Information is key to fine tuning on-farm breeding program

Beef Cattle Research Council www.beefresearch.ca

Les Johnston has long subscribed to the beef management theory, “the more you know about your cattle the more it pays.” Whether the south-Saskatchewan beef producer is raising purebred Simmental bulls for a breeding market, or commercial cross-bred steers for the packing plant, he wants to know how those animals perform.

Being able to receive a steady flow of carcass data on cull livestock or finished commercial steers through the Beef InfoXchange System (BIXS) is a valuable confirmation of whether his breeding program is on the right track.

Johnston, who owns Nisku Land and Cattle Inc. near Fillmore, Sask has farmed between both the purebred and commercial cattle industries for the past 40 years. He focused on purebred Simmental cattle for many years, when the BSE crisis developed in early 2000s then switched to producing and finishing mostly commercial cattle, and although he has been downsizing in the past year, still runs a smaller purebred as well as commercial beef herd.

But whether it is the commercial or purebred side he has always been interested in learning as much about cattle performance as he could.

“Basically it comes down to you can’t fix what you don’t know,” says Johnston. “We have always been interested in seeing carcass data even before BIXS came along, but now it becomes a much easier process. “

On the purebred side he began using ultrasound technology to measure marbling on replacement cattle in 1990s. “We were really impressed where the Simmental breed was headed, but because the registry hadn’t been developed yet, we couldn’t identify the genetics we needed. We actually had to turn to Red and Black Angus to find the genetics to produce the carcass quality we wanted.”

In the early 2000s he began DNA testing bulls, and continues with that today. The DNA testing confirms genetic lines in the purebred herd and also is a check against ultrasound readings of carcass quality factors. An ultrasound reading provides a measure of ribeye area, marbling and back fat thickness on a particular animal. Depending on the amount of information the producer wants, a DNA test, made from a hair sample, can also reveal its potential for ribeye, marbling and backfat as well as carcass grade, yield grade, and tenderness. The combination of ultrasound and a DNA test provides relatively solid assurance of the traits that breeding animal will pass along to its offspring. And if the producer wants more information about the animal’s potential the DNA test can also provide a score for average daily gain, docility (behavior), fertility, calving ease, feeding efficiency and longevity.

With BSE derailing the Canadian beef market in 2003, Johnston began producing more commercial cattle and finishing them himself, running about 240 head.
“We actually began doing more on the commercial side before the BSE crisis,” says Johnston. “But once BSE hit we stepped up our commercial program and began to retain ownership of the steers. I believe you can always make money on good cattle and I had enough data on this herd that told me if I finished these cattle properly I could still make a few pennies on each one, or at least not lose my shirt,” says Johnston. “And that approach came true— we were still able to make a few dollars on these cattle.” Relying on the genetic potential of his cattle, Johnston was consistently able to finish and market steers with a good mix of AAA and AA carcass grading for a price premium.

Whether it was on younger purebred cattle that were culled, or on his own finished steers, he always sought out carcass data from the packing plant to guide his breeding program.

“The carcass data from the packing plant was able to tell us generally how the herd was performing, but it wasn’t able to narrow it down to the individual genetics of an animal,” he says. “That is where BIXS is an improved information tool. We are able to get carcass data specific to each tagged animal. We have 11 breeding pastures on this farm, so with that I.D. number I can know with almost certainty the dam and the sire of that animal, and then evaluate how those genetics are performing.” Johnston says by being able to connect the carcass quality information of an individual animal with its sire and dam he can decide which bulls are producing the most desirable carcass traits in steers and select accordingly. “With our breeding management and record keeping system, once I get that carcass data back from the packing plant and it is associated with an RFID number, I can easily check the records and know exactly the sire and dam of that animal. And if for some reason that sire and dam combination isn’t producing a calf that produces a desirable carcass it doesn’t mean I have to cull them. I can just look at the genetic information I have for the herd and perhaps just put that cow with a different bull next year to improve the traits in the next calf.”

While Johnston, in the past couple years, is no longer retaining ownership of steers, he can still receive carcass data reports on his cattle. Calves marketed last fall, for example, are being backgrounded at a feedyard in Saskatchewan and then will be finished at a feedlot in Ontario. If finished cattle are processed at the Cargill plant in Ontario “those carcass data reports will eventually arrive back at the computer in my office,” he says.

When he was marketing his own steers Johnston was selling them on the grid. That required that at least 60 per cent of the steers grade AAA, with the rest hopefully producing AA carcasses. “And really it is the AAs where we made the most money,” he says.
Johnston says when marketing on the grid he found the difference in price between a good AA animal and AAA could be very minor. “Unless you can negotiate a very good premium for cattle sold on the grid, a AA carcass with high lean meat yield can often provide as good a return as anything. The goal is produce a AAA, but at the same time maintain a lean meat yield of 59 per cent or higher.”

The grid maximum at the time sought a hot carcass weight no heavier than 925 pounds, so he targeted his program to produce steers achieving an 840 to 900 pound carcass weight. And his breeding program selection over the years, has been on target — selecting bulls that produce the proper sized animal with desirable carcass traits. “In all the time we have been doing this before and now with BIXS we have only had one single A animal,” he says.
Johnston says the potential information flow that BIXS offers across the production chain is valuable information to any producer who is serious about fine tuning their breeding program to produce quality cattle for the market place...