Putting cattle into an environment that doesn’t suit them is like jamming a round peg in a square hole — you might be able to make it work, but it’s going to take some effort.
“Genetic selection is really about putting DNA into production,” said Vermilion-area beef producer Sean McGrath. “You’re buying DNA and you’re selling performance — and really, it’s about what performance fits your ranch and what performance your ranch can support.
“I really get a kick out of trying to match cattle to the system rather than adapting the system to the cattle.”
When producers bring in new genetics through bull purchases, they don’t always think about how those genetics will fit into their operation long term, McGrath said during a Beef Cattle Research Council webinar last month.
“What we’re actually buying when we’re buying bulls is DNA that’s going to go into our cow herd and produce something that hopefully fits our environment,” he said. “A bull is just an automated delivery system for the DNA that we’re buying. So we really need to focus on the DNA that those sires contain.”
Think about the environment those cattle will be raised in and source your genetics accordingly, said Stacey Domolewski, the council’s research and innovation co-ordinator.
“When you match your environment to the class of livestock that you have, it just makes more sense. It’s less input from both sides,” she said.
Take Brahman cattle, for instance.
This breed is built for hot environments and doesn’t do as well in Canada’s cold winters, so they may require extra bedding, shelter, and feed to survive the cold.
“It takes a lot more effort on the behalf of the producer to make sure they grow and are managed in a way that is both good for their welfare and their performance.”
Sometimes, though, the mismatch is less obvious, she added.
“Usually it’s minor things. Maybe there are certain cows that just don’t do as well in their pastures, or that won’t maintain condition as well,” said Domolewski. “Sometimes you’ll have to feed a cow through the winter more than all of the rest of them.
“It tends to be not glaringly obvious things, but those little management things that add up over time — and their costs add up over time.”
Shooting at the right net
The first step to fixing that is looking at your production environment and comparing it to your goals for your genetics.
“It’s really down to understanding your environment and knowing what you’re going to put those cattle through, and selecting accordingly,” said Domolewski.
McGrath likens it to making sure you’re “shooting at the right net.”
“There’s no point in buying genetics that have performance that our environment won’t support,” he said. “There are some that will be happy medium in your operation that will work really well.”
And ‘environment’ doesn’t just mean weather conditions, added Domolewski.
“It can be anything and everything about your operation and how it works,” she said. “What are some of the things that are unique to your area that you want cattle to survive and thrive in?
“Then think about what traits you’re looking for that will thrive in the conditions that you’re going to provide for those animals.”
On McGrath’s operation, for instance, feed availability is limited, so he’s selected genetics that will accommodate things like reduced milk production.
“Our cow herd looks like our cow herd because we’re on 85 per cent native rangeland. We have very minimal cropland resources,” he said. “We’ll be selecting a totally different profile in terms of what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Other producers might focus on feet and leg structure for animals that are walking long distances, added Domolewski.
“If you have big, huge pastures where they have to walk a long ways to water, that’s a lot more important than it would be in a smaller pen.”
But choosing the right traits ultimately comes down to “prioritizing what’s most important to you on your operation.”
That includes management practices that make your life easier.
“Sometimes that early calving season is important to producers because they’re also grain farmers and they can’t be calving at the same time they’re seeding,” she said.
“For them, that management practice isn’t movable, whereas for other producers, it could be and might work better for the class of cattle they have.
“It’s about prioritizing the parts of your system that need to happen a certain way because of your lifestyle.”
Good record-keeping can help with that.
“It can help you to identify some of these things so you can really do a good job of tweaking those genetic input choices,” said McGrath. “Your records are… there to help you understand your own ranch. If you understand your ranch, you can start to understand what cattle fit in there better.”
But the genetics you choose today can take a long time to bear fruit, so it’s important to be thinking about the long-term plan you have for your operation, he added.
“It doesn’t take long until we’re four or five years down the track with what we’re trying to plan,” said McGrath. “It’s important to think about how we’re going to be producing and marketing cattle in five or 10 years. That should really be part of your decision on the genetics you’re sourcing today.”