearly along with fly tags.  This operation supplemented their cows with minerals over a dollar a pound, protein, and an additional supplement to help with reproduction.   This operation checked their heifers at calving three times per day and brought them to a barn to calve. While none of these are bad on their own, together they create an unsustainable situation.  Many seed stock operations work under the assumption that every calf may be worth somewhere near $4,000.  With a value forecast so far above that of the commercial world, the purebred producer can afford the labor and cost of treatments and supplementation to sustain cows that would fall out in the real world.  While there is inherently nothing wrong with pampering cattle, there is something wrong with not challenging cattle and then dumping those untested genetics on the commercial industry, which relies to some extent on resilience in cattle.

The purebred industry should constantly ask themselves, am I doing things to keep cows in production that my commercial customers can’t afford? Am I cheating my customers by over-treating my cattle for parasites and not allowing the ones with natural resistance to show themselves? Am I supplementing minerals and feed that commercial producers can’t afford and sustaining genetics that are sub-quality foragers? The seed stock industry should not spend additional time, labor, or money to sustain the stragglers.  We have a duty as stockmen to treat animals that need care. Still, from a seed stock perspective, if we must throw more resources towards them because of a biological insufficiency, we should move that animal to commercial production.

Purebred operations done right will already have additional investment in time per animal because weighing, measuring, observing, and maintaining pedigrees is critical to identifying not only the top but also the bottom of the genetic spectrum.  The maintenance side is the part where seed stock operations must remain disciplined.  If hooves need to get trimmed, if a teat must be milked out so a calf can nurse, if a mature cow needs assistance calving, if an animal needs additional supplementation above its commercial contemporaries, by all means, treat them, but make sure that treatment signals you to move them immediately out of producing genetics that will be dumped on the commercial world.  Purebred breeders need to have a breeding philosophy that will make genetics that work in the world of $1,000 calves, one full-time man or woman to 400 cows, country and facilities where the cow herd may only be treated once per year, and then build your breeding program to select the ones that will make it on this budget, with this labor, and this environment.  Seed stock producers need to challenge their cattle, the commercial producers deserve it. We need to propagate the ones that excel living like a peasant and not propagate the ones that only exist because of a pampered life of a royal. 

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