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Big or small, data makes all the difference, says veteran cattleman

Doug Wray is a well-known intensive grazing expert but he’s also an advocate 
of using genomics to push herd performance

If you want to make more money on your ranch, get more data.

Doug Wray.
photo: File

“You can’t manage what you don’t measure,” Irricana cattleman Doug Wray said at the recent Livestock Gentec conference.

“We measure a lot of things. To have a successful ranching operation, you have to manage the resources you have. Every ranch is different.”

Wray farms with wife Linda and a nephew and his wife, and the family is focused on driving down costs through year-round grazing.

“We manage our forage intensively,” said Wray, the recipient of the Canadian Forage and Grassland Association’s 2016 Leadership Award.

“If cattlemen are going to compete for land with the grain guy, they have to manage every bit as intensively as the grain guy does.”

A failure to measure is the Achilles heel of the beef industry, he said while acknowledging that isn’t easy to do.

Wray began using Herdtrax software on his farm in 2008 because he wanted to get out of commodity beef.

“We’re closer, but I’m not sure how much at this point,” he said.

Wray, who grazes 300 cows year round on 2,000 (rented and owned) acres, retains ownership of his feeder cattle. He now has DNA on his 2015 and 2016 calf crops, and data that has begun to provide complete feed efficiency of their herd. That information, combined with retained ownership, allows the family to capture and analyze cattle data from conception to harvest.

“If you want producers to buy in, retaining ownership sure clarifies a lot of things about how good your cattle are,” he said.

The Wrays cull heavily for cattle that are open, old, and have poor feet or udders but their herd management software and genomics testing gives them a host of other data. That means “you need some way to handle all that information,” Wray said.

“When you get in this game, you need someone who is number savvy, computer savvy and who likes to do it.”

His software generates spreadsheets that can be manipulated to build data­sets of different factors — for example parentage; weaning and carcass weights; and carcass data.

“The program is built around the index of the cow at the back end and so you can start to use that as a selection tool,” said Wray.

He said he uses data to select heifers, manage cattle to optimize their genetic potential, decide which animals to cull, and see if maternal traits are being manifested in the cow’s offspring.

“We can see that we have a pretty powerful cow, but her calves aren’t getting it done at the feedlot,” he said. “When it comes to selected breeding, we might breed that cow a little different to try and optimize her values there. Without selecting quite a bit of information, you don’t have a lot of information that this is going on.”

Using DNA to determine the sire of a calf also allows the Wrays to tailor the management of that animal.

“We’ve got an idea how the cow performs, and the potential of that heifer.”

The Wrays also use genetic data to maximize hybrid vigour in their herd and pick the right replacement heifers. Sorting cows by eyeballing them isn’t good enough, he added.

“You have to be DNA’ing those calves,” he said. “You can ascribe that calf back to that bull. That DNA allows you to sort out — and now you know with some confidence what is going on.”

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, she has also published two collections of poetry and a biography about a Sikh civil rights activist. Her freelance work has appeared in numerous publications across Canada.

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