By Austin Snedden, Ranching Contributor, Valley Ag Voice
The cattle industry in general has a magnetic force towards terminal traits. It is a natural draw as all marketing pressure and economic rewards are given to producers whose cattle offer more end-product value. The rewards need to be weighed against the costs, and producers need to decide whether there is a balance they can strike between end-product value and range cattle efficiency. Historically the leading price indicator for cattle was weight. Before there was much emphasis on carcass quality, pounds were the primary driver of the overall market return. With the advent of quality grades, valuation became a combination of weight and marbling. Cattle producers are rewarded based on their cattle potential or history to yield and grade. An intense focus on growth and carcass traits has created a void in selection for practical traits such as fertility, longevity, mature cow weight, structural soundness, and udder quality.
Cattle producers must manage the ability to raise a marketable beef animal, while at the same time not ignoring the practical maternal traits that keep their operation economically sustainable. There are individual exceptions to every generalization, but in general, a more moderate frame-size cow will offer more fertility and more longevity. It is also generally true that a heavier muscled cow will offer less fertility and longevity. The larger, heavier muscled cow will also require more nutritional inputs. Knowing this, we know there is an antagonism between what upstream markets want, and what is practical for our cow-calf operations. There is a balance to be struck genetically between end-product value and maternal value, but we must stay with an increased focus on maternal value because the role of the range cow is so diverse and so demanding. The role of the range cow requires that she calve every year. She rebreeds while in heavy lactation while sometimes on challenging nutrition, raises a calf at side while growing a fetus inside, weans a calf and gets a few months off, then starts the process over again. This is a far more complex biological and instinctual requirement than what we ask of the steer that enters the beef chain. The maternal traits that encompass biological, instinctual, and structural traits take generations to select for, whereas the terminal animal can be created in one mating.
Widespread drought has caused the liquidation of many producing cows. Couple this with decades of selection for more terminal traits and you are left with a situation where the cows that have left production are having difficulty being replaced with others because of a lack of fertility and longevity. A national cowherd reduction because of drought, and a cowherd that turns over more often because of lack of practical traits, has created a natural demand situation for replacement females. Seeing $3,000 bred commercial heifers selling this fall in a drought illustrates the point. As the pendulum swings, there will be increasing opportunities in the coming years for commercial producers that have focused on fertility to capitalize on an industry that has become hungry for productive cows. Going forward, it may be judicious for breeders to select for acceptable end market value, but double down on maternal value and strike a balance that works for the whole industry.