The breeding plan really sets the tone for what a cattle operation is, says Blake Balog.
“I think that’s really an operation’s objective for herd management. It’s all about knowing who you are, what kind of operation you are, what unique micro-involved environment you deal with,” he said during a Rural Roots Virtual Ag Day earlier this summer.
Balog, who is a veterinarian at Bow Valley Livestock Health in Alberta, said unique aspects must be considered with a farm plan, which is going to impact an operation’s herd health and the breeding objectives.
Key is having a clearly defined marketing plan.
“You need to know what your marketing plan is going to be, who you’re marketing to, who your end consumer is. And then also you need the family’s sets of goals too,” he said.
Having an overall game plan should entail increasing net income, whether that be increasing income and minimizing additional costs, or reducing costs while maintaining current levels of income.
Reducing costs on cow-calf operations often means cutting veterinarians and other consultants out of the program, which he does not advise.
He pointed out that producers need to be able to measure performance, which starts with good record keeping.
“You really can’t manage what you don’t measure,” he said.
Maintaining some level of records is paramount to the operation, whether that be obtaining a bank loan, making day-to-day herd decisions, genetic selection decisions, or protocol decisions.
“That starts as simple as a tagging system and goes on from there,” he said.
Having a breeding objective on a cow-calf operation often ends up as a mission statement, which encompasses three areas:
- marketing opportunities
- economically relevant traits
- resource constraints
Nutrition availability and peak volume go hand-in-hand.
“Match it with genetics,” he said.
Limited nutrition favours a smaller frame, less productive cattle (less milk) and lower performance but better reproduction.
Abundant nutrition favours a larger frame, more growth potential and more salable product, or weaned calf weight.
Knowing the quality of feed and the kind of forages that can be used on an operation also needs to be factored.
For stored forages, Balog stressed feed tests. But more important is analyzing the data and acting on it.
“It’s not uncommon that I have people that feed test and then they don’t do anything with it. They’re scrambling — ‘tested my feed but I don’t know what to do with it.’ Talk to a nutritionist, talk to a veterinarian,” he said.
“There’s a lot of simple things you can do just to be able figure out what forages you should be feeding to your replacement heifers versus your cows versus your second calvers versus your bulls.”
Balog also touched on the science of epigenetics, which has far-reaching impacts on animal health.
“It’s really any nutritional health or environmental impacts to the cow while the calf is in the womb, that’s going to impact the lifetime performance of those calves,” he said.
“It’s enabling the expression of those genetics by making sure you’re meeting nutrition, minimizing stress, maximizing health and meeting all the nutritional requirements throughout all of gestation.”
As an example, he said stresses put on the cow during gestation can impact the genetics of a calf in utero.
“It actually changes how those genetics are going to be expressed. You might get calves that will perform differently just because of what their nutrition was during gestation or whether they got sick during gestation,” he said.
During the first 60 days, a beef calf’s nutritional needs also should be met to make sure those genes are turned on and express the best of their ability.
Impacts of the fetus in utero can have far-reaching consequences, from changing how a placenta and lungs develop, to lowering the reproductive success, to negatively impacting carcass traits and meat quality.
Balog said cow-calf producers often select the biggest heifers out of their pen, which he would caution against.
“The larger the frame, the larger mature size, the larger the maintenance costs,” he added.
The environment needs to be factored in, he said.
“Those cows are going to start to get to be really large-framed cows and if they don’t have the right resources, the right amount of grass to actually get those cows to meet that performance level, they’re just not going to perform,” he said.
This could lead to lower body conditions and the cow might be barely able to pull out a big calf and meet their genetic potential.
“Eventually something’s going to suffer and usually that’s going to be body condition, and then eventually fertility on that cow. So that’s sort of a classic cow that only survives for three, four years, and then she comes up dry or late or open,” he said.
From a feedlot perspective, the larger frame equals increased weight to harvest, more days on feed and higher feed costs.
“But more typically your larger weight, larger cow carcass is going to be more profitable just because you’ve got more product to sell, considering that you have to think that you’re not getting any carcass discounts by having monster carcasses or any reduced quality grades,” he said.
While it’s important to match the genetics to the environment, producers must also match the bull to the cow or heifer.
Crossbreeding is also in need of improvement.
“It’s something that’s fairly easy for me to say but maybe more difficult for people to do,” he said.
Comparing straightbred, straightbred terminal cross and two-breed terminal cross, he said the latter is the most profitable.
“This is someone that’s using a three-way cross of sorts. So he’s got two-way cross on the maternal side and he’s using some other terminal cross on top of it. So he’s maximizing his heterosis,” he said.
There was a period of time that producers dialed back performance after encountering breeding problems using larger continental, high-performance bulls.
However, performance is making a comeback.
“A lot of people are using some of those terminal crosses a little bit more, but I would push you to take it to one step further and try to get two breed cross in there because there’s … huge impacts that have heterosis,” he said.
“The end point of why heterosis makes a difference is that it leads to in the longevity of a critter just about one and a half years longer life, but also that cow is weaning one more calf and 600 more pounds than its lifespan too. So that in itself I think has a huge impact.”