Dad first got started in the cattle business with a small herd of Angus cows from Cotton Angus of Volga, SD in the late 1970's. The next fifteen years involved experimenting with several different breeds, including Amerifax, Red Angus, Gelbveih, Hereford, and Salers. The Angus (black, that is) seemed to be the best fit. Dad used AI extensively, at first on the entire herd and eventually only on heifers. Emulation and Rito bloodlines had a lot of influence as the herd grew. He's quick to tell about how they made real nice cows. Dad kept performance records, selecting for increased weaning and yearling weights. As the herd grew, AI became less feasible from a labor perspective. Angus continued to be the breed of choice. In the late 1990's, as carcass data became increasingly available (and more valuable), we began selecting bulls that excelled in those traits. It became clear that our cattle graded well, but yield could be improved upon. Selection was made for increasing rib eye area. In 2007, we began introducing some Balancer bulls to improve cutability and add heterosis. We continued selecting performance-type Angus as well.
When I came home from college in 2006, I started being more involved with the breeding program. In the late 2000's, we began to see that our continued selection for performance and growth had taken our cow herd away from the type of females seen in the Emulation breeding. It wasn't uncommon to sell 1700+ lb open cows in the fall. We also noticed udder, hoof, and structural problems appearing more often than in the past. While we had been busy adding performance to the herd (with some success), we had begun to sacrifice the maternal side of the equation. In addition, we were continually outcrossing, or at least using outcrossed genetics. We had nice cows, but there was not a consistent "type". Those "nice cows" we had were the result of culling the bad ones, not necessarily breeding for the good ones. In 2012, as I looked at the first and second calf heifers, I was disappointed with how many had unacceptable udders, feet, and mothering ability. I decided it was time to focus on maternal traits again.
As I looked for breeding programs that would help reintroduce maternal function to our cow herd, I came across Keeney's Corner, a web forum dedicated to discussing "cattle breeding from outside the registered mainstream." Of particular interest were the contributions of Larry Leonhardt and his Shoshone Angus breeding program. He confirmed some of what we had already found out, that "bigger" isn't always "better", and that increasing performance comes at a cost to maternal function. His ideas of what seedstock are supposed to do changed my view of buying bulls. He reasoned that their purpose is to transmit the desired traits with consistency – and that is not necessarily tied to their individual performance. Rather, it has much more to do with their "ancestral pen of cattle," or how consistent their pedigree is for the given traits. Leonhardt's experience in 30 years of linebreeding for maternal function (the cow) had resulted in bulls that had different phenotypical characteristics than the popular performance bulls of today.
In an attempt to improve carcass and performance traits, I had neglected a profoundly simple rule of nature, that is, there are antagonisms that exist between maternal and terminal traits. It is unreasonable to expect a bull to produce high-performance feeder cattle that cut and grade well, while at the same time siring problem-free, feminine, efficient females. After all, that is why so many breeds of cattle exist – consistent selection for desired traits. There's a reason Jerseys look different than Charolais.
Our long-range breeding plan is to continue to use Angus bulls to make functional females. To meet our goals for maternal traits, we are using Shoshone, Wye, and Emulation bloodlines. We plan to retain breeding stock out of our older, proven cows that fit the type we want to replicate. Our younger, unproven cows will be mated to sires that excel in terminal qualities with the goal of making high-quality feeder cattle. We are starting out using hybrid bulls (Gelbveih x Angus) on the young cows. As we evaluate the success of this program, we may move towards a purebred terminal cross if we can meet our goals by doing so.
To me, the most frustrating thing about breeding programs is how long it takes to see results. A bull purchased this year won't have daughters in the herd for three years, and not very many at that – maybe ten at the most. To really evaluate the maternal function of those daughters it will take another nine or ten years. By then, that bull I bought today will likely have been gone for seven or more years. Therein lies the problem of neglecting maternal function: it takes a long time to find out which direction it has gone. Terminal traits (growth and performance) are quickly discovered and evaluated – usually within two or three years.
I am looking forward to what the future holds for our breeding program. I expect it will not be as simple as I have made it out to be. A good friend of ours is known to say, "there are no easy answers in the cattle business." While I'm afraid he's right, I am also excited about having a roadmap to find whatever answers are out there.
March 23, 2014