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Management

Cattle selection can improve functional efficiency and profitability for range operators

Written by Melissa Hemken

Lander – The 2014 LocalFest in Lander on Oct. 24 hosted rancher Steve Campbell of Parma, Idaho to speak regarding selecting cattle for functional efficiency and profitability. 

Campbell’s goal is to produce more forage off a given piece of ground so he can run more cows and they stay in better condition. He also focuses on breeding and developing an individual animal that is more efficient in its use of forage and producing offspring. 

Improving cattle

“After we answer the questions of energy, like hay or forage quality,” said Campbell, owner of Tailor Made Cattle and Triangle C Beef, “and minerals and toxins, either in the box or through forage, we need to look at selecting functional and efficient cows and bulls that actually get cows pregnant. Fertility trumps every other output from the ranch.”

Technological improvements, including vaccines, implants, beta agonists, ionophores, anthelmintics and genetics, have increased cattle productivity by 80 percent in the last 50 years.

But Campbell said these improvements have come with a hefty price tag, and too often the only businesses that see their profits increase are the ones selling the technology. 

“We need to select animals that can survive and thrive on our native grasses in a low-input environment,” Campbell said. “It’s about production versus profit. We may be able to say, ‘I had the biggest calves at the sale this year,’ but did they make the most money?”

Campbell said the supplements required to make that biggest calf and the hours we spent out in the calving barn are expensive, and he prefers to stay away from them.

“It has been seven years since I touched a cow during calving,” he says, “and it is basically by selecting cows for calving ease, not bulls. I select cows that were put together correctly.”

Fertility component

According to Campbell, 40 percent of profit is in fertility. 

Longevity in the herd is greatly determined by fertility, and fertility is greatly determined by how well a cow fits her environment. Maintenance, or the efficiency of an animal’s digestion, makes up 30 percent of costs. The growth of an animal, or how many pounds a day they gain, is 20 percent, and 10 percent of profit is in carcass traits.

“We’re really good at being able to tell what percentage of the average cow’s body weight she’ll eat if she’s on baled oats versus alfalfa versus silage,” Campbell said, “but we don’t have any idea what each individual will eat. Some cows are eating twice as much as other cows.” 

Criteria

The criteria that tells which cows will eat less are phenotype, as determined by linear measurement for efficiency; adaptability and meat-to-bone ratio of the grazing animal; glandular function for cows that naturally resist diseases and parasites; butterfat for easier keeping cows and easier fleshing calves; and development of the rumen while the calf is nursing, which is the case for leaving replacement heifer calves on the cow for 10 months or longer.

Development of the rumen is important to get more nutrition out of what the cattle are eating. A fully developed rumen provides 70-percent utilization of feed, versus the average 55 percent, and money spent now pays ranchers back over the life of the animal in the form of 10 to 20 percent less feed each year.

“To develop the heifers, leave them on their mother for 10 months,” Campbell said. “By spending a little extra to feed their mothers in the winter, we will save 10 to 15 percent per year on feed for 10 to 12 years on the next generation of cows in the herd.” 

Observations

“Our ancestors knew and used the adage ‘whorls, swirls and curls’ to select cattle. Now we teach animal science at university instead of animal husbandry. We can preg check a cow without putting on a glove. We can tell the sex of a calf by looking at the hair on the cow’s tail,” Campbell explains. “The horns of a cow can tell us if she has aborted just as they tell us periods of infertility in a bull. We simply observe the effects of testosterone, estrogen and progesterone.”

When a heifer and a cow cycle, they grow a little ring in their hoof every 21 days, when they get pregnant they stop doing that.

“A few months down the road, if the animal is growing rings again she has had an early term abortion and is open,” Campbell said. 

After pregnancy

“When a heifer/cow starts cycling her hairs in the middle of the adrenal hair whorl will stand up until they quit cycling and producing estrogen, whether they went infertile or were bred,” he explains. “In three to four months, the thymus will start to expand. They’ve got to be pretty healthy for the thymus to show up, it looks like someone took a paintbrush and painted the hair upstream on the neck.”

When the animal is pregnant, the pancreatic whorl, located on the low side of the abdomen, enlarges as well. 

“If I buy an animal from someone I’ll stick my arm in there to find out what’s going on,” Campbell explained, “but I don’t do conventional preg testing on my cows. I just look at them. Is it slam-dunk? No. It’s correct 75 to 80 percent of the time.

“I can tell what sex the calf will be by looking at the hair on the top eight inches of the tail at seven to eight months. If the hair is wrapped tightly around the top of the tail, it will probably be a heifer calf. If it is flayed out, it will probably be a bull calf.”

Selection

When selecting heifers, rancher Steve Campbell encourages producers to keep good records. 

On the day heifers are born, he comments that it is important record if they have a bald udder and/or extra teat, as well as the shape of the escutcheon, which is the shield-like pattern of distribution of the hair coat in the area below the vulva, down to the top of the udder.

Records of the placement of the adrenal hair whorl, a circular formation of hair along the backbone where the hair is actually laying in a 360-degree pattern, is also important, as well as if they are born in the first 21 days of calving showing fertility of the mother cow.

“Escutcheon looks like a spade shovel with a handle,” Campbell described. “The farther up the handle goes and the wider it is, the earlier in life she’ll come into milk production and the later she’ll stay at full milk production. The bigger and wider it is, the more gallons of milk she’ll produce, and the more upward slant, the more butterfat she’ll have in her milk.” 

At one year of age, Campbell recommends looking at the linear measurements of the flank, which should be two inches or more than the girth, the rump length, which should be 38 to 40 percent of the topline, and the girth, which should be 1.5 times the rump height or more. The rump should be two inches wider than long, he adds.

Campbell said that selecting for good glandular function should be a high priority. 

Healthy glandular function is also denoted by early shedding of hair coat, indicating the heifer is cycling regularly.

The linear measurements for selecting an animal who eats efficiently, has excellent meat-to-bone ratio and is highly fertile will be covered in part two of this article in next week’s paper. 

Melissa Hemken is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..