Better bulls means better cattle

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This week we will continue the series of articles about purchasing bulls for use in a commercial beef cattle herd. Last week we described the principals of Expected Progeny Differences (EPD) and their accuracy based on the number of offspring or genetic testing. This week we will discuss specific EPD traits and what they mean to a producer.
The first trait farmers often look at is Calving Ease (usually expressed as CED.) This statistic is based on reports by cattlemen to the breed association about their experiences with calving problems, or lack thereof. These reports are then correlated with other producer’s reports to create a calving ease number for the sire and dam, as well as the calf itself. Calving ease is related to but not the same as Birth Weight EPD (BW). If a cow or bull has a high Birth Weight EPD it may still have a good calving ease EPD. Calving ease can be affected by non-birth weight traits like head and shoulder size or not aligning in a normal birthing position. Calving ease is important to a lot of farmers, particularly those who work off the farm and are not around to keep watch during calving season. If a bull is bought for use on first-calf heifers it is also important to make certain a “Calving Ease” bull is used. These first time mothers, while able to be bred, are usually not fully grown to their mature size. Using a calving ease bull will help them to calve without difficulty.
The problem with calving ease and low birth weight is these traits are often correlated with smaller sized animals at maturity. Use of bulls with these traits without regard for other growth traits may cause the overall size of calves raised to become smaller over time as heifers are kept and then also bred to smaller framed bulls. Every generation gets progressively smaller. It is possible to find calving ease bulls with good EPDs for growth to weaning and yearling size. Often these bulls will cost more but the money spent can be recovered over time when the larger calves are sold.
The next important EPDs to look at are weaning weight and yearling weight. These indicated how fast the calves will grow and how large they may get at maturity. Here the cattleman or woman must have an idea what they are trying to accomplish with their breeding program. If they plan on selling all the calves raised they should use bulls with high EPD numbers in both categories. This is often referred to as “terminal” breeding. This will give the farmer the potential to raise larger calves and get more for them when sold. Alternatively, if they plan on keeping heifers for replacements in the herd they may not want to use bulls with extremely high EPDs because all the offspring, male and female, will be larger than average. This is important because for the females kept for breeding, the more they weigh the more they eat. Research shows a 1500 pound cow may eat as much as forty percent more than a 1200 pound cow. She will graze more meaning stocking rates must be lower, and she will eat more hay in winter meaning costs will be higher. Research also shows she will not raise a calf big enough to make up for the extra cost of feeding her. The down side of this is that if breeding for a smaller size heifer, any male calves born will be smaller too, so not as many pounds of beef can be marketed. This can be managed by separating the herd and breeding the optimum size cows to an appropriately sized bull to get the number of heifers to be kept, while breeding the others to a terminal bull as referred to above. This will minimize the number of small framed male calves the farm will raise.
The next trait to look at is milk. This indicates the ability of a female offspring to produce milk for the calves she raises. This is only important when planning to keep heifers. Milking ability can be used effectively to raise bigger calves, but the down side is the more the cow milks, the more nutrition she needs. High milk potential females should only be used in a high management situation where the farmer provides supplemental feed to the herd. If cows are kept solely on pasture they will not get the nutrition they need to compensate for all the milk produced. They will become thin and be very hard to get rebred in time for the next calving season. A cow that does not calve every twelve months is a money losing cow. In a pasture based scenario a low milking ability cow will be more profitable because she is much more likely to stay in good condition and re-breed on time.
Next week we will roll this all together with some ideas on how these EPD traits impact the profitability of the herd and how paying more for a bull can make you more profitable.
The Marion County Extension Office will be closed for the Holidays from Dec. 25, 2013 to Jan. 1, 2014.
The Kentucky Fruit and Vegetable Conference will be held Jan. 5-7, 2014 at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Lexington. This is an excellent opportunity for commercial growers, Farmers Market participants and others to learn more about the production of produce. The meeting is sponsored by the University of Kentucky, Kentucky State University and the Kentucky Department of Agriculture.
The American Forage and Grassland Council Annual Meeting will be Jan. 12-14, 2014 in Memphis, Tenn. I was at the meeting last January and found it to be very informative. If you would like information on attending please let me know.
The Kentucky Cattlemen’s Association will hold its Annual Convention Jan. 16-18, 2014 in Lexington. In addition to informative programs and Cattle Tradeshow, Marion County farmer Steve Downs will be installed as President of the Association for 2014.
We will hold an organizational meeting for a Marion County Beekeepers Association on Wednesday, Jan. 22 2014 at 6:30 p.m. at the extension office. All active beekeepers as well as anybody interested in getting started are invited to attend. We will discuss the type of organization potential members want, including the educational topics to be pursued. If interested, please call the extension office at 270-692-2421 so we will know if there is sufficient interest to hold a meeting.
While on the subject of bees, the South East Kentucky Bee School will be held Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014 at McCreary Central High School in Stearns. Registration begins at 8 a.m. and the program runs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. There will be multiple sessions attendees can choose from during the day depending on their interest and experience, including a series of sessions for beginning beekeepers. Registration is $15 in advance or $20 at the door. Call for more information.
Educational programs of Kentucky Cooperative Extension serve all people regardless of race, color, age, sex, religion, disability, or national origin.