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Shift the Workload: Focus on Livestock Culling, Genetics

By Meg Grzeskiewicz

Raising livestock on any size operation is hard work. There’s no way around it. However, you can minimize your personal time and labor investment by shifting your farm’s workload from yourself to your animals. They have their entire lives to spend doing a few simple jobs: eat, grow and reproduce. You, on the other hand, have numerous important things to do. This mind-set for management of any species will lead to a low-input ranch that can be run on just a couple hours per day.

My shift-the-workload philosophy is a product of my diverse experiences in agriculture. I have a bachelor’s degree in animal science and agribusiness from West Virginia University. I have worked on ranches in Montana and Texas, and for renowned grazier Greg Judy in Missouri. As an intern at his ranch I learned how to harness the power of nature with mob grazing.

I now own Rhinestone Cattle Co., a grass-fed beef and consulting operation in western New York. I have taken much inspiration from the work of Tom Lassiter, Gearld Fry and Ian Mitchell-Innes.

This article is written from the viewpoint of a 100 percent forage-fed beef cattle producer in the northeastern United States.

Make Your Own Rules

Your only obligations as a rancher are to provide your animals with humane living conditions, clean water and plenty to eat. All decisions above and beyond that are up to you. I’m always busy, so it’s essential to me that my cattle are able to take care of themselves. My goal is basically to move one polywire every day, then sit back and collect a check.

Pick a set of management protocols that are ideal for you, and make your animals fit into that program. Base this on how much time and input money you’re willing to spend in order to reach your desired end product and level of production. Make a list of requirements for your herd to meet.

angus calf
A Red Angus crossed with Belted Galloway, 4-month-old bull calf.

Here are some of my rules:

  • Cattle will be mob grazed and moved once per day.
  • Cattle must remain in good body condition year-round with no feed or supplements other than pasture, hay and mineral.
  • All mature females must conceive during a 45-day natural breeding season.
  • All cows and heifers must calve unassisted, without night checks.
  • No preventative health products will be given to any animal.

Breed the Toughest Cows on Earth

Once you’ve set the rules for your ranch, you need to breed cattle that are up to the job. Buy breeding stock from an operation that is run exactly like yours if possible. In that case, the animals’ durability under your style of management is already proven.

Buying from a ranch with conditions more challenging than yours is even better, as long as animals are not unhealthy or mistreated.

Avoid sale barns! You never know the genetic makeup of auction cattle or why they are being sold. That beautiful cow in the ring could be infertile, aggressive, or chock-full of grain. Buying from a private seller allows you to see the environment in which the cattle are living. You may also be able to look at multiple generations of related animals for added insight.

Linebreed! There are no social “family” relationships between cattle the way there are between people. The thought of breeding “siblings” and “cousins” together worries most ranchers and disgusts some. But when carefully controlled, there is no cause for alarm. Morgan Hartman published an excellent science-based series in defense of linebreeding. He explains that as long as no more than 50 percent of a calf’s DNA comes from any single ancestor, it’s not inbreeding. Once you have genetics that perform well on your farm under your rules, don’t stray from them. Don’t purposely scramble your progress.

The only way to pack consistent, proven genetics into your cattle is by keeping lineages uniform and intensifying them.

cattle grazing
Gearld Fry has been an enthusiastic advocate of linebreeding for decades, and he jokes, “I have yet to get a two-headed calf!”

The common practices of obsessive outcrossing and switching bulls every other year start you at genetic square one every time. Imagine this as trying to drive toward a destination in a zigzag pattern — it takes a lot longer to get where you’re going, and you end up covering a lot of extra mileage.

Linebreeding, in contrast, is like heading toward your destination in an airplane on a straight path. Hartman also insists that rampant outcrossing keeps recessive genetic defects from being identified.

I have a theory that you can build the best possible cowherd by selecting for just one particular trait: the weaning weight percentage. I regard this as the ultimate measure of a cow’s worth.

The formula for finding the weaning weight percentage is as follows: Divide the calf’s weight by the cow’s weight and multiply the answer by 100. Smaller cows always excel in this area.

A 1,000-pound cow that weans a 450-pound calf has weaned 45 percent of her weight. A 1,500-pound cow weaning a 550-pound calf has only produced 36 percent of her weight. This is due to the fact that a large cow needs more feed just to maintain her own body than a smaller cow does.

As the weaning weight percentage of your herd goes up, all other traits will fall into place. High-percentage cows will automatically have correct udders, proper hormonal function (and therefore great reproductive performance), desirable milk output, high feed efficiency, structural soundness, strong maternal instincts, clean bills of health and moderate frame sizes.

The efficiency differences between larger and smaller females are thrown into even sharper relief when you quantify the feed intake of both.

Livestock Culling: Stop Running a Petting Zoo

Your cattle should be given two choices: thrive under your rules or be culled. This philosophy puts the workload on your cattle instead of on you.

The alternative is to make excuses for inferior animals and break your back trying to prop them up. Straying from your ideal management scheme to accommodate even one problem animal is a slippery slope. Before you know it, you’ll be wasting money and running yourself ragged. Your cows will be the ones calling the shots, and you will be working for them. This isn’t a commercially viable ranch; it’s a petting zoo.

When an animal violates your rules (for example, needs calving assistance, requires veterinary attention or comes up open), do whatever is necessary to get it healthy and relieve its suffering in the short term. But as soon as possible, take it to the butcher! Don’t give it another chance to cost you money and make you miss dinner.

Producers often lack resolve in this area if the animal was expensive, has a great parent or production history, or has sentimental value.

If any calf causes you to step outside normal whole-herd management boundaries, the cow needs to go as well. Sometimes blaming a cow for a calf’s problem can be a stretch (for example, a 3-month-old calf that dies of coccidiosis). In this case, it’s hard to argue that the cow is directly at fault.

However, why did her calf get sick and no others? Someone is bound to comment that research has not proven the heritability of many things I’m recommending be culled for. But just because a theory hasn’t been proven as true doesn’t mean it’s proven as untrue. Do you really want to gamble on the possibility of propagating genetic weakness in your herd? I would rather be safe than sorry.

A rancher I met said, “I’ve sold some good cows, but I’ve never kept a bad one.”

Regardless of where the blame lies, that calf will lag behind its herdmates for the rest of its life. A study published in the Veterinary Ireland Journal (Vol. 4 No. 5) reported that calves sick for 11 days had still not compensated for the missed gain by 5 months of age. Taking that low paycheck one time should be enough to sour you on the experience.

If a calf dies, it will not give you any paycheck! Therefore, the cow must be sold in the calf’s place to make up the lost revenue. This isn’t as much a culling decision as a business management one. If being down one head bothers you, spend the sale income on a replacement.

Giving any cow a second chance isn’t worth the risk of history repeating itself. There are plenty of good cows in the world.

Keeping problem cattle dilutes the genetics you’re working so hard to strengthen. I definitely don’t think it’s worth going an entire year without income from that cow, hoping it was a one-time problem, while she continues to stuff herself on your precious grass. I must qualify my above statements by saying that your chosen rules must not predispose your herd to problems.

You can’t decide to continuous graze 50 head on a 10-acre field all summer, not deworm, and cull anything with worms. You’ll have an empty field. Do your research when choosing management protocols. Go to conferences, read articles, talk to consultants and expert producers. Discuss your goals and see what others are doing to succeed.

Hard, unbiased livestock culling is absolutely essential to the establishment of a strong herd. It goes hand in hand with intensively breeding durable, low-input genetics. Use both of these practices as tools to build a ranch on which you call the shots. Adopting this mind-set makes a herd of any size profitable and enjoyable to run.

This article appeared in the June 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Meg Grzeskiewicz is the owner of Rhinestone Cattle Co. in New York state and is a past intern of Greg Judy.