hereford cow in the sunset
Hereford cow in the sunset. (Photo: CCTM / Shutterstock.com)
Cattlemans corner Austin Snedden
Austin Snedden

By Austin Snedden, Ranching Contributor, Valley Ag Voice

In every Breeding 101 or genetics class in almost every animal agriculture college, academia says, “The next generation is always better.” Clearly, this statement was made before the origination of the millennial generation (I am allowed to say this because I am a millennial). From the perspective of a cattle breeder, we operate with the goal and expectation that the next generation of cattle will be better than previous generations, but we also have to recognize that new genetic directions are unproven. The multitude of traits that make up a productive animal are sometimes hard to pinpoint, and even if they are identified they can be overlooked when making matings.

Breed associations often find themselves in a delicate balance between valuing the importance of a pedigree and individual performance in that pedigree, while at the same time strongly encouraging generational turnover. The algorithms and format for genetic evaluation will give an unproven heifer better EPD values than a highly proven older cow, not to mention that heifers and heifer’s first progeny will get advantages on performance ratios over the progeny of an older cow that performed the same. Breeders find themselves in a situation where they are encouraged to use the newest thing and disperse the older generations to stay at the forefront of EPD valuation. The risk of this philosophy is that unproven cattle can take us down an unproductive path that we don’t know is unproductive until we are miles down the road. There is a proven history of humans not always making the correct decision when it comes to selecting what the next best thing will be in terms of performance and biology.

I think there are two different philosophies in cattle breeding, and most would belong to one or the other philosophy with some being right down the middle. One philosophy is that the goal of a seed stock breeder is to produce the next standout outlier that will leap forward. The other philosophy is that the role of a seed stock breeder is to be a testing ground to select cattle that are problem free and offer a higher level of genetic consistency. The most important traits that benefit the economics of a commercial cow-calf operation are fertility and longevity, and the best way to get fertility and longevity in a herd is by selecting seed stock that has proven fertility and longevity in the pedigree.

Artificial insemination and embryo transfer have created opportunities to access elite genetics rather affordably, but it has also contributed to the rapid propagation of unproven cattle. These technologies have contributed to big advancements, but also large regressions across breeds as the pendulum swings large in terms of the type of cattle and number of progenies. The increase in the role that genetics stored on liquid nitrogen has played in our industry has created a corresponding decrease in the focus and importance that seed stock breeders place on fertility and longevity. There is a growing number of pedigrees in major breeds with multiple generations of cattle that have not had a natural calf, and sires that have never performed natural service, yet the commercial producer still needs fertility and longevity to pay ranch bills. Consistency and performance will come from breeders who are making cattle prove themselves for many seasons, while at the same time cautiously adding genetics that offers new performance opportunities.