The Search for Superior Maternal Genetics


By Bill Pendergrass, Beefmaster Breeders United Executive Vice President

Spring has sprung and with it, a remarkable demand for Beefmaster cattle. As I write this column we are over halfway through the spring marketing season and despite a large number of sales with increased consignments, prices for quality Beefmaster lots are impressive.

Demand is a fickle beast, it is hard to understand and even harder to explain. However, deciphering what is creating demand is essential to future planning. The demand for Beefmaster cattle is driven by herd rebuilding predominantly in Texas and Oklahoma, with some action from Missouri thrown in for good measure. The complexion of the cow herds in these areas is very different, ranging from F1 tiger stripes on the coastal bend to straight bred Angus in the fescue country of Missouri. The common thread across these varied environments is that these ranchers are searching for superior maternal genetics.

For the past three years, the BBU Advertising and Public Relations Committee has focused on the message of heterosis or crossbreeding. Promoting the benefits of crossbreeding with Beefmasters may appear to be stating the obvious. However as of lately, it seems that sticking to that message is yielding good results. As advertising strategy for 2017-2018 is being discussed, many members are vocal in their opinions to keep the “crossbreeding” message in place because it is effective. More calves, healthier calves, heavier pay weights and cows that live longer is a message that is easy to understand.

A new drumbeat of “beef cow efficiency” is gaining momentum within the beef industry. For those of you who read this column each month, you are probably tired of me bringing it up. The reason I keep bringing it up is that improving beef cow efficiency will be the next major, long term issue that the beef industry will tackle.

To illustrate how effective the U.S., beef industry is at improving major production issues I will refer to National Beef Quality Audits that started in 1991. These audits are led by animal scientists and industry partners and were initially conducted in packing plants to determine what issues were leading to reduced beef consumption by consumers. The findings of the 1991 audit were that the industry had serious carcass quality and consistency issues that were eroding the demand for beef.

Armed with data from the 1991 audit, academia went to work conducting producer education programs through the extension services in each state, implementing Beef Quality Assurance Certification programs and driving home the message that we are producing beef, not just cattle. An essential part of these extension programs was selecting and managing cattle for more marbling was the “right thing to do”, for the good of the beef industry. I must say that their techniques were very effective.

The National Beef Quality Audit is conducted every five years. Increasing marbling or Quality Grade was the main thrust of the educational campaign. Note the overall increase in Quality Grade achieved over the years according to the USDA: 55% Choice in 1991, 49% Choice in 1995, 61% Choice in 2011 and today 70% of the weekly kill is Choice or Prime. My point is that once academia sets its sights on improving a beef industry issue, they develop highly effective educational programs to “correct” said issues.

“Fixing” the carcass quality issue was fairly simple because selecting for terminal traits, such as carcass merit, is pretty straight forward. By single trait selecting for marbling and growth through using Angus genetics (because they had more data than anyone else) over a 25 year period, we have jumped the percentage Choice in our weekly kill almost 20%.

There is a great lesson here. If we issue a major industry challenge to academia, they will arm themselves with technology and data, then develop producer education programs through the extension service which then uses the technology and data to correct the “problem”. I say these things not be negative about academia or the extension service, but rather to point out how effective these programs are.

The emerging beef cow efficiency issue will be the next great battle ground in the beef industry. Academia is already at work on the issue. The difference between beef cow efficiency and carcass quality is that maternal traits are much more complex than carcass traits. This means that academia will be even more reliant upon technology and data to identify and “fix” the problem(s). Once the problem and the fix are identified, you can get prepared for the massive extension education programs that will follow. The good news is that Beefmasters are ideally suited for the efficiency issue. We have the opportunity to be on the “right” side of this issue.

At the Plains Nutrition Council spring conference, the USDA Meat Animal Research Center presented across breed comparisons for efficiency by using post-weaning gain and average daily gain during feed intake data collection. In this 18 breed evaluation, for both steer and heifer ADG/DMI, Beefmasters ranked second. While complex, the data suggests that Beefmasters gain more weight and use less feed to accomplish the gain. This type of information is not new and is seen in Growsafe Systems LLC trials across the country.

Why am I talking about feed conversion in a discussion about beef cow efficiency? The University of Illinois has Growsafe Systems data that suggests the same rankings for cattle developed on forage then moved to concentrate diets, and vice versa. If that is the case, the same cattle that are efficient converters on grain are also efficient convertors of forage. This means that Beefmasters can leverage feed efficiency into the cow maintenance and annual cow cost arguments. This is truly good news for Beefmasters.

Beefmaster may also finally have some good things to talk about in terms of carcass value. Since the vast majority of fat cattle are sold on pricing grids to packers, hitting the value drivers for those grids is important. The first value driver of any grid is hot carcass weight, which is a direct correlation to the dressing percentage. Over the years, as the percentage of Angus cattle has increased in the daily kill, the plant average dressing percentage has decreased. This is in part due to body deposition because Angus cattle are growing very large internal organs, which are considered offal and are a detriment to dressing percentage. Packers are openly talking about dressing percentage issues now and Beefmasters excel in this grid driving trait.

In a recent Certified Angus Beef article, a staff writer went into detail using current carcass pricing statistics, showing the value of dressing percentage. For every 1% increase in dressing percentage on an 850 pound carcass, you would expect to gain an additional $28 per head (using current grid values). With a 62.5% plant average for dressing percentage and BBU data suggests that Beefmaster sired steers average 65.5% (BBU Director James Skelton is averaging 65.5% on his Beefmaster sired steers fed at Irsik and Doll Feedyard) it is easy to assume that good, higher yielding Beefmaster steers will earn an extra $84 per head, just off of dressing percentage. That earns back more money than the vaunted Choice/Select spread. If the cattle grade Choice and Yield Grade 3 or better, they are worth a lot to the packer. This doesn’t even factor in feedyard performance and feed conversions.

Beefmaster breeders, you have a lot to be excited about. The more research that is conducted on efficiency, the better Beefmasters look. We encourage you to invest in your future and embrace the technologies that are making our product look really good. The interconnected web of performance data, genomics, ultrasound scans, genetic evaluations, Growsafe systems, heterosis and whatever comes next is a friend of Beefmasters. These technologies are proving what you as breeders have known for some time, Beefmasters are truly efficient at all stages. It’s time to secure our future.

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