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  • Jeff M. Chambers

You call yourself a cattle breeder?*

Updated: Sep 25, 2020

Let me have your attention for a moment. Let's talk about something important. Let's talk about breeding cattle.

You're a cattle breeder. You know it's a tough racket.

You're complaining about what? How somebody doesn't want that line you've been breeding. Some heifer had a breech birth at 2 am last night. Some guy backs out of the sale he agreed to last week. Stop crying in your Wheaties and get a cup of coffee.

Have I got your attention now?"

Good. Because there are quite a few things that are important in being a cattle breeder, but two of the most important are selection and culling. Selection is the identification and planning for the use of an animal in a breeding program to achieve specified desirable qualities and/or eliminating undesirable qualities in subsequent and future generations. Culling is the removal of animals from the breeding plan of animals not selected..

So, we as cattle breeders are always examining, analyzing, comparing our cattle now with our cattle last year, with our cattle 2 and 5 years ago, and most importantly with where we want our herd to be next year and the years following. Working diligently to correct, improve, and fix those areas we have identified to focus on.

Factoring all of that into our selection and culling decisions and then probably doing it all over repeatedly before final decisions are made is how we go about our business. Or at least that is what successful cattle breeders have done for generations to continually move their herds and move their breed forward.

But what appears to be occurring increasingly in our breed is selection and culling decisions being made at the end of a tail hair. Tail hairs pulled on a 2-day old calf, submitted to a lab, and 2 weeks later, when the results arrive, selection and culling decisions are made. Tail hair results reported as paramount in sales announcements. Requests for stock beginning and ENDING with tail hair information. What's more, these selection and culling decisions being made from the end of a tail hair are for the most base (simple) genetic traits possible in our very complex craft.

Let me be clear. There is nothing, absolutely nothing wrong with a herd goal to have red, polled, A2 cattle. Nor am I suggesting that having that goal is to be something less of a cattle breeder than someone that does not share those goals. What I am suggesting is that if those are your primary, secondary, and tertiary selection, and culling criteria, then you will most certainly achieve your herd goal of always red, always polled, and always A2 in very short order. And then, if you wish to continue your herd improvement, you will have to take on cattle breeding traits that are far more complex and difficult to obtain and fix. And your task will likely be much more difficult. More difficult because you have spent some time and genetic loss from your own herd or potential purchases that were not based on the more difficult traits. It also may be the case that for the traits you need to improve upon, the genetics are not available to you when you need them that are also homozygous red, polled, and A2.

It is also a hard fact of livestock breeding that we can only impact through selection and culling a few specific traits at any particular time. Those that we choose to focus on will determine the cattle we produce, and the phrase "all else being equal" sounds nice as it floats around in the clouds but in the air is the only place you will find it to really be the case.

For simply inherited traits such as black color, there is the black result when a black allele is included, or there is the non-black (red) result when neither allele is black. The black allele completely masks the expression of the other allele when the alleles are heterozygous for the gene, and as those of you that breed for red cattle know, red to red will always result in red. Below is the simple Punnett Square for (black-red) coat color. Polled and A2 status are the same, and that is as simple as genetics can be.

Do you ever wonder why we don't see these types of Punnett squares for excellent udder quality or easy fleshing ability, or calving ease, or many other cattle traits we would like to see present in our herd? Those squares don't exist because these traits are incredibly complex genetically and orders of magnitude more difficult to achieve, maintain and improve upon than on/off gene traits.

"In most cattle, the horn/poll gene action is simple recessive with the poll allele (P) being dominant to the horn allele (p)." (Bullock, D. 2017).

"Meat quality traits are very complex and involve many genes…" (S. Duner, et al. 2013).

"A cattle database of candidate genes and genetic markers for milk production and mastitis has been developed to provide an integrated research tool incorporating different types of information supporting a genomic approach to study lactation, udder development, and health. The database contains 943 genes and genetic markers involved in mammary gland development and function. (J. Ogorevc, et al. 2009)"

These statements speak for themselves, and in applying to a breeding program focused on producing excellent cattle, the selection option below seems clear:

Calf 1: A red calf obligate homozygous polled and A2 from first calf heifer and the first calf sire.

Calf 2: A calf born to an easy fleshing, good udder quality cow with 6 offspring out of a line bred sire with excellent meat carcass traits and good maternal traits, and all are of unknown polled and A2 status.

This choice should be the rule and easy for all of us. Selecting Calf 2 will advance the breeding of excellence in cattle on traits that are "very complex" and in which many genes and genetic markers (strings of chromosomes) are involved. Selecting Calf 1 will assure you of the color, horn, and milk status desired from 3 genes. Selecting, culling, and ultimately producing more of Calf 2 and if a goal of an A2 herd is desired, THEN checking for A2 status will more rapidly result in excellent cattle in your herd than doing this in the opposite order.

The size of the bovine genome is 3 Gb (3 billion base pairs). It contains approximately 22,000 genes of which 14,000 are common to all mammalian species but another 6,000 or so are bovine specific genetics. And you think that one or two of those on/off switches genes are the critical components in making good cows? "Riiiiiiiight."

"Put that tail-hair bag down!" Genetic tests should be completed after selection and culling decisions are made or at least run through a time or two before we start pulling tail hairs. You'll also save dollars on genetic testing.

The Dexter genetics are out there to go make a cow that will classify 90(Ex) 4x. But it won't happen without concerted effort and difficult decision making.

Seek out good cattle and work to develop good cattle of the color, horn status, and milk protein type that you desire. However, the color, the milk protein, and the horned status, and a pedigree to Methuselah do not make good cattle.

* For those not familiar with the movie Glengarry Glen Ross, from 1992 some of the more 'colorful' phrases and terms used in this piece are as a spoof from a motivational sales speech delivered in that film – viewer discretion advised.

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