Seed Stock Breeders Provide Genetic Benefits to Customers
Published on Tue, 10/27/2020 - 1:01pm
Seed Stock Breeders Provide Genetic Benefits to Customers.
By Heather Smith Thomas.
A breeder’s job is to supply superior genetics to commercial cattlemen, and this is usually facilitated through bull sales, production sales, semen sales, etc. These seed stock breeders take that job very seriously.
Herbster Angus Farms, Inc.
Located near Falls City in southeast Nebraska and owned by Charles W. Herbster, this farm has a long history—homesteaded in 1847 by Charles’ great-great-grandfather. Charles started with Angus cattle at age 11 when his grandmother bought him some registered cows. That herd evolved into a superior seedstock operation after Charles and his wife Judy established Herbster Angus Farms 25 years ago—and then hired Ed and Amanda Raithel as general managers. Ed and Amanda have worked with the Herbsters more than 20 years and share their passion for breeding elite cattle.
The Herbster Angus Farms program is built on honesty and value, from marketing cattle and semen, to the data turned in to the American Angus Association. Customers’ conception rate and herd betterment are first in mind.
Amanda says the ultimate goal is to improve their customers’ bottom line. “We strive to provide genetics that we know will work for them—animals that will physically perform. Most of our selection criteria for the bulls we sell to commercial breeders is focused on animals that will have tremendous fertility, good feet and legs, and good skeletal structure, along with excellent fleshing ability. These animals will work long-term whether as a bull or a cow sired by that bull,” she explains.
“We look at EPDs, but they are not the most important thing. An animal might look good on paper but if it doesn’t work in the real world, we don’t want to pass those genetics on to our customers,” she says.
The farm has an annual bull sale but the biggest way this breeding program helps other breeders and commercial cattlemen is through semen sales. “This has been our biggest contribution. Starting in the 1960’s implementation of AI made the best genetics in the breed available to anyone. A commercial cow herd can be improved with a few straws of semen without having to lay out a huge investment to buy that outstanding bull,” says Amanda.
“We sell a lot of semen from superior Angus bulls and offer commercial pricing on some of our bulls to help our commercial customers. Instead of paying $40 a unit, they pay $20 to use those bulls—to help improve their herd, within their budget. For a small investment they can improve feet and legs, longevity, fertility, udder quality, milking ability, mothering ability—all the things that are paramount in our own herd.”
Charles Herbster owns North American Breeders Inc., a stud service in Berryville, Virginia. “All our bulls are collected at that facility and we can control the consistency and quality of semen to each customer. Our semen is packaged at 40 million cells per straw, almost double the standard amount for the semen industry. We also market all our bulls through individual semen sales. We sell directly to customers--rancher to rancher,” she explains.
“Some breeders sell a little semen as well as bulls, but we are the largest breeder offering semen direct to customers. Many breeders have bulls at ABS, ORigin and other bull studs, but all our bulls—with the exception of Southern Charm—are marketed by us. Charles bought into Southern Charm after that bull was already under the ORigin canopy. He is the only bull of ours offered through another company,” she says.
Smith Registered Angus
This seedstock business in the northwest corner of Arkansas, near Berryville is operated by Brock Smith, his aunt and grandmother. “Our family has been raising cattle a long time, but started in the registered purebred business in 2003. We bought a set of registered Angus heifers and started buying good bulls to try to improve our EPD’s. About 8 years ago we started using AI, mainly from Select Sires— different bulls for different cows to match them best,” he says.
“We’ve also used sires from ABS and have purchased embryos from various breeders. We still buy some top-notch herd bulls to benefit our program because we want cattle that are efficient, with longevity and good udders—cattle that will be profitable for our customers,” Smith says.
Many commercial herds in the area buy bulls from their operation so he tries to select bulls that sire small calves that grow fast—the kind people used to call curve-benders that combine easy birth with fast growth and good weaning weights. “Many people here take their calves straight to the sale barn so they want a big calf—but without calving problems. We want to help the commercial producers,” he explains.
“We sit down with some of them and go over the things they want, looking at their cow herd and goals. If they want to make their cattle more moderate or have easier birth, we help them select the genetics that will be the best fit for them,” he says.
This year will be the 5th annual production sale, November 14. “Before we started having sales, we sold everything private treaty. We held our sales at the Green Forest sale barn (North Arkansas Livestock Auction) but this year will be our first sale here at the ranch.” It will be easier, and people can come to the ranch and see the cattle.
“We won’t have to haul the cattle so it will reduce stress on them; they won’t have to get out of their environment/comfort zone. The cattle will be available in larger pens--and easier to view than smaller pens at a sale barn,” says Smith.
There will be 55 bulls in the sale and some pairs--21 fall-calving registered cows and a few commercial cows with calves at side, plus about 20 head of registered bred cows and 5 commercial bred cows.
“We are a bit new at production sales and feel this will expand our customer base,” says Smith. He also hopes to keep expanding their operation. Currently they run about 180 cows and keep the best heifers as replacements to help grow the herd. “We want to eventually have another 60 to 100 cows or more,” he says.
The DeBruyckers are third-generation ranchers near Dutton, Montana who have been in the ranching industry nearly 100 years, and nearly 60 years raising purebred Charolais. Lloyd and Jane DeBruycker are leaders in promoting the breed, but it all began in the late 1950s with a single Charolais bull.
They first used Charolais in a cross-breeding program on commercial cattle, and soon realized the tremendous gain in red meat production and enhancement in the quality of the beef. They bought their first registered Charolais heifers in 1963.
Lloyd and Jane have retired from the day-to-day operation, but four of their seven children (two boys and five girls) are directly involved and the other three assist when they can, and most of them have cattle of their own.
Their son Brett (and his wife Kay) are very involved with the farm and cattle. “My brother Mark and I along with my brother-in-law Joe (Cathy) and sister Jacque are the principal parties of the operation. Jacque does the books, Kelly handles promotions, Tammy is an accounting professor and owns cows and sells bulls with us and my sister Jody assists with the advertising. Now we also have the next generation coming back in, to be a part of it as well,” Brett says.
“Our goal today hasn’t changed from when Dad and Mom started the operation in the 1960’s,” Brett says. “Our goal is to produce bulls that help the commercial rancher be profitable. We feel that in order to do that, you must produce bulls that are small-headed with smooth shoulders (siring calves with easy birth) that have a lot of power and growth performance,” he says.
“The thing that’s kept us on the right path all these years is that we also feed cattle and know how they perform in the feedlot and hang in the packing plant. Dad showed a few cattle back in the day, but that’s never been our thing. We never got into the fads of the 1980’s and 1990’s nor the current fads of the show ring today.” Fads come and go, but a responsible breeder has to keep supplying cattle that will work in the real world, keeping customers profitable.
“To do this, cattle must have a lot of natural growth along with calving ease. I feel our cattle have as much performance, meat and natural growth of any Charolais in the world, yet we’ve put it into a smooth package that will assure calving ease,” says Brett. In earlier days, a person had to choose one or the other (low birthweight/easy calving or exceptional growth) but with the right selection and genetics we now have cattle that will do both.
“We’ve bred these traits into our entire line, with a very line-bred herd. We bring outside bulls into our herd periodically to test them against what we’re doing, but are very selective on how we go about that. If you trace the lineage of our bulls you’ll find they are all related, quite a few times,” he says. This helps guarantee uniformity and consistency in desired traits.
The annual bull sale is the first Saturday in April, offering 600 to 650 bulls at auction. “We also offer private treaty bulls following the sale but every bull is available to customers at the sale. We sell between 900 and 1000 bulls each year,” Brett says.
The ranch also has a lease program, leasing bulls for one to three seasons. “My dad started this program in the early 1980’s--something new that hadn’t been done before. It’s not a profit-maker for us, but a customer service. It helps new people try Charolais bulls, so they don’t have to make a big plunge on buying a bull; they can lease one for a season or more to see how they like our genetics. After that they are typically hooked,” he says. Usually after the first few seasons of leasing, they become buyers.
The leased bulls come back after the breeding season, in September-October. “We shine them up, trich test them, make sure they are in good shape, and sell them as used bulls. We have various ways we help our customers obtain a good bull,” he says.
“We cull extremely hard. There are no perfect cattle so we keep trying to improve on what we’ve built. We use a lot of young bulls and keep moving toward the future.” The seedstock breeder’s job is to put in the effort and do the legwork on genetic improvement so their customers can benefit.
“We’ve never gone to strictly polled genetics, and have always tried to intersperse polled and horned genetics. We think the horned genetics have so much natural performance and do-ability that a person doesn’t want to give that up just to have polled cattle. In our opinion, a significant reason for our polled cattle being as good as they are is the horned genetics behind them.” The breeding program has selected and mixed the desired traits to where it can all be there, but in a polled package.
“We’ve never paid much attention to EPDs. There are times these can do more harm than good, if people only select cattle by the numbers,” says Brett. Some things can’t be measured by or addressed with EPDs. A bull (or cow) might look great on paper but not be functional in the real world.
“We select first by looking at phenotype of the animal, and its sire and dam, along with the calf’s natural performance—on the cow from birth to weaning, and then in our feedlot test. Then if the animal has good EPDs that’s just a bonus. EPDs are the last thing we look at; they can be helpful, but should not be what you base your selection on,” he explains.
“Feet and legs are important; a bull must be able to travel in rough country. Not every bull is perfect and some have issues, but the Charolais breed doesn’t have much problem with structure or calving. In earlier days these were two of the issues where they got knocked.” This breed has come a long way, thanks to conscientious breeders.
“We run our cattle just like commercial cattle. We are there during calving, and here in Montana we have to feed them in winter, but we don’t baby them. They have to travel and forage for themselves and get the job done like they would on a commercial ranch. Our environment helps make the cattle hardy and assists in sorting out the ones that can’t do it. Our cattle can to adapt to many different environments.”
Ohio Land and Cattle
James Coffelt (seedstock producer near Cadiz, Ohio) says that when talking about genetics, there are breeders, and marketers. “Breeders visualize the ideal cow, and stack generations of that type of animal,” he explains.
“The marketers often rely on multiple producers who utilize their genetics. They choose the best-looking bulls, and sell those for the highest possible prices. Twenty percent of their cooperating producers turn over each year. It is impossible, given the producer turnover, to stack a breeding type,” says Coffelt.
“I see the perfect cow as an 1150-pound, wedge-shaped (front to back), beautiful animal. Our herd is registered Black Angus, but I am not promoting the Angus breed. It’s just the easiest to sell. I care about the cattle type, more than the breed,” he says.
“We watch four numbers—calving ease, weaning weight, milk EPD and $EN. We want calving ease, and birth weight EPD around zero. If calves are too big, there are problems. If calves are too small, they are fragile. We want heifers that weigh 60-67 pounds at birth, and bull calves 65 to 72 pounds. We had nearly 700 calves this year and did not pull any,” says Coffelt.
“A weaning weight EPD of about 20 is fine. This is moderate growth; slower growth with early maturing produces cattle that flesh easier. Easy fleshing produces higher fertility, since fat affects hormonal processes. Easy fleshing also means easier wintering, and produces marbling in the meat, for higher quality.”
He says a milk EPD of 15-20 is ideal. “Calves need milk, but less than you think. Higher-milking cattle have higher maintenance requirements year-round, lactating or not. The first requirement is survival, next is fleshing, next is becoming pregnant, next is raising a calf and wintering sufficiently. The sooner a cow meets her maintenance requirements, the better she can breed back, winter, marble, and raise a calf. Yet this kind of selection goes against everything the Angus Association has promoted,” says Coffelt. Most Angus breeders select for more growth and milk--which raises maintenance requirements and makes for harder fleshing.
“We have not fed hay to our cows for 10 years; we only provide minerals. Other than that it’s just grass: live or die. Death loss in our calves, after 10 years, is lower than when we were doing everything the vet said we should,” Coffelt explains. He was able to develop a hardier, more natural animal.
“Lastly, we watch the $EN, a measure of efficiency in the Angus breed. Anything above $20 EN is ideal. The average in the Angus breed is at or below zero,” he says.
“Genetics are key, in the grass-finished world. You must have the right genetics. You couldn’t take a Holstein or even half the Angus cattle in this country and do what we do.” His calves are raised all-natural, with no antibiotics or deworming,
“Stacking genetics of your chosen type is crucial--at least 3 generation top and bottom. Two of our genetic influences, Pinebank and Wye, have stacked their genetics for 75 generations. Our largest outside genetic influences are from Pinebank (New Zealand), Pharo Cattle Company, and Wye—a herd now owned by the University of Maryland. Everything we do is about bulls with the right numbers and type (short, thick, medium-size, easy fleshing, etc.) which produce our chosen cow type, for our business model.. Nothing we produce here is less than 3 generations--and in many cases 70+ generations--of stacked genetics, so calves are very uniform, just like they came out of a copy machine, and with no problems,” he says.
“Our genetic program is very simple. We buy and develop the best bulls we can, capable of producing daughters that thrive in East Central Ohio, problem free, on ranch resources and year-round grazing. Our bulls are the very top, selected from large peer groups, 200-500 in a group,” says Coffelt.
The cows are raised on the ranch and must wean a calf, on time, problem free. “Every cow that is late, open, aggressive, or needed assistance for her or her calf, is removed from the herd. The type of cow that does best is moderate in size (1100-1150 pounds), winters well, is easy fleshing, moderate in milk, and moderate in growth.”
The key is an ideal cow because she drives the whole breeding program. “For two years I looked at the cows in our herd that were above 1150 pounds and the cows that were below 1150 pounds. Most of our culls were larger-size cows. They were longer, taller, harder-fleshing. The smaller cows are always fat and can be harvested year-round because they are easy-fleshing,” says Coffelt.
“The key is not selecting the most beautiful bull or cow; the key is sorting off the bottom 30% to cull, and the top end keeps increasing in the qualities you want,” he says. A cattleman who is devoted to high performance animals (high growth, high milk, and animals that win at the county fair) will make decisions to produce animals of that type. A cattleman producing beef for the grass-finished industry will develop cattle with lower growth, lower milk, moderate sized, with high efficiency. Cattlemen in the South will breed cattle that are different from cattle in the North, to fit different environments.
A business must be profitable. “Business choices should drive the breeding. In our case, we have an annual cow cost of $293 per cow, and sell into a premium market in seed stock, bulls, and all-natural grass-finished beef,” he says.
“Gavin Falloon, a great cattleman in New Zealand--one of the best breeders in the world--has an 800-cow herd, producing 400 bull calves per year. He has bred the best yearling bulls to those 800 cows each year, for 73 years, and then sold those yearling bulls with an option to buy them back, depending on how the progeny turned out. There might be one every 10 years that was stunning, and they’d buy it back, that is, one of 4000 bulls.. By the time they could recognize that a bull was that outstanding, he might be almost dead of old age. So, if someone thinks they can come to my ranch or any ranch and pick out the one in 4000 as a yearling or two-year-old, it’s impossible. My advice is to pick a good bull and keep costs down, and continually cull the bottom 30%.
Pharo Cattle Company
Kit Pharo (Cheyenne Wells, Colorado) has been selling bulls for 30 years. In addition to genetics, his family operation provides a total program and a way of thinking focused on helping cow-calf producers make their business as profitable, enjoyable and sustainable as possible.
Kit started as a commercial producer in the 1980’s and could see that the industry was headed in the wrong direction. “The focus was on bigger weaning weights, making cattle bigger as fast as possible. I was fortunate to have a father who was still around, and some friends, who said this didn’t make sense. We can always make cattle big, but if they are not profitable, it doesn’t really matter. I had enough experience in my 5 years of buying bulls and trying to do what everybody else was doing, to realize we were not making any money,” he says.
“I looked at ranchers who’d been weighing their calves at weaning for many years, and could see their cow size had increased 200 or 300 pounds. When we’re feeding bigger cows and not producing that much bigger calves, it’s not profitable. Our focus, instead of increasing pounds per cow (weaning weight), has been on increasing pounds per acre. When you look at bull catalogs and AI catalogs, everything is still focused on more growth.” But after a certain point the increased cow size no longer increases weaning weight.
It’s better to focus on pounds per acre rather than pounds per cow. “We came to the conclusion that stocking rate affects profitability (or lack thereof) more than anything else. So if we can run a higher number of smaller cows that wean a higher percentage of their own body weight, we can drastically increase pounds per acre—and those smaller calves bring more money per pound. So we are producing more pounds per acre that are worth more per pound,” he explains.
“Our focus is to try to help our customers’ business be as profitable and enjoyable and sustainable as possible—with subsequent generations coming into the business. We have focused on low-input, grass-efficient cattle that can make the most money (for the least cost) on grass. They still work well in a feedlot and finish in fewer days with less feed because they are efficient,” Kit says.
“Our first bull sale was 30 years ago and we sold 6 bulls. As time went on, more and more people understood what we are doing. We are now selling more than 1000 bulls a year, in 6 different sales in 5 different states. We don’t like regular auctions that are fast-paced and the auctioneer is hard to understand with bid-takers screaming in your face. We started a Cowboy Auction; low-key, low-tech, laid back, and you can look around and see who is bidding against you. We actually sell bulls faster this way than with an auctioneer, and everyone is comfortable,” Kit says.
His herd calves in May-June, in sync with Nature. “Back in the mid-1990’s we stopped developing bulls on grain because it didn’t make sense. Most cow herds are not in a feedlot; they are out on grass. So we started developing bulls on grass. What we had to do then was have a fall bull sale instead of a spring bull sale. A person can’t sell those bulls as yearlings, especially if they are developed slowly on grass.”
By fall they are 18 months old. By the time they breed cows they are 2 years old. Because they are developed slowly and are older, they have very few problems and can breed more cows. “We’re not afraid to turn them out with 40 or more females their first time, and maybe 50 to 60 after that.” This past summer he had two groups of 80 females, with one bull each.
He has come up with several tools to help ranchers select the right bulls for their program, including a Quick Sort method that anyone can do on their computer. This is a link they click on, for any upcoming bull sale, which lists all the bulls, their breed, sire, frame size, and ranking (in a 1 to 5 rating) for 14 different traits: disposition, fleshing ability, calving ease, thickness, muscling, masculinity, grass efficiency, hair coat, fly resistance, dam’s udder score, age of dam, marbling ratio and tenderness, and an overall rating.
For instance one bull might be a medium in frame size, a 4 in disposition, a 5 in calving ease, a 4 in fleshing ability, a 3+ in fly resistance, etc. A person can decide which traits are most important to their own operation and select bulls that are high ranking in those traits. One rancher might be most interested in calving ease, and some of the other traits don’t have to be a top score. All bulls in that sale can be compared in the various traits. There are also video clips for each bull, so they can be viewed.
For people who can’t attend the sale, a base price is listed for each bull, and they can bid something above that price for any bull they are interested in (whatever price they are willing to pay), and the number of bulls they want, and hopefully end up with some of their top picks. It’s an easy way to evaluate bulls in terms of the traits they feel are most important for their own herd.
“Not every ranch is the same; each operation is looking for something a little different, and they all have a different budget. Our Quick Sort program is unique and can help our customers select the bulls they need. Some outfits know how to select for EPDs with bigger weaning weights, milk, yearling weights, etc. but this is not what they need to do. They need to select for low maintenance animals instead of high growth animals if they want to increase pounds per acre instead of pounds per cow,” he says.
“We used to let people sort for EPDs but I realized it was just giving them a tool to go the wrong direction. So we provide scores on our bulls, for calving ease, muscling, low maintenance, etc.--all the things we think are more important than bigger and bigger,” he says.
Pharo Cattle Company is a family operation; Kit and Deanna’s son Tyson is an integral part of the ranch and breeding program. Over the years, they have expanded from one family to several families. Pharo Cattle Company has cooperative herds in 12 different states and develop bulls on grass in Colorado, Missouri, Texas, Nebraska and Alabama. Next year, they will be developing bulls on grass in Montana. The bulls are sold in the states they were developed in.
Dan Leo (APEX Cattle, Dannebrog, Nebraska) says he grew up with Herefords, and showed Herefords in 4-H. He has been in the seedstock business since the early 1970’s. Dan is credited with bringing the first Line 1 cattle to Nebraska and having the state's first yearling Hereford bull sale back in 1974.
He has witnessed many positive changes, and tremendous progress over the past fifty years. Some breeds have come and gone, and others have become much better. “I recall when collecting birth and weaning weights first began, then the advent of EPDs, all of which traditional breeders had a very hard time accepting. Back in those days, the show ring dominated breeding selection. Very few who exhibited at shows of that era are still in business, mostly because showing was did not fulfill the needs of the commercial cattleman,” he says.
“Today, DNA technology gives a tremendous advantage to the cattle industry to genomically enhance the value of EPDs. This technology and science is used today by progressive seedstock suppliers, and demanded by bull buyers,” says Dan.
“We maintain about 500 breeding age SimAngus and Angus females, and develop their offspring (age-advantaged coming two-year-old bulls, yearling bulls, replacement females), and raise most of our feed. We have one full-time employee and occasional part-time help for working cattle, sale preparation and calving. At 73 years old, I can’t do what I once did but still do all the AI work, make the breeding decisions and handle all record keeping and I’m responsible for sale and semen promotions. EPDs, performance data, phenotype and good management traits are all very important to us,” he says.
“In our program, only a sire with a strong EPD profile is used, if his phenotype and docility is exceptionally good, and he came from a strong maternal cow family. Our herd sire battery is represented by multiple Simmental and SimAngus sires that rank in the breed’s elite top 1 to 5% for various EPDs, API and TI. Semen is sold domestically and internationally on several APEX-owned sires.”
“To maximize our genetic decisions at APEX Cattle, our entire cowherd, all sires and their progeny have Genomic-Enhanced EPDs. The DNA collection takes time and costs money, but we are confident it provides the very best genetic information possible.
“This is important to our breeding decisions, marketing information and customer’s breeding programs. Multi-trait predictability is astounding, and DNA verification ensures parentage accuracy, which is vital. The projected API (All Purpose Index) average of all our 2021 calves will be within the top 10% of the SimAngus database. Our customers demand and deserve the best, and we intend to make sure they receive the best cattle, genetics and service we can provide.”
The annual Heterosis Headquarters Bull and Bred Heifer Sale will be held Feb. 1 at ranch headquarters. “About two-thirds of the bulls are coming two-year-olds and the other third are yearling bulls that represent some of our newer genetics. Some people need a more mature bull to handle more cows and rougher terrain and some can better utilize a yearling bull. A total of 160 bulls will be sold, giving buyers a good selection and opportunity to assemble sire groups,” he says.
“Our goal has always been to raise cattle that will work in our environment and to produce SimAngus bulls that meet the demands of our customers. Most of our bull buyers run Angus or Angus crossbred cows. Using our SimAngus bulls, producers can maintain calving ease, get extra performance, produce replacement females that will be more productive than their mothers and wean off heavier calves that will have strong buyer demand. Calves are black-hided and have more future profit, yielding better feed yard closeouts. The only thing free in the cattle business is heterosis, and the benefits are huge with a good APEX SimAngus bull!” he explains.
“We believe the combined Simmental and Angus breeds meet the needs of the beef industry--whether calving ease, performance, maternal, stayability or carcass traits. Labor savings, better-producing females with more longevity and soundness, plus heavier pay weights are common among SimAngus cattle. Demand for SimAngus feeder cattle has been exceptionally good with over 35,000 lots marketed through Superior Livestock in the last eight years, reported by a recent KSU research project,” he says.
“Clay Center started their germ plasm project in the early 1970’s and established the added value of heterosis and composite females. Crossbred superior productivity is undisputed, and the SimAngus cross cow performs with the best of them,” Dan says.
“Heterosis is important to sustainability in agriculture, especially for our beef industry today. Grain, poultry and swine early on saw benefits of crossbreeding, and it was done without today’s precise DNA. Today it is nearly impossible to find purebred poultry, swine or grain because they cannot compete in a commercial environment, and I see the long-term future of the beef industry headed that direction,” he explains.
“I embrace DNA technology and heterosis combined with commitment to structural soundness and docility traits for future seedstock. Benefits of heterosis should be on the mind of every commercial cattlemen to achieve maximum profitability with the least labor and lower inputs.”
He feels the SimAngus composite is a great fit for the beef industry, now and in the future. For commercial cattlemen with British or Continental breed-based cowherds, heterosis can make a very positive impact; the crossbred female is best for fertility, longevity and more profitability.
The future of the beef business will depend more and more on composite cattle. I am confident that DNA-enhanced EPD technology will drive our direction, and it will not be by breed dominance; specific individual composite genetics will be the source of our future genetic leadership,” he says.
“Today, thanks to practicality, science, and emphasis on profitability and sustainability, we are in a better place. Adding benefits of heterosis via crossbreeding to the equation, we can take the industry to a whole new level.”