Beef Cattle Research Council

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Beef Cattle Research Council - Level 2

Retrieved: July 4, 2020 - 09:53 PM

The Level 2 record keeping resource has been designed to build upon the record keeping modules covered in Level 1. The record keeping and benchmarking modules are designed to be used by a wide range of producers and management systems. Some operations may not fit perfectly into one level for all of the topics. For example, your financial record keeping may already be at the intermediate or advanced level, but you may feel that you are more of a beginner in the forage and grassland area. Each of the levels have been developed to target a level of experience where level 1 is a good starting point for beginners; level 2 is for someone that is more than a beginner but not quite advanced; and level 3 is designed to be the most advanced level. Your current record keeping practices may be a combination of levels depending on topic, which is normal and to be expected! 

On this Page

Animal Health and Performance

Animal health and performance records can be useful for making management decisions. Keeping track of your health treatments and performance indicators throughout the year can be useful information to have when evaluating your production goals. Having readily accessible records can also be handy when marketing cattle to prospective buyers.

Body Condition Scores

Industry Benchmark

BCS of 3.0

Cows with an ideal body condition score (3.0 on a scale of 1-5) rebreed up to 30 days sooner than thin cows, which allows more cows to calve in the first 21-day cycle. This can add up to 42 lbs in calf weaning weight since the calves born earlier in the calving season will be heavier at weaning time. Cows in ideal body condition also have pregnancy rates double those of cows in poor condition, have improved milk production, passive immunity transfer, fewer cases of abortion and stillbirth, healthier calves, and fewer instances of calving problems.

The salvage value of cull cows in good condition is also higher. Very thin cows are more likely to experience negative outcomes during transport or to be condemned at harvest. Thin cows reflect poorly on producers and the industry.

To learn how to do a hands on assessment of body condition scoring visit our BCS page.

Data to record: Body condition score (1-5) of each animal or sub-sampling from larger group.

When to record it: One of the best times to body condition score is during fall processing or when pregnancy checking. This will give you time to add condition on thinner cows before winter sets in.

Example: At fall processing in October a sample of 30 cows from the larger group of 150 cows was evaluated for BCS. The average BCS for the 30 cows assessed was 2. The summer months had been particularly dry resulting in reduced forage availability and thinner cows. A decision was made to feed test the stored forages to ensure the cow herd would have adequate nutrition during the winter months to reach a BCS of 3 before breeding. Before releasing the cow herd back onto pasture for breeding BCS will be assessed again.

Trade-offs: increasing body condition scores will require additional investment for feed, but this may be offset by an improved reproductive rate for the following season.

Example goal:

  • Improve body condition scores of the mature cow herd to 3 before the next breeding season.

Calving Distribution

Industry Benchmark

60% of calves born in the first 21 days

Establishing and maintaining breeding momentum is important. Once a cow is bred in the first part of the breeding season, she has a greater likelihood of breeding back early in the years to follow. Cows that are bred early will have calves that have greater potential to gain by weaning time, resulting in a uniform calf crop and improved profitability. For example, a calf born in the first cycle compared to one born twenty-one days later will have the potential to gain an extra 39 lb (i.e. 1.85 lb/day for 21 days) more than its later-born counterpart. This can result in additional revenue of $81 per calf if sale price is $2.08/lb.

The standard industry target is to have at least 60% of females calving within the first cycle, followed by 25% calving between 21-42 days, 10% between 42-63 days and the remaining 5% calving in the fourth and final cycle. An ideal distribution could be 70-20-10 with a condensed breeding season of three cycles (63 days). The value of calving distribution calculator can help you determine your distribution using your own data.

Data to record: Bull turn out dates, breeding dates (AI, or observed natural breeding), birth dates

When to record it: Record the bull turn out date(s) or breeding dates if using AI. Record calving dates at calving.

Example: In Level 1 we used the example of a herd of 65 females, with the calving period starting with the first calf born on January 2, 2019. The very last calf was born on April 10, 2019. To determine the length of the calving period, count the number of days between January 2 and April 10. This equals a 99-day calving period.

Using the calving distribution calculator, it was determined that 31% of calves were born in the first cycle. There may be several factors impacting the distribution besides cow fertility. This can include body condition of the cow herd, cow to bull ratio, bull performance, weather, illness, or management factors such as when the bulls were pulled.

In order to reduce calving period length, you would first need to identify the factors contributing to the longer calving period before culling cows calving outside 84 days to ensure this is not just a cow fertility issue.

Trade offs: Depending on your management system you may require two calving periods. A front-loaded calving period can require extra labour costs due to a greater workload to pick up bulls at the end of the breeding season.

Shortening the calving period can result in more open cows as later-calving females won’t have a chance to rebreed. This can result in short term losses from fewer calves sold at weaning. 

Producers that utilize community pastures or even rent grass away from home may not be in control of when bulls are removed or have facilities to pick up bulls in 63 or 84 days.

Example goals:

  • Reduce calving period length to less than 84 days within two years
  • Reduce calving period to less than 63 days by year five
  • Have 60% of calves born in the first 21 days by year five

Cow-to-bull ratio (cow:bull)

Industry Benchmark

25 cows: 1 bull

The capacity of the bull to perform during breeding is also limited by the fertility of the cowherd. Therefore, most efforts are placed upon ensuring that reproductive potential of the females in the herd is optimized. We often assume that the bull will do his job, if we make the correct management decisions regarding the cow herd.

The economic implications of failure or reduced performance of bulls in a natural mating program can result in major losses. Even with the correct managerial and financial investments in place to ensure that the cow herd is reproductively competent, if reproductive failure occurs as a result of bull management, a tremendous loss in terms of reproductive efficiency is likely.

The more females that a bull can breed in a given season, the more optimal or efficient is the use of the capital invested in that sire. However, if you increase the cow:bull ratio, the likelihood increases that the bull’s mating capacity will be exceeded and fertility during the breeding season will be reduced. There is a point of diminishing returns, in terms of the reproductive efficiency of your herd and uniformity of the calf crop, if the mating capacity of the bull is exceeded.

The number of bulls required for effective reproductive efficiency will depend on the age of the bull, size of the pasture, topography, length of the breeding season and condition of the bull. A shorter breeding season will not only improve weaning weights but will also give the bull time to rest.

Data to record: Number of cows per bull

When to record it: Record at bull turn out date(s)

Example: Using the same example from above, the 65 cows were kept on pasture with the same bull from June until October, a 65:1 ratio. To improve the calving distribution for the next year, the length of the breeding season was reduced, and an additional bull was purchased which changed the ratio to 33:1.

Trade offs: Underestimating the performance of your bulls resulting in an investment of additional bulls that were not needed.

If multiple bulls are used in a pasture this can result in fighting versus breeding. The impact depends on age of bulls, number of watering holes and pasture topography.

Example goals:

  • Purchase additional bull(s) to service more groups of cows effectively

Mature Cow Weight

Industry Benchmark

45% of cow weight

Recording mature cow weights aims to “right size” cows for the productivity of the environment. Smaller cows do well in low productivity environments and can wean calves weighing 45% or more of their body weight. Very productive environments can support heavier cows that also wean 45% of their body weight. An apparent trend towards a smaller cow size is partly due to wanting the right size cow for the environment in semi-arid climates. But there are also advantages to larger cows in high productivity environments.

Data to record: Weights of cows

When to record it: During processing in the spring and fall

To determine the weaning weight as a percentage of cow weight simply divide the average weaning weight by the average cow weight and multiply by 100.

Average Pounds Weaned ÷ Average Mature Cow Weight X 100 = Weaning weight as percentage of cow weight


Example: For 110 females exposed, their average weight was 1215 lbs:

593 lbs average weaning weight ÷ 1215 lbs average cow weight x 100 = 49%

Trade offs: selecting for larger mature weights may result in greater feed costs.

Example goals:

  • Match a significant percentage of cow weight and forage intake to forage production prior to the next breeding season

Calculating pounds weaned per cow exposed

Pounds Weaned per Exposed Female = (Total Pounds Weaned) ÷ (Number of Exposed Females)


Commercial cow-calf producers generate revenue based on total pounds of calf weaned and sold. There are only two ways to increase total pounds of calf weaned and that is by increasing the size of each calf weaned or by increasing the number of calves weaned. Pounds of calf weaned per cow exposed combines the herd reproductive rate, calf death loss, and genetics for growth and maternal traits into one number.

Data to record: Weaning weights, number of exposed females

When to record it: Record weaning weights at weaning and record number of females exposed prior to bull turnout.

Example:  In Level 1 we calculated that the group of 105 calves had a total weaning weight of 65,205 lbs, an average of 621 lbs per calf weaned. If we were to include the number of females that were exposed at the beginning of the breeding season things may look a bit different. Assuming a herd of 110 cows:

65,205 lbs total pounds weaned ÷ 110 females exposed = 593 lbs per exposed female

If the number of exposed females was actually 120 females this would change to:

65,205 lbs average weaning weight ÷ 120 females exposed = 543 lbs per exposed female

Example goals:

  • Improve reproductive efficiency by 2% within two years
  • Reduce calf death loss between birth and weaning to 4% with four years

 

Forage and Grasslands

Winter Feed and Stored Forages

Cow body condition in late fall or early winter has a major impact on the total amount and quality of feed required. Cows in thin condition in the fall must gain weight throughout the winter to be able to deliver a live healthy calf, provide adequate amounts of milk, become pregnant and produce a calf the following year.

Across Canada many beef cows are fed a significant amount of conserved forage during winter. While extending the grazing season with stockpiled grass and annual forage crops can reduce the length of the feeding season on many operations, there is still a lot of baling and chopping done in preparation for the colder months. Harvesting, storing and delivering the herd's winter rations are the largest variable cost of production. Even small improvements in the system can result in significant savings.

Benchmarks

Comparing benchmarks for forage production is a challenge due to the variability from location to location. Comparing production numbers within your own operation is one way to manage your year to year production and to determine whether your management decisions are having the desired effect on production. Having a baseline of your typical production can also aid when making decisions during atypical years. For example, how you can manage in a drought year versus a bumper crop year.

Crop Records

When managing forages, just like other crops, the implementation of good record-keeping is valuable for managing plant productivity, crop rotations, and soil fertility.

Complete and accurate records help demonstrate your protection of soil, water and other environmental resources and will help you analyze the performance of your farm’s forage production system.

Table 1: Example Crop Record

Field ID/ Location Acreage/Hectares Number of bales/ loads Weight of bales/loads Inputs Yield
Old Farm 100 acres 150 1470 lbs Manure, 3 loads, October 2018  1 tonne/acre
Old Farm 100 acres 150 1544 lbs None 1.01 tonne/acre


Field identification

Keeping an accurate description of the location of each field will assist with keeping precise production records.

Data to record: Legal land location, identification recognized by land managers/staff, size in acres or hectares

When to record it: At time of purchase, after dividing a field

Field inputs

Research has indicated that fertilization can bring the productivity of a stand back to its original level without the expense of re-seeding. However, even when fertilizer is applied at recommended rates, the target yields may not be achieved, making it a risky proposition. The goal of fertilizing is to decrease the per unit cost of production. Higher yields do not necessarily translate into lower costs or increased profits. Only when the value of the additional production surpasses the cost of application does it reduce the per unit cost of production and increase margins. The profitability of fertilizing forage crops is highly variable and depends on timely rains, the cost of the fertilizer and hay prices. As these factors change, so will the feasibility of fertilizing.

If an assessment of the current forage stand shows that there is a sufficient quantity of the desired plant species still present, then fertilization can be an effective tool to rejuvenate and increase forage yields. By applying nutrients that are limiting, as determined by taking a soil test, forage production can be improved.

A soil test is essential to determine which nutrients are currently available and which may be deficient. Without this critical information there is a good chance that your investment may be money misspent. Knowing what nutrients to apply and in what quantity is an important first step in a fertility program.

Data to record: Treatment, date, volume, location

When to record it: Following application

Yields

Examining profit margins per field can be easily calculated when hay yield and price per ton are recorded. Producers need to know yields and market prices in order to estimate potential profitability - or calculate actual net returns after the hay is marketed or for own use. A greater awareness of your yields could direct you to making changes that will bring about greater productivity and profitability from a given field.

Data to record: Weight of bales, number and weight of cart loads

When to record it: At harvest

Yield calculation:

A 100-acre field produced 150, 5’x5’ round bales that each weighed 1470 lbs (667 kg). Dry matter was not yet tested.

Yield = (150 bales x 1470 lbs/bale)/ (100 acres x 2205 lbs) = 1 tonne per acre

Example crop production goals:

  • Improve forage yield at the Old Farm by 5% within one year, pending adequate weather conditions

Feed Inventory

After all of the effort and expense of producing the forage, ensuring that it is being efficiently utilized by the animals is the critical last step. Developing a feed inventory is the first step to help track feed utilization and thus improve feed management.

Efficient feed utilization includes:

  • Matching the quality of the forages to the right animal group
  • Monitoring feed disappearance
  • Minimizing feed wastage
  • Comparing the amount of feed offered to what the cows should be consuming

Some things to consider:

  • Current feed inventory for all types of storage units/feed types (bunkers, agbags, baleage, dry hay, bins). Calculate silage capacity in bunkers and silos here.
  • Determine your feed needs by determining the number of animals and their stage of production (lactating cows, heifers, backgrounders, bulls)
  • Determine potential growth. Do you plan to buy or sell any large groups?
  • How much are you feeding per head per day?
  • How long does this feed need to last?
  • Determine the balance. Do you have enough? Can some forage be sold?

Data to record: Current inventory, number of animals and their stage of production, volume fed per day, feed test results

When to record it: February/March – allows you to make a mid-course correction prior to the next harvest season. Estimates of density will be more accurate after having fed from storage for a while, so estimates of quantity stored will be more accurate.

June/July – allows you an early warning of inadequacy of feed supplies for the up-coming feeding season. Purchases of standing crops remain an option if deficiencies are discovered.

October/November – in a drought year, when production has been unexpectedly low you may want to make a projection to see if purchased feed will be needed or if the consumption rate needs to be adjusted. This allows needed purchases when commodity prices are apt to be lower in winter and will allow purchases before December 31, assisting in tax management.

Example goals:

  • Create a feed inventory after each year’s harvest and update as it is fed out

Feed Waste

The following section was adapted from Beef Cow Winter Feed Utilization page from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.

When producers talk about the amount they are feeding their cows, they are usually referring to the amount of forage offered and which disappears from the inventory. This will always be larger than what the cows are actually consuming. The difference is due to several factors, including:

  • the wastage of forage as it is being moved from storage
  • feed tramped into the ground or bedding,
  • feed soiled by manure or urine,
  • feed which is left uneaten until the next lot of feed is delivered,
  • inedible crusts on bales which may be removed prior to feeding.

It's important to have a good idea of how feed disappearance matches up with the expected intake of the cows. If the gap is too wide, after adjusting for typical wastage, there may be some issues with the feeding system that can be corrected in order to save feed and therefore money. If actual feed intake is significantly lower than anticipated, after accounting for wastage, there may be an issue with the quality of the forage. Table 2 has some guidelines for evaluating various levels of feed disappearance.

Table 2: Interpretation of the Difference between Observed Forage Disappearance and Predicted Intake1

% Difference2 Interpretation
< 6% Excellent utilization of forage
6% to 10% Very Good utilization; some slight improvements may be possible
11% to 15% Good utilization; some improvements possible
16% to 20% Medium utilization; significant improvements possible
21% to 25% Poor utilization; very significant improvements possible
>25% Very Poor utilization; critically evaluate feeding system

1 forages fed to beef cows under typical on farm conditions
2 (Observed disappearance - Predicted intake) / Predicted intake X 100

Here's an example of a feeding scenario:

  • 50 cow management group
  • Cows average 1500 lbs, in good body condition, dry, mid third of pregnancy
  • Average daily temperature is -5 C°, feeding area is sheltered from the prevailing wind
  • Ground conditions are dry
  • Being offered 4' X 4' dry hay bales which weigh 600 lbs
  • Hay was tested and is 84% DM with 54% TDN (DM basis)

Step 1: What is the expected dry matter feed intake of these cows?

Basic cow dry matter intake calculation: Cow dry matter intake adjusted for environment:
DMI = Cow wt. X % DMI (per lb of cow wt.)
DMI = 1500 lbs X 2.2%
Dry matter intake = 33 lbs per cow

Adjustment for daily air temperature = 1.05
Adjustment for mud = 1.00

DMI = 33 lbs X 1.05 (air temp) X 1.00 (mud)
DMI = 34.7 lbs

After adjustments the expected dry matter intake per cow is 34.7 lbs.

Step 2: What is the expected actual (as fed, AF) amount of hay which would be consumed by these cows? We need to convert our estimated dry matter intake to an AF basis for the hay being offered.

As Fed Intake calculation
As Fed Intake = DMI lbs / % DM in the hay
AF Intake = 34.7 lbs / 84% DM
AF Intake = 41.3 lbs

So, we would expect each cow to consume about 41.3 lbs of hay per day. For the feeding group of 50 cows this would be:

To feed 50 cows:
41.3 lbs X 50 hd = 2065 lbs of hay


Step 3
: Converting this to bales of hay

2065 lbs / 600 lbs = 3.44 bales of hay per day

Step 4: The group is being fed an average of 3.5 bales per day, with a very minimal amount left in the feeders. How does this feed disappearance match up with what is expected? Let's look at it on a per head basis:

Feed disappearance/hd = 4.0 bales X 600 lbs per bale / 50 hd = 48 lbs/hd/day

Step 5: We had estimated the hay disappearance for this group in Step 2 as 41.3 lbs/hd/d. The difference between feed disappearance and estimated intake:

Difference = disappearance - estimated intake
= 48 lbs - 41.3 lbs
= 6.7 lbs

Step 6: On a percentage basis this would be:

Difference / estimated intake X 100%
6.7 lbs / 41.3 lbs X 100% = 16%

This indicates that about 16% of the feed which is being offered is not actually being eaten by the cows, there is likely significant room for improvement. It would be a good idea to closely observe the cows' feeding behavior and see how much hay is being pulled out of the feeder and lost on the ground, as well as how much forage is being left uneaten in the feeders. In trials, hay wastage when feeding round bales has been measured from 5% to 40%, with the higher range occurring when the bales are rolled out on the ground.

Data to record: Expected dry matter intake, feed disappearance

When to record it: Daily, at feeding

Example goal:

  • Reduce feed waste to the 11 to 15% range using methods that reduce trampling in the next 365 days.

Feed Testing

When you don't know the quality of feed on an operation, maintaining animal health and welfare can become significantly more difficult. Visual assessment of feedstuffs is not accurate enough to access quality and may lead to cows being underfed and losing body condition or wasting money on expensive supplements that aren't necessary.

Why should I feed test?

  1. Avoid subtle production problems, such as poor gains or reduced conception caused by mineral or nutrient deficiencies or excesses;
  2. Prevent or identify potentially devastating problems due to toxicity from mycotoxins, nitrates, sulfates, or other minerals or nutrients;
  3. Develop appropriate rations that meet the nutritional needs of their beef cattle;
  4. Identify nutritional gaps that may require supplementation;
  5. Economize feeding, and possibly make use of opportunities to include diverse ingredients;
  6. Accurately price feed for buying or selling.

One of the major benefits of feed testing is preventing costly and devastating problems before they start. Every season is different and some years there is an abundance of high-quality forage. Other years, there is a lack of available feed, or perhaps there is an abundance of low-quality forage, grain, or grain by-products available that may look economical but can potentially pose significant risks if a feed analysis has not been performed or understood. Feed testing should be completed as close as possible to when it will be fed for the most accurate results.

Learn more about the how and why of feed testing and interpreting results

Data to record: Date, type of feed sampled, volume of sample, location of sample, analysis results

When to record it: Following sampling

Example:  A sample of grass silage was taken from the silage produced from the 100-acre field at the farm mentioned above. The results of the feed test were entered into the Evaluating Feed Test Results Tool on Beefresearch.ca and received the following result:

The results suggest that the feed will not be adequate to feed on its own to lactating mature cows and should be fed with additional feedstuffs such as additional energy, vitamins, minerals and a protein source. The next step will be to work with a nutritionist or ration balancing software program to determine a balanced ration for the lactating cows.

Example goals:

  • Work with a nutritionist to mitigate any potential nutritional deficiencies
  • Establish a location to keep all feed test results and use to monitor progress year to year

Winter Feed Ration

While hay, pasture, other forages and grains make up the largest component of livestock feed, there are many alternative feeds that can be provided and even improve the diet. Cost effective procurement of non-conventional feeds can increase profitability across the operation.

Alternative feeds can include crop residues, damaged crops, processing by-products, fruit, vegetable and bakery waste, off grade grains and even weeds. Resourceful producers will consider several factors when sourcing alternative feeds: 

  • cost of feed 
  • cost of transportation 
  • storage of feed including special bins, silos, or conditions to reduce spoilage 
  • nutritive value of feed including any deficiencies or toxicities that must be corrected  
  • consistency and ongoing availability of feed 
  • ease of integration into operation, such as special feeding management, grinding, or mixing equipment required 
  • palatability of feed and acceptance by livestock  

The inclusion of alternative feeds in a ration or feeding program can reduce feed costs and stretch feed supplies, while meeting nutritional requirements. Weather events such as drought, flooding, late spring frosts or hail can impact conventional feed supplies and increase prices. Many producers incorporate non-conventional feed sources into their rations to reduce costs and reliance upon hay or silage. While non-conventional feeds can be a cost-effective choice, producers will need to compare the actual costs of each feed source, along with transportation and storage to determine viability. A calculator for evaluating the relative economic value of feeds based on protein and energy content is available to assist producers when making these decisions.

Cattle require appropriate levels of energy, protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals to allow maintenance, growth, reproduction and gestation, milk production, and to support the immune system. When sourcing and adding non-conventional feeds to the ration, consult a livestock nutritionist to obtain the best advice for ration balancing. Conduct feed tests for each feed source. Balance nutrient requirements for the sex, age, body condition and stage of production of the cattle being fed. For example, straw can be a low-cost alternative feed, however, it requires supplementation with additional energy, protein and minerals to provide adequate nutrition for all classes of cattle.

Visit the alternative feeds webpage for more information about using alternative feeds and the risks and benefits of different types of feed sources.

Data to record: Type of feed, feed test results, purchase cost

When to record it: Following purchase, after feed testing

Example:  Since the feed test on the grass silage was not optimal and the price of barely is higher than you would like, you decide to look into some options for alternate feeds to feed the group of lactating, mature cows. Using the Tool for Evaluating the Economic Value of Feeds Based on Nutrient Content you enter some options for feeds you are considering purchasing. The results (shown below) indicate that distillers’ grain and corn silage may be good options to supplement the herd, where the legume silage and cull potatoes may not be good options economically.

 

Genetics

If you have completed the previous modules in Level 1 and 2, you may have already identified the areas of your operation where you would like to improve and have set some production goals. Once you know where you are, you can then start to plan where you would like to go. Maybe you want your calves to be heavier at weaning? Or you’re interested in more uniform coat colour, so that your calves fit into a certain market? While some of your goals will be influenced by your production practices, other goals such as higher weaning weights will be influenced by both genetic and environmental factors (nutrition, stress, health problems, weather, etc.).

Genetic change in cow-calf operations can occur both through sire selection and through replacement female selection in conjunction with cow culling.

EPDS

Expected Progeny Differences (EPDs) are estimates of an animal’s genetic merit as a parent. EPDs are the difference between the predicted average performance of an animal’s future progeny and the average progeny performance of another animal, assuming that the bulls are mated to similar cows, or vice versa. There are EPD’s across breeds but most breeds have independent EPD’s and use different measurements or units as other breeds for certain categories.

To compensate for differences in environment and management, contemporary groupings are used. Contemporary groups are animals of the same age and sex raised under the same management conditions. Once these factors are accounted for, the genetic component is the part that remains, and that is what EPDs predict.

A bull with impressive EPDs does not guarantee a superior calf crop. A common producer complaint about EPDs is that they do not seem to reflect actual data. Because EPDs rely on information provided by the producer, it is critical that the accurate information is submitted. This means reporting all performance data measured on all animals in the herd, and correctly identifying contemporary groups under different management (for example, if one group received creep feed and one group did not). In addition, billions of genetically different progeny are possible from just a single mating! There are plenty of genetic differences between full siblings. Because EPDs predict AVERAGE progeny performance, it is quite common to have a calf or two that doesn’t fit in with the rest. This is where accuracy comes in.

Accuracy is a value between 0 and 1 that reflects how close the prediction (EPD) is to the true genetic merit (breeding value) of the animal. Accuracy values increase as the amount of information known on an animal increases. Adding data on an animal’s own performance, the performance of its relatives, and performance of its progeny will increase accuracy. As accuracy gets higher, an EPD is less likely to change substantially. Some breed associations are incorporating genomic data into their EPD evaluations. By merging DNA test results with the traditional EPDs, more information can be added at a younger age, increasing the accuracy (and confidence) in that animal’s EPDs.

Although all these numbers can get confusing, selection based upon a single trait can often lead to undesired consequences. For example, selecting only for weaning weight in a production system where heifers are retained, will lead to larger mature cows, potential calving difficulties, and perhaps increased feed intake. A balanced selection approach focusing on optimizing traits for your environment and production system works much better than trying to maximize a single trait.

Heritability

Heritability is a measure of how much genetic influence there is on a particular trait. Heritability is a value between 0 and 1 and the higher the number, the more genetic influence there is on that trait. Reproductive traits tend to have low heritability rates, while weight and carcass traits are more heritable.

For example, weaning weight has a heritability of 0.24 to 0.30, which means that 24 to 30% of the differences we see in yearling weights between cattle in a herd are caused by genetics. The range of heritabilitiy shown in Table 3 has been shown as a percentage of heritability. If a trait has a low heritability, this indicates that the environment or management has a much larger influence on that trait. High heritability indicates that genetics play a relatively large role in the trait. The level of heritability in a trait will have an impact on selection decisions. Progress tends to be much slower in lowly heritable traits when attempting change through selection alone. With higher heritability, we usually can achieve more rapid progress through selection2.  

Table 3: The impact of genetics or management changes on culling decisions

Trait impacting culling decisions Heritable/ Non-heritable Range of heritability (%) Improved primarily through genetics or management?
Cow traits
Udder conformation (teat size and suspension) Medium heritability 28-32 Genetics
Milking ability Medium heritability 30 Both
Foot conformation Medium heritability 21 Genetics
Foot problems (rot, sand cracks, heel wart) Not heritable - Management
Cancer eye Heritable * Genetics
Temperament Low to medium heritability 10-30 Both
Fertility traits
Calving interval Low heritability 10 Management
Maternal ability Medium heritability 40 Genetics
Vaginal Prolapse Heritable * Genetics
Calf performance
Birth weight Medium heritability 32-47 Both
Weaning weight Medium heritability 24-30 Both
Feedlot gain Medium heritability 34-45 Both
Pasture gain Medium heritability 30 Both
Feed efficiency Medium heritability 40-45 Both
Carcass traits High heritability 50 Both

Sources: The Beef Cow Calf Manual. Alberta Agriculture and Food (2008) and Guidelines For Uniform Beef Improvement Programs. Beef Improvement Federation (2010).

* These traits are known to be heritable, but a formal heritability study has not been conducted since the incidence is low and it would take thousands of animals to derive accurate heritabilities.

Identifying Breeding Goals

No two beef operations in Canada are exactly the same. Factors such as climate, terrain, forage production, management style and marketing schemes will dictate the type of cattle that will perform best in your system.

Determining breeding goals should start by identifying what your production system looks like currently. By outlining the current production parameters, it will become more clear which traits need improvement in order to meet your goals. Once these traits are identified it also becomes easier to select replacement bulls and females and make culling decisions to help you achieve your goals.

Example: In Level 1 we identified improving weaning weights by 5 lbs as a goal. For this example, we will assume that our new group of calves will be raised in the same environment.

In the previous modules we have identified the females that will calve and re-breed within a certain period of time (e.g. 75 days) and have also weaned live calves in the past five years. We have also identified females that maintain their body condition without additional feeding. By doing this, you have identified the females that will most likely calve within a shorter calving period, thus giving the group of calves more time to grow before weaning (see section on calving distribution).

On the sire side, we could consider selecting bulls with better EPDs for weaning weight. For example, if Bull A has a weaning weight EPD of +9.0 lbs and Bull B has a weaning weight EPD of +3.0 lbs, this means that Bull A’s calves will have weaning weights that are 6 lbs heavier than whatever the weaning weight of Bull B’s calves are, on average.

Individual Identification

Apart from the benefits of using individual identification for traceability purposes, individual identification is a necessary tool when making genetic improvement decisions. For example, if you are raising replacement heifers or bulls, being able to trace back specific performance information to the individual animal level is valuable. Individual identification and linking calf information to the dam can also allow you to make more informed culling decisions based on calf or dam performance.

Aside from the required CCIA tags, tattoos and/or brands, some producers also include a management tag that is used for production and data management purposes. They key is to determine which type of identification system works best for your needs.

Data to record: Individual animal identification

When to record it: At birth, following purchase

Example:  At birth, calves receive any treatments or special management identified by the calf health protocol, and a management tag that includes a number, letter for the year (in 2020 the letter is H), the dam’s ID number, and if known, the sire’s ID. After a few years of using individual identification, replacement decisions can be made based on past performance of the dam and her progeny.

Example goals:

  • Tag 90% of calves in the 2021 calf crop at birth with a farm management tag
  • Link any prospective replacement heifers or bulls with their dams in 2021

Selecting Replacement Heifers

The decision to raise or purchase replacement heifers will vary based on the management and economic goals of each operation. If you have been collecting and analyzing records to this point, you may already have already set breeding goals which will define which characteristics you need to be looking for in your replacements.

Some criteria to consider for raising and purchasing replacement females:

  • Birth date? How old do you need heifers to be to fit into a front-loaded calving system?
  • What breed composition will work with the bulls you are running?
  • How has her dam performed?
  • How has she performed herself?

Data to record or request from seller if you are raising or purchasing commercial replacement heifers: Birth date, individual identification, dam ID, birth weight, weaning weight, calving ease

When to record it: At birth, at weaning, after purchase

Example:  From your records you have identified achieving higher weaning weights as one of your production goals. From your current calf crop you want to select the heifer calves that will have the best chance of producing calves with higher weaning weights. To do this, select heifer calves born in the earliest calving groups in similar management groups.

Example goals:

  • Link heifer performance data to their dams for the next calf crop
  • Use dam performance as a selection criterion when selecting the next group of replacements

Selecting Replacement Bulls

Purchasing the best bull for your operation starts with good record keeping to identify your operation’s strengths and weaknesses. From there you can work to narrow down your search based on your breeding system, genetic goals and budget.

Breeding programs will be determined by operational goals and the management practices that fit those goals. A farm that sells their calves at weaning may choose a crossbreeding program with high performance, while a farm that direct markets their beef may prefer a single breed in order to ensure consistent carcass quality.

There are many different types of bulls available, so aiming for complementarity of the bull’s genetics to your cow herd’s genetic makeup and fit with your operational goals will contribute to increased revenue and reduced costs.

Given the plethora of EPDs available, trying to sort through ten or twenty individual EPDs that may not have relevance to your particular operation can easily lead to information overload, so many breed associations provide selection indexes that combine multiple traits with relevant weightings in order to combine several traits of interest into one number.  By focusing on Economically Relevant Traits (ERTs), you can eliminate those bits of information that will not directly impact your operation’s profitability. Economically relevant traits are those that are directly associated with a source of revenue, or a cost.  Not all EPDs represent ERTs – instead they use a related (or indicator) trait to estimate the ERT.

The BCRC produced a series of blog posts that provide more information about bull purchasing decisions which can be found here.

Data to record: Individual identification, calving ease, weaning weight, calving ease, yearling weight

When to record it: At birth, at weaning, following purchase, at turn out

Example:  From your records you have identified achieving higher weaning weights as one of your production goals. This time your focus is to select bulls to breed to the mature cow herd with strong EPDs for weaning weights since these traits are moderately heritable.

Example goals:

  • Select bulls for the next breeding season with optimal EPDs for weaning weight

Using Records for Cow Culling Decisions

As discussed in the animal health section, the number one factor impacting cow profitability is whether she successfully produces a calf every year. Other factors such as conformation, milking ability, health issues and temperament can also impact profitability year to year. Cows with impaired mobility or unsound mouths are unlikely to intake sufficient nutrients to maintain body condition and be productive. Newborn calves may have difficulty nursing from large teats or pendulous udders. In any case, there can be large economic consequences of unsound cows. Therefore, using records to make informed culling choices is highly valuable.

There can be confusion as to whether an issue primarily has a genetic component or requires better management. Some of the common traits used in culling decisions are shown in Table 3. If the goal is to reduce certain issues in your herd, the problem may not be solved using only genetics.

Using records to quickly identify cows to be culled can save a lot of time and effort. On some operations this may be as simple as putting a cull tag in the cow’s ear or adding an asterisk* beside her identification in your records. Identifying some of your non-negotiable traits can also help with making culling decisions. For example, some of the traits listed in Table 3 may be non-negotiable for you.

Data to record: Animal ID, calf ID, calf performance, cow performance, health treatments, conformation issues, temperament, calving interval, pregnancy status

When to record it: At each occurrence

Example: You need to decide which heifers to keep from your calf crop as replacements. In your records you have put an asterisk beside two cows that both had equally well-performing heifer calves this year. Your notes indicate that one cow had vaginal prolapse this past year before calving, the other cow you marked as treated for foot rot. Since vaginal prolapse is considered to be a heritable trait you decide not to keep the heifer calf from the first cow. Since the foot rot is more of a management issue, you decide to keep the heifer calf from the second cow.

Example goals:

  • Link all 2021 calves to their dams
  • Apply a cull tag to all cows with poor udders at calving in 2021

 

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References

National Beef Cattle Evaluation Consortium Sire Selection Manual

Western Beef Development Centre, 2016

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