Recently I judged a local shows commercial and stud cattle sections. I really enjoyed the chance to look at a range of cattle and to provide some comments about the animals I assessed. However on reading through the report of my judging in one of the major rural papers, I’m not sure my comments were heard as clearly as I thought I had made them!
If you believe the report, my judging was influenced as much by the recent hot, dry summer as anything else. This had apparently caused my to lean more towards Bos Indicus cattle than British breeds. Well if only it was that simple!
I can confidently say that weather doesn’t influence my judging or indeed change the criteria have in my mind for cattle! Climate and environment or the other hand, do play a role. I think a lot about suitability of a breed to an environment. But its not the first thing I think of!
I assess cattle for three key attributes. The first is that they must be structurally sound. When I talk about structure I am referring to the skeletal system of the animal; as well as other physical traits.
So first off, I look at the way the animal walks. If an animal can place its feet in line with each other, with no over stepping or under stepping by the hind feet, then I start to feel the structure of the legs, hips, and shoulders are acceptable. I then like to look at how the animal stands, and I have another look at the angel of the shoulders, and the way it stands with its hind feet and legs in a normal standing position.
Its then that I have a chance to decide if the animal is standing too low on its hind feet, or two high. Both of these are a result of legs that are either curved or too straight, and its something I may not have noticed when I was watching it walk. I also want to see if the hocks are bowed in outwards or inwards.
What I really want to determine is how sound is the animals feet legs and shoulders? Can it walk a long distance each day to graze and water, and will it be able to carry the weight of its body without causing it to have sore joints that could lead to swelling, lameness or arthritis.
I reckon these traits are important for the longevity of animals within your herd and contribute directly to your overall profitability. If you have cows that can conceive, calve and wean a calf every year that is the first part of profit. The second is to have cows that can do this up to 10 years old.
When I run the figures on herd profits, those that have cows that are fertile and staying in the herd because they can get about, look after themselves and a calf have a higher profit margin. That’s often because they are selling a few more surplus heifers, and the heifers they do retain for breeding are the select group of genetically and physically better heifers.
As part of my structural assessment I look closely at teats and the udder to make sure that the quarters are all even and the teats are well shaped to support a calf sucking. I also want to see that all four teats can be used and not left un-milked as this can contribute to mastitis, which is pretty painful for a cow and will result in lower productivity.
When I’m happy with structure I look for the traits that add to productivity and profitability. We are breeding cattle to produce red meat, so I will always select for muscle. I look at the shape of the animals, the width depth and length of each animal to determine its overall muscle volume. You can have muscle in females, and it wont reduce your fertility. So I select for it.
I also like to think about maturity pattern and frame size. Large frame later maturity females will naturally require more feed to achieve their body requirements for maintenance, let alone for reproduction and growth. Remember you can only grow so much pasture or put out so many supplements.
And if you want your animals to do well, you need to feed them properly. Large frame later maturity animals may mean you run less numbers in your herd, and so may impact on the total number of kilograms of beef you produce each year.
Whenever I assess cattle, temperament is my other key trait. I like cattle to have a quiet temperament. Aggressive or overly excitable cattle are both dangerous and less productive; due to the impact temperament has on eating quality.
Ideally, my preferred animals are those that are structurally sound, well grown, well-muscled females. I prefer them to be moderate maturity and quiet temperament.
Ultimately I prefer them to suit the country and environment and to suit their target markets in both size and breed.
If I can help my clients have a breeding herd like that, I’m very happy. And when I’m judging I’ll always try and select those females first, regardless of the weather on the day!
One of the more rewarding jobs I’m asked to undertake for producers is to select their replacement females. The rewards for this job come in various ways. Firstly it’s great to be trusted to make decisions that will impact on the long-term direction of a herd. Secondly, I find a great deal of satisfaction in participating in a process that has a direct impact on the financial returns from a breeding herd, not to mention influencing the overall productivity of that herd.
I’m often surprised in the way many producers approach selection. I often encounter herds that have only one criteria for selection, which is that cows must have a calf every year. Now there’s certainly nothing wrong with this criteria. But that’s only one area to consider.
So what should you consider during selection?
Structural soundness is fundamental in a herd. The ability of your cattle to walk and forage directly impacts on their individual performance and on your herd’s productivity. Cattle that have poor leg structure suffer from arthritis; are prone to lameness and find walking distances to access feed and water more difficult, especially as they get older.
The flow on effect of this is a reduction in the ability of individual cows to meet their feed demands for maintenance, growth and production. Cows with a lower condition score at calving take longer to start cycling again. A late cycle puts the cow further behind in calving, and this cascades to a point where she may have only cycled once in the 12 week joining period.
Her ability to deliver a calf unassisted is also impacted on by structure. The angle between her pins and hips has a direct influence on calving ease, as does the width between her pins.
Teat size and udder structure are also important in the structural assessment process. Achieving the genetic potential of your calves to gain weight to weaning is greatly dependent on the cows milk supply. Poor udder attachment, badly sized teats are common causes of everything from poor suckling to mastitis and reduced milk production.
Maturity pattern should be a focus in selection. In the back of your mind you need to consider if the cattle you are producing will have the right level of fatness for your target markets. But you also need to think about the cows and their energy demands. Larger framed, later maturity cows require more feed, and if you don’t have the feed to met those demands you will either have lower fertility levels, or you will have to run less cows.
It’s equally important to have an even group of cows. Evenness will help you manage feed supply to your cows more effectively. You will find the process of managing joining and calving more efficient than if you are trying to juggle the different needs of big and little cows.
Lets not forget that having a range of cow sizes will also mean a range of weaner sizes. If you are trying to manage for a drought, not to mention hit a specific turn off time or weight, various sized weaners will cause you no end of headaches.
The Other Traits
Temperament is one of the most important traits to select for. I really don’t like cranky cows, flighty cows, or those cows you just can’t trust! Selecting out the quieter, less nervous cattle will improve your handling experiences, for both you and your cattle!
And never forget that quiet cattle produce a quieter calf. This in turn that is directly related to their eventual eating quality.
I also use the time to select for those cattle that have the traits that add value to your turn off. I try and select cattle that have superior growth for age (within the maturity pattern suitable for the area), and for cattle that display a higher degree of muscularity.
Can you put a price on it?
Its actually not that hard to put a price on the benefits of improved selection. Not so long ago I ran a comparison on a clients herd. I looked at the impact selection had when we changed operations to keep cows in the herd for 2 more years, and to tighten calving from 16 weeks to 12 weeks.
Focusing on an early maturity pattern did help us tighten joining. We also managed nutrition more effectively during joining so that the cows were on a rising plane of nutrition.
These changes impacted a number of areas across the herd. It changed the number of replacement heifers we were keeping, changed the age structure slightly in the cow herd, and changed the value of the weaners being sold. The value story was interesting as this was the influence of having a greater number of cattle at a similar age and weight, rather than smaller numbers across a couple of different weight categories.
When we I ran the numbers I found we had actually increased the gross margin by 19%! That was a huge lift in productivity and profitability, and we really hadn’t done anything other than change some selection criteria.
Now this was a pretty big shift, and I reckon not everyone will get a huge lift. Although there are gains to be made trough the sale of more surplus females, tightened joining, improved time management and so on.
Ultimately I reckon it proves that focusing on these traits is financially worth doing. And as someone who enjoys doing this work, I’ll always be happy to come and do it for breeders. Its one job I know more than pays for itself!
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