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Building a Cow Herd – Billy Bean Style

By   /  March 13, 2017  /  5 Comments

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Two of my favorite subjects are cattle and baseball. Two of my favorite books on these subjectsare “The Lasater Philosophy of Cattle Raising” by Laurie Lasater and “MoneyBall” by MichaelLewis. One day, on a long drive, I started playing with the idea that breeding a fertile, easy keeping and most importantly, profitable, herd of cows could be compared to how the Oakland A’s of the early 2000’s built a winning baseball team.

Michael Lewis wrote the story of the small market, cash poor, 2002 Oakland A’s and the attemptby their general manager, Billy Beane, to compete in a league dominated by large market [rich]teams who could sign the very expensive, free agent star players. Enter Paul DePodesta, a smart, computer savvy Harvard grad who was hired after convincing Beane there were many very good players who could be signed for smaller salaries – if you knew what you were looking for. And what you should be looking for was not the big strong home run hitters who were expensive to sign, but instead, sign the players who got on base frequently – be it hits, walks or getting hit by pitches. Don’t use home runs, batting average, or the “right” physique as the criteria for a profitable player, but instead look at their on base percentage or OBP. The OBP is one number, the computers showed DePodesta, that correlates consistently with winning games. They didn’t select the players on how fleet of foot or strong of arm they were, but on whether they helped a team win and were affordable. Players who knew how to “get on base”.

What does breeding cattle have to do with building a baseball team of players who aren’t exceptional except for their ability to get on base? Tom Lasater’s breeding system for raising fertile, profitable females calls for heavy emphasis on fertility. Conceive early and conceive often. The system requires that heifers conceive the first time at 14 – 15 months of age, calve at 22 – 24 months, and calve every 365 days forever thereafter. The heifers/cows are required to do this with few, if any, inputs from off the ranch. Any female that doesn’t produce an “acceptable” calf every 365 days leaves the herd. The heifers/cows are required to do this with few, if any, inputs from off the ranch. Any female that doesn’t produce an
“acceptable” calf every 365 days leaves the herd. The breeder doesn’t do the selecting, the system selects them, and every heifer, outside of a few outliers [dinks, bad temperaments, etc.], is given a chance to show her stuff and breed during a short breeding season when they are 14 – 15 months old. They must calve without assistance at 22-24 months of age and then breed back to have a calf 365 days later. Heifers aren’t selected because they are the largest or have the correct pedigree, linear measurements or EPD’s. Heifers are selected and make the “team” if they perform and contribute to profitability. And just like with the cow herd, any heifer that doesn’t produce an acceptable calf every year, is cut from the team. By giving a chance to so many heifers, the breeder has plenty of pregnant heifers waiting to move up to the big league team to replace cows that aren’t cutting it.

Why did Lasater place such a high priority on fertility? Because, like most successful cattlemen, he believed fertility to be the most important trait for developing adapted and profitable females in the cow/calf business. His system doesn’t have the breeder picking the “right” phenotype, but allowing nature to show the breeder what is the correct phenotype for an early maturing, fertile, and adapted cow that can thrive in the environment in which she is raised.

Does this system take decision making out of the breeders hand? Not completely. We have been using this heifer development system for many years, but by using incorrect bulls in the early years, it turned out not to be a breeding program, but just a culling system. In our case the “incorrect” sires had excellent EPD’s and gains in feedlot type trials, were the “right” color and were expensive. We also synchronized and bred our heifers to the top A.I. sires for calving ease and growth. While we raised some good heifers, we still had far too many unadapted to the pastures of predominantly endophyte infected KY31 fescue along with an inability to deal with the high heat and humidity of our summer [July – August] breeding system. At one point we had almost decided that calving in April and May, despite being the ideal time to calve in our environment, was not going to work for us.

Looking back it’s easy to see the errors we made. Heavy selection pressure on our females but not on the purchased bulls. Most, if not all, of the
bulls we used, as well as their mothers, had probably never had a mouthful of endophyte infected fescue in their life or if they did it was only between bites of grain. It was also unlikely they were required to breed in the high humidity and extreme temperatures our region has all the while competing with herd mates in a daily, high density rotation of grass without any supplementation in sight.

We began using bulls of more heat adapted breeds with some Brahman influence. While we made progress in our pregnancy rates, they were still below our goals. We had some outstanding individual weaning weights (home runs), but we had too many calves that weaned small and didn’t grow well as yearlings (strikeouts). To top it off, the cows kept getting bigger (1300 lbs) which meant they were eating more (high salaries) without a higher correlation to weaning weights. What we were looking for was a herd that bred and thrived under our conditions, raised a calf about half of the dams body weight and did it with few to no inputs (low to average salary). We were looking for cows that bred back every year in a tight breeding schedule, and did it with good humor and no fanfare (good teammates). We were looking for cows that “got on base”.

Our quest for this adapted animal led us to a fairly new breed of cattle, the South Poll. This maternal breed has been developed in the south on endophyte infected KY31 fescue and is known for it’s heat tolerance, fertility, calm temperament and moderate frame. For our system and environment, using South Poll bulls to sire heifers has really increased our wins – heifers able to thrive in our environment. The vast majority slick off early, are gentle, fertile, and show no problems with heat, humidity and flies. Our breeding percentages are now very acceptable for a 45 day mid-summer breeding window. We have reached our goal for an average weaning weight of 50% of the dam’s body weight (which now averages 1,050 lbs) while quickly increasing the uniformity of the calf crop and cow herd.

We have developed complete confidence using this breeding system of allowing nature to select adapted females that make us a profit in good years and bad. In the near future the bulls we use will be from our own herd and we expect uniformity and adaptation to continue to increase. Nature’s system isn’t going to give us steers that win feedlot daily gain trials or bragging rights on weaning weights. What the system has given us is uniform animals that perform profitably in a low input, fescue dominated, grazing system. It gives us females that know how to “get on
base”.

As for that 2002 Oakland Athletics team, they set the American League record for consecutive wins in a season [20 games] and won the American League West division. Not bad for a bunch of “average” ball players.

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5 Comments

  1. Burke says:

    Steve,

    I was slow to get to this; so I hope you see this comment. What a great article and metaphor. I couldn’t agree more; and your cows show it.

  2. Luke says:

    Well, it looks like I’ve been “signing” too many Trumbos and Fraziers and not enough Belts and Freemans. Nice article.

    • Steve says:

      Thanks Luke– the hard part is just like the “crushed” solo home run to center is often remembered better than the flair single to right field that drives in two runs– the “brag to your neighbor” weaning weights of “Trumbo” calves are often remembered much better than the fact that cow #134 has produced average calves for six years in a row–while the “Trumbo” cow forgets to breed back every now and then.
      Consistency is what we’re after, but it can be much more boring than the home run..

  3. paul turner says:

    Save bull calves from good old granny cows. They have proven they can get on base. The sooner you start, the faster they get great.

  4. Darcy Goodrich says:

    Well written article. Truly enjoyed it and the same breeding practice has worked for us For many years.

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