The annual bull-selling season is a time when many people seem to ask questions about EBVs. The questions are not restricted to the usefulness of EBVs. They also include what do they mean, how do we actually use them and most frequently, why bother with them!
This year I was tagged on Facebook to make a comment on an American article that questioned EBVs, or as they are known in the US EPDs (which is Expected Progeny Differences). It was a pretty long article that questioned the science and mathematics that underpin the calculation of Breeding Values.
I had to read the article about three or four times to properly understand it! However two lines stood out for me. The first asked if EBVs were a tool or a toy. The suggestion was that EBVs were a dangerous toy being used unthinkingly and that it was a cult like behavior! The second was the summary line quoting a Tom Lasater, founder of the Beefmaster breed who said: "Breeding cattle is easy. The difficult part is keeping it easy!"
The article made me think a lot about my advice and the work I’ve done with producers for over 20 years. The comment about breeding cattle is easy, and the difficult part is keeping it easy is a good place to start.
Breeding cattle is easy! You can buy a bull and leave him with a group of cows all year. You don’t need to spend a lot, and you don’t really have to do much.
However, breeding cattle and making a profit is not so easy! Profit is driven in beef herds by the average price you receive and the kilograms of beef you produce per hectare. The average cost to produce a kilogram of beef in Southern Australia is $1.74 and in northern Australia its $1.75
So to be profitable, you can either increase your average price per kilogram, or reduce your costs or increase your kilograms of beef produced per hectare. Of these three options, the one with the greatest variation and the most potential to be manipulated in the kilograms of beef you produce per hectare.
Increasing your kilograms per hectare requires you to focus on two key areas. Nutrition and genetics. I actually find it hard to prioritise one over the other. In most situations, nutrition often limits the genetic potential of cattle. I have seen many herds with genetics that were capable of producing more kilograms of beef, but those genetics were never going to be expressed with the level of nutrition on offer.
Conversely genetics offer the opportunity to increase the ability of animals to grow faster, to be more muscular or more fertile or to have the traits that contribute to market compliance. It’s just as important to ensure your animals can fully utilize the nutrition you provide, so that investment in pastures, crops or feed isn’t wasted.
Increasing your production is a result of focused nutritional management and clear genetic improvement to capture the traits that help you produce cattle that suit your environment and your markets.
The difference between this and a basic, ‘simply put the bull out with the cows program’ is the simple option remains unfocussed. Cows calve when they calve. Weaners hit weights at varying times. Marketing is done ad hoc! Essentially this is a commodity production system where breeders have little opportunity to take advantage of market specifications or industry programs that can increase the average price per kilogram.
So in my mind, profitably breeding cattle isn’t simple! You need to manage the complexity of nutrition in varying seasons and localities. You need to consider market specifications as well as programs such as MSA that can increase your average price per kilogram. And you need to invest in genetics that will allow you to lift your production to be profitable.
The hardest thing with genetics is you can’t actually see them in an animal. When you look at a bull or a cow, you can see its physical appearance. It’s a direct result of its individual background, its nutrition and environment allowing it to express its genetics. Will that be the same in your business? How do you know? You have at best a guess that he may or may not suit your program.
The use of EBVs and particularly those that have high accuracies mean you have a better estimation of the genetic potential of that animal to contribute those traits into your herd. High accuracies mean that data on those genetics has been recorded on numerous programs and environments. This offers you a better insight into the genetic potential of an animal and therefore an opportunity to make a more informed selection.
I’ve never considered an EBV as a crystal ball. Its an estimation based on recordings and analysis. I would never consider them a toy! I use EBVs as a tool that help me select a number of bulls that would contribute the genetics my clients require to increase their production of beef per hectare. Once I have those bulls identified, I need to physically assess them. If the bull is unsound, or has a poor temperament or displays attributes unsuited to my client, I don’t recommend him!
So when I’m asked how useful are EBVs, I always answer that EBVs are a very useful tool. And that tool is to help refine your search for a sire down to a manageable number that you will then physically assess.
Breeding cattle is simple. Being a profitable cattle breeder takes a bit more work and focus. However if you want to be profitable there are tools to help make your job a bit easier. Every tool has a limitation, and if you know the limitations and use them as they are meant to be used, I reckon you can make breeding profitable cattle a bit easier than some people make them out to be!
This time of year my mailbox fills up with catalogues for bull sales being held across the north west of NSW and southern Queensland. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad to be on the mailing list for so many different operations. Its important I know what bulls are being offered and its important I'm able to know these things if I'm going to do my job properly advising clients of what sire decisions they should consider.
One thing that stands out for me, is the number of bulls available each year, and the overwhelming amount of information that is now available for producers. Its impressive and exciting that we can make decisions about the genetic potential of a bull and not be wholly reliant on visual observation and pedigree.
With the availability of EBVs, we now have much more information regarding the genetic potential of a bull to improve herd performance in numerous traits. That information can be vital in making progress in your herd. Especially when you remember that genetic improvement is both long term and cumulative in your herd.
However, in practical terms how do you work your way through a catalogue, let alone several catalogues that may arrive on your desk? I thought I might spend a bit of time offering a few suggestions to make sure you use your catalogue to its full potential, and the bull sale vendors get a return on their investment of producing the catalogues in the first place!
The starting point, as obvious as it seems, is to know what breed you are actually interested in looking at for your next sire! In my case I have a lot of breeds to be across. But for most producers there is really only a need to worry about bulls from the breeds they use in their herds. This is important because you shouldn't be attempting to compare the EBVs of breeds against each other! While the traits recorded may be the same, the EBVs that are published have different values.
When you choose a sire, you should be looking for a sire that will contribute the genetics to move your herd in a specific direction. So ask yourself what is it you want to achieve with your herd? Do you want to improve your growth rate to turn steers off earlier? Do you need more fatness? How big do you want your cows to be in your herd, and so what is the mature size potential of a bull daughters? There are plenty of questions to ask, and you need to have the answers in mind.
With these answers, you can start to look at a catalogue! The front of the catalogues contain valuable information about the sale, and buying conditions. They also contain the information on the breed EBVs. This includes breed average as well as in the breed leaders across the traits. This is designed to help you know if a bull is likely to offer you a genetic advantage in the traits you may be looking for.
The following pages contain information such as reference sires, and this often helps you determine what pedigrees and what breeding objectives the bulk breeder has in mind.
The majority of the catalogue is then made up of information on each bull on offer. Each description includes the Lot Number, Registered Name, Pedigree and Breedplan information (EBVs). Most entries also contain the breeders comments or thoughts.
There are different considerations here. If you are following pedigrees and using specific sire lines in your herd, the pedigree is important information.
Most people in a commercial operation don't need to spend a lot of time on pedigree. Instead look at the EBVs.
The EBVs you should look at are the ones that are important to your breeding direction! If for example you want to improve yield and eye muscle area, these are the EBVs to look at! If it helps, highlight the bulls that fall within your desired range. Often this will be the bulls that have a high accuracy of EBV data and are above breed average in that trait.
If the bulls don't have the genetic potential for your herd direction, then don't spend time worrying about them!
The reality is, most sale offerings of bulls will only have a small proportion of bulls suitable for the direction of your herd. Its not to say there are bulls that are no good. It means not every bull will suit every operation. So spend time looking for the right one. Remember a bulls influence can last up to three generations, so choosing the right one is important.
There is another way to find the sires in a catalogue. The electronic version is to use the BreedObject website. BredeObject allows you to search the catalogues in your breed, and rank animals on either $ Index values, or around the EBVs that you have identified as important in your herd direction.
Basically BreeObject lets you automatically search the bulls being offered and identified them. When you have a result, you can highlight those bulls in the catalogue and take that list of bulls to the sale.
The most important part of the process is to not worry about all the other bulls on offer at a particular sale!
Trust your list and your identified set of animals. These are the ones you know will be genetically most suited to your herd direction and production goals.
When you get to the sale, take the time to look at the bus you have identified. This is your chance to look critically at each bull and assess if his physical attributes are best suited to your herd.
If you have any doubts or you can clearly see the bull doesn't suit your cow herd, then yo can move to the next bull on your list. By the end of the process you should have a purchase list of bulls in order, and it should be a list you can have a lot of confidence in, based on the genetic information available and on your physical assessment!
Its true this approach is perhaps a little more structured than many people are used to. But if you want to make the best decision and purchase a bull to take your program forwards, then I reckon you should do a bit of preparation! If you're not sure where to start, then feel free to give me a call and get some advice. When you do put the work in, you will find your catalogues to be a key stone in the preparation and on the day you buy your next sire.
Last week I was part of a road trip with Shorthorn Beef, delivering several workshops on crossbreeding. We were holding these workshops on properties in southern NSW and in Victoria. The three places we visited were all running crossbreeding programs to target specific markets and to capture the advantages of hybrid vigour in their herds.
I reckon crossbreeding is a concept that many producers know of, and in many cases, are actually strong advocates for. If you're a little unsure of what crossbreeding really means, I reckon its important to know what it actually is, before you implement a crossbreeding system in your herd.
Crossbreeding uses two (or more breeds) to produce a calf that displays the attributes of both parents. The impact of two breeds on that calf results in an expression of hybrid vigour, which means the progeny will perform to a greater degree when compared to straight breed animals.
This extra performance is often seen in the important traits associated with beef production, such as improved weaning weights, improved growth rates and greater longevity in a herd.
If you use crossbreed female in your breeding herd those traits also influence your fertility rate.
So there are positive benefits from crossbreeding! If I needed to go a little further, one of the more obvious advantages of crossbreeding is to introduce new traits to your herd, such as adaptation to heat or pests, or to capture other production traits that are important to you and may take a long while to select for within a breed.
While crossbreeding systems offer these advantages, many people grow discouraged by crossbreeding. I've wondered for a long time why that might be. I reckon there are a few reasons. Firstly, there are different strategies involved in crossbreeding. The most simple is to use two breeds generating an F1 calf. These calves display all the hybrid vigour effects and surplus females are always in demand for people wanting to use them in breeding herds.
In this simple system, there is a positive return from extra growth in the F1 progeny. These extra kilograms result in an increase in gross margins when compared to the straight breed program.
However the big increases start to occur when producers look to use crossbred females in the breeding program.
When they do this, its very quickly apparent that the hybrid vigour effect in both the parent and the progeny result in increases across the range of production traits.
The downside is, these systems need to be planned and followed in the joining program. It seems that many people move away from crossbreeding systems because they forget to follow a plan, or they find difficulties in making the system work to their benefit.
So instead of using a crossbreeding system that allows you to have increased weaning weights, improved longevity in your herd and greater fertility in your cows, (both of which mean keeping less replacement heifers) many people step back from crossbreeding because they are frightened by a perception of complexity!
Maybe the other concern is that people have dabbled with crossbreeding and have been disappointed by the results they have received. I know of a few producers who have bought cheaper bulls to use over their second choice cows, "just to see what would happen". While the progeny did grow well, the results weren't everything they expected, so it becomes a program that isn't "all its cracked up to be!"
Well, I reckon there are a few simple messages. One, is that if you want to increase your kilograms of beef producers and earn a greater return in your enterprise, you should be considering or implementing a crossbreeding strategy. The only exception may be where you have a target market for straight bred animals that suits you and rewards you well enough already.
The second message is you need to elect the best quality sires and dams from the breeds you want to use. Don't use second rate genetics! Rubbish crossed with rubbish still results in rubbish!
Thirdly follow the plan. Most crossbreeding problems occur when people deviate from the plan, for example by keeping heifers that should have been sold or introducing a new breed without thinking about what will be done with the progeny.
If you want to consider crossbreeding and if it will take your herd into a new direction of production, take the time to discuss options and ideas. I've helped a few people in the last 12 months weigh up their options and we have come up with some very nice programs that will be exciting for their results and for the profits they will generate!
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