Straight talk on cattle breeding systems

Straight talk on cattle breeding systems

Business decisions based on science alone don't work in every sector.

*Steve Suther is director of industry information at Certified Angus Beef LLC.

Straight talk on cattle breeding systems
THE market stands above all other factors to those who plan for profit. Science and technology supply the tools managers apply to realize their plans.

That's true in any business, so of course, it includes the livestock sector. Scientific data that support the strategy of crossbreeding among cattle breeds remain undisputed. However, that doesn't set crossbreeding above other science or above a market that has evolved rapidly toward meeting consumer demand.

Well-meaning scientists whose goal is to help cattle producers make a profit may insist that crossbreeding is the only logical alternative for a business that produces cattle before reviewing the decades-old science.

Producers already get that. It's not ignorance or gullibility in the face of breed advertising that led many thousands of cattle producers to freely choose a business strategy of using only Angus genetics to rise above commodity production and cultivate repeat buyers all along the beef supply chain.

They respond to consumer demand that, according to Kansas State University, favors one premium brand in particular (Figure 1). Demand for Choice increased 3% between 2002 and 2012, but demand for the Certified Angus Beef(CAB) brand increased 79% during the same period, having outpaced Choice consistently since the 2009 economic recession.

The CAB cutout value improved 6.6% annually from 2009 to 2012, and per capita consumption improved each year as well, leading to a seventh consecutive record year at 865 million lb. sold in 2013.

Naming one breed as a viable alternative to crossbreeding makes some scientists and multi-breed organizations uneasy. Their constituents include cattle producers with all kinds of cattle, so the most convenient truth is that all breeds are created equally.

Perhaps that helps limit scientific inquiry into straightbred Angus systems or channels it to simply exploring how producers rate "black hide" when selecting bulls. Those who raise other cattle breeds are often weary — or complicit in the development — of more and more black commercial cattle.

There is no integrity issue with such cattle, despite the common grumble that certified Angus programs just need cattle that are mostly black. As a basis in truth, 51% or greater black hide is a live cattle requirement for further evaluation in a long list of Angus programs that grew because of market demand (Figure 2).

Grid marketing of finished cattle increased rapidly in the last 15 years, led by premiums for quality grades and including those for premium brands, the lion's share paid for CAB brand acceptance.

Many critics of the brand don't look into how it works as a nonprofit, producer-owned subsidiary of the American Angus Assn. It was created in 1978 to add value to registered Angus cattle through a high-quality branded beef program, and its 10 specifications (Box) have been unchanged in their effects over time.

In fact, CAB is a specification-based company. It could never have realized its mission or made an impact on the beef industry without encompassing the whole commercial cattle population and allowing any producer to join in responding to market signals without having to sign up.

As premiums grew for premium beef, more and more commercial producers began using focused Angus genetics that include superior marbling. The growing database of Angus genetics provided science-based tools for simultaneous selection with other economically relevant traits.

Across the years, in a segmented beef industry with thousands of individual buyers and sellers and a varying willingness to take on risk, having merely black-hided cattle probably commanded more sale-barn premiums than they deserved, especially 10 years ago, when only 15% of them were qualifying for CAB.

Iowa's Tri-County Steer Carcass Futurity data on nearly 30,000 head show that high-percentage Angus cattle are six times more likely to grade Prime and nearly three times more likely to qualify for CAB than those with less than one-quarter Angus genetics. Similar Angus advantages were found for performance and health.

Genetics have improved greatly among black-hided cattle over the past 10 years, to the point where 25% of all evaluated cattle can achieve the premium Choice level of marbling required for CAB acceptance in many areas. That's a huge, market-driven shift involving millions of cattle all across North America. Every time a producer of 40%, 60%, 80% or even 100% CAB-accepted loads of cattle tells his or her story, it is one that features carefully selected, straightbred Angus genetics managed profitably.

CAB Prime is another fast-growing market that supports the growing Prime/Select spread of $30-50/cwt. and other CAB premiums of $3-7/cwt. paid on each finished head sold on value-based grids. Average per-head premiums more than compensate for a lack of heterosis in those herds.

Articles on the premium market and those who successfully target it over the years help illustrate that a great many producers are keeping records, doing the math and deciding for themselves that crossbreeding has no place in their operations. It's not because they are forgetting about some scientific data; they have weighed it alongside market data.

Science that shows a valid strategy for making money on the ranch needs no promotion and, of course, receives its share of publicity in articles about successful producers who choose crossbreeding. No one who reads these articles is incapable of determining what a practice costs versus what it returns. For some, the heterosis advantages found by science fit well with their business goals.

To utilize either structured crossbreeding or planned straightbreeding, the producer must invest something in faith. They believe cows will remain in their herd longer with one more heavier calf to sell than with any straightbred alternative. Or, through careful genetic selection over time, cows will uniformly intensify desirable traits so that the calves will perform as well as most crossbreeds and get to the top profit rung through market premiums.

On both sides, there are some who don't sweat the details. Their crossbreeding lacks structure, or they rely too much on breed complementarity at the expense of quality sire selection. Their straightbreeding is totally a matter of convenience, without the discipline of focused selection or a premium marketing plan.

The beef industry, consumers and these less-engaged producers would probably be better served by their efforts toward increasing focus — but they can legitimately choose more than one "true" faith.


CAB carcass specifications:

1. Modest or higher marbling

2. Medium or fine marbling texture

3. "A" maturity for each, lean and skeletal characteristics

4. 10-16 sq. in. rib-eye area

5. Less than 1,000 lb. hot carcass weight

6. Less than 1 in. fat thickness

7. Superior muscling (eliminates dairy influence)

8. Practically free of capillary rupture

9. No dark cutters

10. No neck hump exceeding 2 in.



Volume:86 Issue:03

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