Like many of us in the business of grass-farming for livestock production, I have been preoccupied by a persistent question: Nature vs. Nurture, Breeding vs. Management, Genetics vs. Environment, all takes on the same dichotomy. Of course the answer is unequivocally, “YES.” The functionality of an animal for our particular purposes is absolutely the sum of its breeding and its management. That said, I’m going to focus on the breeding aspect as it pertains to the equation, mostly because so many other authors here at On Pasture are way better graziers than I am.
Over the last several months I’ve had the opportunity to travel extensively along the Eastern Seaboard visiting various farms from grazing dairies to beef operations to sheep and goat farms. One overriding concept came forth in every discussion with every farmer, regardless of species being produced, breeding matters.
When visiting a large scale grazing dairy in Georgia I asked the lead farmer what the biggest hurdles to his success have been and he replied with, “Genetics first and labor second. Now we’ve gotten the genetics figured out the labor issue is the pervasive fly in the ointment.” I asked what he meant by genetics and he said they tried starting out with American bred Holstein and Jersey cows. In the “all grazing all the time” production paradigm of this dairy the Holsteins and Jerseys they started with all but drove the business into bankruptcy. Cows simply could not get bred back without major additional inputs. There were greater health issues leading to both losses in production and higher cull rate than anticipated combined with high vet bills. Not a recipe for success.
The answer to the problem was to source some live cattle from grazing dairies scattered about the Southeast and to breed cows to bulls imported from New Zealand, genetics from cattle specifically selected for and developed in an all-grazing paradigm. The resulting calves outperformed their dams in the production paradigm they were placed in. I should say that outperformed means they have continued in production for more years than their dams, producing more calves and also more milk for their respective lifetimes. In other words, use the right tool for the job and the job becomes easier. Using genetics selected in a production paradigm similar to what these graziers were establishing in Georgia turned their operation around in relatively short order.
Similarly, I was at a meat goat operation in Massachusetts recently. These folks started out with goats that came from a very high input environment and were put into a planned grazing paradigm with little to no grain supplementation and minimal parasite treatment. The cull/fallout rate was a staggering 70% in the first six months. That is some painful math, but the environment, the management paradigm, selected the animals that would work in that environment. The introduction of a buck developed in a similar program has resulted in kid goats that appear to have improved parasite resistance and very good doability on forages and browse over their predecessors.
Within my own herd of Black Angus cattle, which are purposely and purposefully linebred, I have seen the same results.I manage roughly two hundred (200) acres of forage with an average of about forty cow/calf pairs. The cattle are 100% grass-fed and do receive a small amount of supplemental salt and mineral in the form of kelp, selenium fortified trace mineral salt, calcium carbonate and diatomaceous earth.
I started with a diverse group of genetics across a diverse group of cows. The individuals that have stuck around (meaning the ones that have survived rigorous culling criteria) are the cows from which I select bulls to breed across the entire herd. As a result the entire herd can stem a large portion of its genetics from two cows and one bull.
Those genetics have proven themselves time and again through tremendous winters, tough summers of hot and dry and others of cool and wet. I do not worm my cattle. Often in the winter they are relegated to eating snow for their water. Yet every spring a good group of calves hits the ground and every fall the vast majority of cows are bred back. And what is important in all this to my beef customers is the quality of the beef they receive, which is predictable and good because the animals are selected from cows that are easy fleshing, have an easy disposition, and perform well in a low input production paradigm.
I have a tendency to look at all the variables in my farming operation. I was taught in school the best way to figure out the answer to a problem is to minimize the number of unknowns to arrive at a final known quantity or quality. This is the role of a breeder regardless of the breed or even species with which they work; to create a predictable, consistent, uniform animal regularly despite the vagaries of weather and management.
As a beef producer I want to do the same thing. My customers demand that. They understand that a beef harvested in September will have a different flavor profile than one harvested in June. That is a result of management. But the ribeye shape and size should be consistent, as should the degree of tenderness in the meat and the amount of fat. Those traits are highly heritable and can be bred in vs. fed in.
The take home message here is to seek and select livestock from people who have done their breeding homework and who select their livestock in a manner consistent with your own goals. This principle applies across breeds and across species.
I encourage one and all to seek out and read the writings of Dr. Jan Bonsma, Jim Lents, and Jim Lingle. Also I would like to thank Mr. Bill Hodge and Mr. Sam Wylie, both eminent cattle breeders alive and well today, for their mentorship. Finally, I want to bring people’s attention to a gentleman in Wyoming named Larry Leonhardt. I have not personally met Larry, but I have studied his line-breeding program assiduously. It is amazing what one person can do with dedication and discipline. Mr. Leonhardt is leaving an enormous positive impact on the cattle world through his lifetime’s work of cattle breeding. In future articles we will discuss the process of linebreeding and delve into the finer points of getting where you want to go with your herd or flock, genetically speaking.
Check out the whole series on breeding matters by Morgan Hartman: