From the Fall 2019 Beef Newsletter
Bill Hodge with his wife Di own Sustainable Genetics which has a long history in the selection and breeding of sound pasture cattle, adaptable to grass-fed growth and finish, including the importation of semen and embryos from the Pinebank Angus cattle of New Zealand. They are based in Carrolton, Georgia, where I visited them in late July.
Bill’s journey in our industry started within extension and mainstream selection during the era of EPD development (which has led to Genomic trait implementation). Close observation of trends across cattle generations during the era of “cheap corn” (1970s-80s-90s) which spawned overexpansion in the feedlot industry, seeing cattle phenotypes change and cattle breeders in a struggle to maintain profitability at commodity beef prices, led him to change his views on what the industry needed to do to regain its health.
His first epiphany: Cattle evolved as ruminants to eat grass while grazing. The most efficient cattle thus are capable of growth, reproduction and longevity on grass management. Those more modern cattle that require corn and oilseed supplements to grow, reproduce and finish actually are not as efficient, given they generally fail to thrive when returned to grass.
The modern North American Angus cow (whose genes are in 70% of beef cattle fed due to the phenomenal success of “certified Angus beef” with meat retailers) has lost soundness in foot and leg structures, leading to chronic lameness in cow herds and failure to sustain breeding desire in natural service bulls. A high percentage of the fastest-gaining Bulls in feedlot trials prove to be sterile (or at least non-freezable for semen storage) caused by fat deposits in the testicles that are similar to the fat buildup in the pelvic of their sisters, reducing female fertility as well. Selection emphasis on EPD values for rates of gain post-weaning have failed to sort out the difference between edible “meat tissue” and inedible “fat storage” in bloodlines.
More of Bill’s observations
Cattle bred for success on grass feeding and pasture management can adapt to and succeed in a corn-feedlot environment, whereas cattle bred for the North American focus on corn feeding and feedlot finishing will often fail when returned to a grass-based management system.
Within each breed, especially the English-type (Angus, Red Angus, Hereford, Shorthorn, Devon, Red Poll, Murray Grey) you have bloodlines that are more feed efficient in meeting all nutrient needs from a quality forage base. But many of the Continental breeds were also developed on grass (which includes alpine breeds: Swiss Simmental, Braunveih, Fleckveih, Piedmontese, and some French breeds) -- via selection of bloodlines with adaptable phenotypes, feed-efficient, naturally reproductive cattle can be identified and propogated.
While the major beef packers have gravitated to a system favoring the largest carcass weight breeds and steers (have every hook hanging a heavy carcass) – which until recently placed the dairy-cull fed Holstein steer nearly on “par” with the beef breed steer—the feeding industry is now less generous in purchasing dairy sector steers, the fault of genetic selection that mostly grows bones and hide before it fills out meat tissue underneath. It is logical and provable that when dairy cows are selected to make milk on high corn and oilseed rations without gaining any meaningful body condition (thus increasingly requiring OvSynch reproduction), their brothers and sons entering the feedlot world often take 24-30 months to reach a premium finish. Thus breeders in other dairy breeds and all beef breeds, returning to grass-based management and selecting breeding animals according to grass finishing ability in 18-24 months, now earn the highest premiums for their feeder calves entering feedlots, a high percentage reach premium grades in that time frame.
The custom packing industry, seeking the “best” carcass for premium pricing instead of the ‘heaviest” carcass for commodity beef processing, will be your best option for profitable sales of cattle. The grass-fed market will continue to grow at premium prices, while the mainstream corn-fed cattle will set the commodity prices—any growth in supply lowering prices against the challenge of static demand from big box and chain food retailers.
Use of sexed semen, after Genomic testing has “ranked” commercial dairy herds, has reduced the supply of dairy-breed feeder steers, while increasing the supply of dairy-beef cross steers from the use of beef sire semen on the genetic lower half of production dairy cows. The price premiums for dairy-beef cross steers over straight dairy steers proves the feeding industry has known the difference in feeding efficiency—but this only increases the opportunity for beef breeders to fine-tune their cow herd to produce calves that will maintain this superiority when cattle are put into the grass pasture environment, reflecting the majority management of beef cattle in the rest of the world where cattle feeding is a growing source of human protein. At the same time, the operating costs for your cow-calf operation will be sustainably reduced, as we emphasize in the name of our business” “Sustainable Genetics”.