The perfect cow: Two different approaches to getting the best genetics

At CL Ranch, it’s all about breeding for observable traits, 
but genomics is the foundation for Rocky Mountain Holsteins

You won’t find a single Angus cow in Cherie Copithorne-Barnes’ herd. But then again, you won’t find any other specific breeds either.

Cherie Copithorne-Barnes

Cherie Copithorne-Barnes
photo: File

“One of the philosophies that we have here at CL Ranch is we’re not breed specific — we’re trait specific,” said Copithorne-Barnes, CEO of the 23,000-acre ranch near Calgary.

“We are synthetic cross-breeders, and we’re building calves to match this environment.”

And the environment is a unique one. Nestled in the rolling foothills near Kananaskis Country, CL Ranch has more than 2,000 head of grass-fed cattle that need to be sturdy enough to survive droughts and snowstorms.

For that, size matters.

“We’ve found that the ideal size of cows out here is about 1,250 to 1,300 pounds, and no bigger than that,” she said. “Our base herd — which was Hereford and Simmental with a little bit of brown Swiss — was really getting too large and was losing a lot of muscling in the hind end.”

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So Copithorne-Barnes introduced an “old, traditional English breed” into the mix — the Sussex.

“From a characteristic perspective, personality, and carcass traits, they’re almost exactly like an Angus,” she said. “But it brought in some of the more compact characteristics that we need for these cattle.”

Sussex can “survive on a low-cost, forage-based ration and still perform.”

“We’ve got to be sure these cows can handle this grass, whether or not it’s green and lush,” she said. “They have to be able to forage out here for as long as possible, and their ability to forage and gain three pounds a day is really good.”

Solid feet, legs, teats, and udders are a must.

“We don’t allow for excuses. We aim for the perfect breeding, and we go from there by watching those phenotypic (observable) traits.”

But on their own, Sussex cattle are too small to stay competitive in the Canadian market. That’s where cross-breeding comes in.

“For that reason, we’re not married to any specific breed. We’re just trying to get that perfect cow that we know will do well out here,” said Copithorne-Barnes. “We’re breeding for traits, and traditional breeding has been done for bloodlines and characteristics within those bloodlines. We’re actually going after the individual phenotypic traits.”

But that approach comes with challenges, she said.

“The genomic side of things is coming and is advancing, but because of the different variations on the breeds that are going in, the heritability on it isn’t quite there yet. The science is getting better and better with each generation of equipment that’s being used. But unless you have 2,000 samples, they can’t guarantee that the genes are going to express themselves the same way it would if it were line bred.”

So simple observation remains key.

“We’re still on the phenotypic side, but we are very closely monitoring and learning that, through genomics, some of these traits are in fact holding true.”

Million-dollar genetics

It’s a different story at Rocky Mountain Holsteins, which specializes in — you guessed it — purebred Holstein cattle.

“We’re a little different than most dairies. We are what we call an elite breeding genetic barn,” said farm manager Ron Churchill.

“We don’t make our money by our milk cheque. We make our money off our breeding stock.”

The Cochrane operation — owned by David Chalack and Glenn Hockley — runs its 180-head dairy cattle herd on 240 acres of prime real estate. But they’re not in the dairy business.

“We only milk 30 cows, and probably 80 per cent of those are very elite genetic cows that we use for breeding stock all over the world,” said Churchill.

“We put a lot of money into our animals, and we get a lot of money out of some of them.”

Rocky Mountain Holsteins focuses almost solely on breeding stock — primarily embryo transfer and in vitro fertilization — but live animal sales are lucrative as well.

“Every two years, we have a genetics sale. In July, we sold 104 animals, and the average was $9,000,” said Churchill, adding one cow sold for $197,000.

In a two-year cycle, Rocky Mountain Holsteins makes around $1 million in sales, between embryos (which can run around $1,500 a pop), royalties on their bulls, and live animals.

But it takes money to make money, such as paying $60,000 for a single calf. But it was a profitable transaction — she eventually sold for nearly twice that after being bred and flushed of embryos for around 15 pregnancies.

Selling stock is never a challenge for the group.

“We do a lot on Facebook, and we have a website that we keep updated,” said Churchill, adding most genetics sales are into international markets.

“There’s people who know our cow families, and they’re following us. If we put on that we’ve got a cow we just flushed and got embryos out of, the phone’s ringing and they’re gone pretty quick.”

But how did Rocky Mountain Holsteins develop such a high-demand Holstein line? Through genomics, said Churchill.

“We test the calves for their DNA and what traits they would pass on,” he said. “What we hope is that when we DNA test them, we’ll get a good one or two out of the bunch that we can either breed from or market.”

Unlike the rest of the dairy industry, which looks for herd health traits like easy calving and good feet, Rocky Mountain Holsteins breeds for, well, breeding.

“When we’re breeding, we’re not breeding for a cow that’s going to stand in a barn,” said Churchill. “We’re breeding for a bull that’s going to work in a 3,000-cow dairy. We don’t want to make big cows. We want to make nice cows that milk hard and have less problems.”

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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