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!
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.
Assessing your financial performance is not just important, its vital for your business. But its not the only thing you need to be assessing. Every farm is made up of systems that contribute to the level of production and the financial returns your system producers.
So how do you assess if your enterprise is running to its full potential?
When you are making your assessment, how objective are you?
The four steers in this photograph are all the same age, and were all from the same property when this photograph was taken. The variation between the four of these steers is obvious in the picture.
One of the key roles of the RaynerAg business is to provide producers with an objective view of their program. Helping reduce the variation in a program is one practical approach. But its not just about working through the cow herd and taking out the extremes!
So if you're part of the large group of Australian farmers that haven't had an objective look at your business in a while, why don't you get in touch? I'll be happy to help you see the variation and work out ways to fix it.
In a number of these blogs for Rayner Reckons, I've written about the importance of working to achieve outcomes. I have a deeply held belief that every business should know what goals they are working towards. Those goals or outcomes don't have to mean that your business is to move into the top ten beef producers in the country, or to own more cattle in the region than anyone else.
Your goals could be as personal as making sure you and your family can have a holiday away from the farm every year. Or it could be a decision to structure your operations to respond to seasonal changes without significantly altering your enterprise.
Whatever your outcomes are, its important to work towards those by structuring your daily, weekly, and monthly activities around the best tactics to help you achieve your outcomes on time and as efficiently as you can.
One of the key outcomes for RaynerAg is to help my clients find ways to more efficiently meet their goals.
This year I've been working to help the team at Classimate services offer producers who want to market their livestock on line a credible, independent assessment of the structure, temperament, fertility & muscling of their cattle.
This system would complement other data breeders want to provide their clients, such as EBVs or pedigrees on their animals. I've written in previous Rayner Reckons about the way we have developed this concept.
For me there are some outcomes I wanted to achieve. The first was to develop a system that ticked the boxes for industry credibility, repeatability, relevance and most importantly usefulness to producers, both from a selling and from a buying position.
To achieve this goal I worked closely with a team of people who I respect for their industry knowledge and experience. Together we developed a cattle assessment system that ticks those boxes.
The next goal was to actually undertake assessments for a producer who wanted to market their cattle on line. As a new concept I wondered how producers would respond to the new opportunity.
It turns out there has been plenty of interest from producers in Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia. The first cattle to be assessed for the system are based in Gin Gin, Queensland.
I was really pleased to have over 100 cows come through the yards to be assessed under the system I had developed with my colleagues. I reckon that in itself was a successful outcome to the project I'd been working on.
I reckon the next goal is to use the assessment data in two ways. The first will be to provide the owners with the ability to market their cattle with the independent assessment scores we allocate each animal. And secondly I want to provide the owner with a benchmark of their animals structure, the trends and observations I've seen, as well as some suggestions on how to manage those trends.
That way I reckon there is real value in having your cattle assessed. One, you can market them to a wider audience, and two, you can have something objective to work towards in your herd improvement process.
I'm really pleased this project is achieving the outcomes I wanted, its also reminded me of a few lessons that can be applied to any project you're working on to achieve your goals.
1. Break your goal down into a series of smaller goals so that you can manage them more easily
2. Look to your networks and seek the skills to help you get to your goal
3. Be prepared to invest in those skills or people. It might mean paying for advice or assistance, but that is investment that pays a bigger return when you achieve your goals.
4. Think about the other positive outcomes your achievements might bring. It could be new options to manage your business, to market your livestock or in my case provide additional tailored support to producers.
I really love the outcomes from this project. For me, I've been able to see some great cattle, meet some fantastic new producers, work more closely with a great group of colleagues as well as implementing a great cattle assessment program. Its been a great few months, and I'm looking forward to setting some new goals to work towards.
One of the features of my job is spending a lot of time traveling to visit clients. I don't mind travel so much. It gives me a chance to think about my clients and what is happening with them in regards to the season, their programs and the new strategies we could look at to lift their businesses to a new level of production & profitability.
I reckon its important to take the time to gather some thoughts and reflect on what they mean and could mean to the advice and services I provide.
Every now and then I also get to thinking about how fortunate I am in my job! In the last week Ive been part of a few events that have reminded me of the reasons why I love my job. The events have all been a little different. One was some pregnancy testing on commercial and stud cows.
The other was participating in a seminar focussed on latest pasture research, and the last was working with some of my longest clients who hosted a visit of the International Red Poll World Congress. All very different, but all very rewarding.
This week I wanted to write a Rayner Reckons that highlights why I love my job.
My clients: My business is built around providing producers with information that is technically sound, practically based and appropriate for their situation. And while that is the service I aim to provide, without clients wanting these services, the business wouldn't work. The clients who I have been fortunate to work with are great people for many reasons. Firstly they are passionate about their businesses, and are looking to make their businesses operate that little bit better in all areas. I love working with people who are enthusiastic, passionate and committed. I'm also humbled by their trust and confidence on the services and information I offer to them. I have to say I look forward to working with my clients on all of their projects!
Sharing Information: I love sharing information with others. There are so many fantastic research outcomes; practical solutions and good ideas that can be used to make any agricultural business perform even more effectively. I find it rewarding to share these outcomes and use them to help my clients or have an positive impact on agriculture generally.
Being challenged in my role: So much of my job satisfaction comes from the responding to the challenges associated with agricultural production. I want to help my clients better respond to the challenges for their enterprises. These can be dealing with the drought; improving herd fertility, increasing their market returns. These challenges are ones that require me to keep looking for new ideas, new information and new solutions. its really rewarding to step up and help address them.
Working with livestock: Not everyone gets to work outside and to work with animals! I like cattle! I enjoy working with them and improving my handling skills so that animals move and flow without unnecessary stress or excitement. I enjoy the chance to help my clients select animals that are best suited to their environment and to their markets and to out plans in place to breed that style of animal in the future. There's no doubt this is one of the best parts of my job.
Travelling to new places: In the past 18 months I have worked with clients from South Australia, NSW, QLD, Victoria and even in Malaysia. Its been really exciting to visit new places and see new ways of going about agriculture. Having said that, I reckon I get just as much excitement visiting a new farm within an hour of home to do some preg testing or look at bulls.
There are lots of reasons to love my job, and these are only a few of the reasons. I reckon agriculture offers so many rewarding and pleasurable outcomes.
Having said that, I still reckon one of the nicest parts of my job is having the chance to meet and work with a great group of people from all parts of Australia.
And that is definitely why I love my job!
Earlier this year I was undertaking some work in Brisbane. While I was in town I was contacted by Angus Burnett-Smith who wanted to talk to me about cattle assessment work. I have to admit I was pleased to be contacted, largely because it seemed like a good chance to meet someone new, and hopefully it might bring some more work towards RaynerAg!
Well I was right on both of those assumptions! Angus is the brains and energy behind an online livestock marketing system. In simplest terms the ClassiMate model combines independent assessment of breeding livestock with an online marketing platform for those animals.
The model has proven to be very successful with small ruminant animals, and Angus was keen to discuss with me the opportunity to extend the platform to beef cattle.
It certainly was an exciting proposition.
There are plenty of methods used in the beef industry to describe cattle. The challenge was to draw on those to develop a system that would allow breeders to be able to list their cattle on line, and for potential buyers to view those cattle with complete confidence in the way those animals had been assessed.
I reckon it was a challenge I had to accept, and I went away and worked with several industry people who have a level of experience and industry knowledge I respect. Between us we looked at the current industry methods, and considered what traits are most important to assess in breeding animals.
With a lot of research, discussion and testing, I was able to report back to Angus and the ClassiMate team we had developed a system we are confident in to assess with credibility and repeatability, breeding cattle of both sexes.
The ClassiMate assessment system assesses structural soundness; temperament; fertility and muscle. These are the traits that are important in any breeding enterprise, and using these as the basis for selection will certainly drive the performance of any beef business.
Now that the system has been established the role of RaynerAg will be to provide ClassiMate members with the assessment service so that they can list their animals on the website.
RaynerAg will not be working for ClassiMate. I'll provide an independent service (along with the other team members) that is arranged on demand as people require it.
So what happens now? Well firstly I reckon its important to remember that assessing your animals on their physical merits won't replace the value of EBVs which describe the genetic potential of an animal. So if you are in BreedPlan I'd encourage you to continue to monitor and record the traits required to contribute to your EBVs.
However having the opportunity to have your animals independently assessed for their structural soundness, temperament; fertility and muscle can be incredibly beneficial.
Assessments such as these will allow you to select out animals that are not suited to your environment; to your market specifications or are just not right for your program.
If you are trying to market your livestock and one option is to advertise your livestock online, providing potential buyers with an independent assessment of your animals can add to your credibility.
I reckon there will be opportunities for breeders who are looking to try and combine traditional marketing techniques with online marketing. There would be no reason why bulls in a sale catalogue or females in a feature sale couldn't be accompanied with both their individual EBVs and a ClassiMate score. That way you address genetic potential and the animal's physical traits at the same time.
I'm pleased I was able to work with a great team to develop this system. Naturally I hope ClassiMate see's new members that are looking to have their cattle assessed! But I also have to be honest and say I'm pleased that a team of people I respect came together to put some ideas together to have a system in place that will aid beef producers across Australia improve their herds and hopefully move much closer to their owners goals.
If you are interested in joining ClassiMate you can get in touch with them yourself. As an independent assessor, my connection with ClassiMate is now purely to be on their list of cattle assessors and to ensure the system used to assess cattle into the future maintains industry relevance and credibility. I reckon it will work and I think there will be plenty of producers who will gain a lot from both the assessments and the new marketing opportunities.
If you're a bull breeder, there's no doubt you have one of the more challenging roles in the beef industry. As a breeder you're producing bulls that will contribute to the genetic potential of a breed and more importantly, your bull will have a direct impact on the production of beef across the business of many people.
Its not an easy task, as you need to manage the variation which naturally occurs in any population. This variation extends across frame size & maturity pattern, growth, muscle, temperament as well as well as other traits.
To some extent this natural variation is a good thing. It allows you to present bulls for sale for producers who all have different requirements bulls, based on their own cow herd, environment or target markets.
The ability to measure and record the genetic potential of your bulls, and present them using BreedPlan EBVs is a huge advantage for bull breeders. As I've discussed in other Rayner reckons, EBVs allow producers to search for bulls which have the genetic potential to take a herd in a new direction or to strengthen the traits most desirable ion a breeding herd.
EBVs offer an objective measure of the genetic value of a bull. The measurement and evaluation of the traits recorded in BreedPlan does provide a level of objectivity which producers can look to when they are seeking to buy a new bull.
However there are some attributes a bull has, which can't be assessed from EBVs. For instance, what are the bulls feet like? Or what is his muscle score? How are his legs and shoulders? What does his sheath look like?
These are important physical traits which can have a big impact on a producers cow herd. A bull with less than ideal feet can possibly make a problem worse in a herd.
Selecting for muscle score is based on a visual assessment of the overall muscle volume of the bull. There is a correlation with the EBVs for Retail Beef Yield, but a visual assessment can make a decision on the suitability of a bull to improve muscle score in a breeding herd that much easier.
Many bull breeders have attempted to address this need to assess the physical attributes of their bulls by including photographs of the bulls in their sale catalogues. These photos can highlight some of the obvious characteristics, but as one producer said to me "you can only tell so much from a photograph".
Objectively describing your bulls to potential clients can also be a challenge. Your opinions will be part of the overall information a producer absorbs, but some clients want to see more objective descriptions of a bulls physical attributes.
To help bulls breeders provide this objective information many breeders are now supplying information categorised under the Beef Class Structural Assessment Scores. These scores are based on on the structure of feet, legs, sheath & temperament.
Providing these scores in your catalogue can demonstrate to potential purchasers that each bulls physical attributes have been objectively assessed and scored.
These combined with the genetic information of the EBVs certainly give a purchaser a level of information which ensures they can make very informed & focussed decisions.
Naturally purchasers should still look at the bulls they are interested in to ensure traits such as frame or the maturity pattern of the bull will complement their herds.
I reckon providing this information for each bull allows purchasers to narrow their search down to specific bulls in your catalogue. It also demonstrates to your clients how focussed you are in providing the best information on your bulls, to help them make the right decisions. Its often your focus on providing the right animals which will see a client buy your bulls year after year.
As a bull breeder don't be afraid to use an independent specialist to assist in the objective assessments. I have been doing a lot of bull assessments and its common to notice things the breeder has overlooked, simply because they see their bulls everyday and miss something out of familiarity.
If you're interested in providing some more objective information on your bulls this year, don't hesitate to give me a call. I'd be very happy to make a time to look over your bulls to help you provide the information which can not only attract new clients but can also satisfy the needs of your existing clients.
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