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Dna Drives This Herd Forward

* ern and Vivienne Pancoast have never shied away from striking out in new directions. Their openness to trying new ideas and technology has seen their first-generation farm, * &* Farms, near Redcliff, Alta. grow from one quarter and a few cows back in the 1970s into a mixed grain and beef operation with 300 head of purebred Gelbvieh and commercial cattle that now spans 22,000 acres of owned and rented land on both sides of the Alberta-Saskatchewan border.

This was their first full year managing two farms located about two hours apart after taking off the 2009 crop at the century family farm they purchased near Consul, Sask. Former owners Bevin and Carrie Funk have stayed on to manage the day-to-day cattle and farming operations.

The Pancoasts have relocated their commercial herd and some of their purebreds to Consul and added more commercial cattle to establish a permanent herd there numbering 160 head. Calving for this group has been moved from the usual February 1 start date to April to make it easier to manage and dispense with the need to expand winter calving facilities.

With a few more dugouts, cross fencing and a higher stocking density on pastures they feel this farm should carry about 240 head. That in turn will allow them to ease back to about 220 head on their Alberta farm where the nucleus of their purebred herd remains.

Dryland production of Hard Red Spring wheat, durum wheat and winter wheat has been their main focus through the years. Crested wheat is the forage of choice for baling, while triticale and oats — either sown as a blend or separately — are baled up as greenfeed. They maintain their own breeding pastures and send some of the herd to the community pasture on July 1 for summer grazing.

The plan is to grow more winter wheat at Consul. That would let them complete harvest operations in Saskatchewan before moving back to Alberta to finish up. Harvest is a joint effort with Vern doing the combining and Viv relaying trucks from the combine to the bins. During seeding they keep on the move with Vern looking after the burnoff, in-crop and fallow spraying operations, Viv running the air drill, and the hired man shuttling supplies of seed, fertilizer, water and herbicides to the fields.

The Pancoasts were early adopters of conservation tillage practices. They were among the first in their region to try new varieties, such as Kyle durum and winter wheat suited for their growing conditions. Today, they use GPS and auto steer technology for hands-free operation to reduce the physical stress of long hours in the field. Another recent change has been the hiring of a custom grain hauler to truck grain to the terminals, which helps free up more of their time to take care of the cattle operation.

“Having access to new technology makes a huge difference both in cropping and cattle, but it takes time and commitment to show the practical advantages of any new technology,” Vern says. That’s how he views the new science of DNA genotyping for the beef industry.

“I really think DNA testing has so much potential. Feed efficiency, tenderness, docility — these are traits that are becoming important to commercial producers and feedlots. DNA testing can identify animals with those traits and so many more. We have unlimited untapped information now available to us and a lot more yet to be found,” he explains.

Another new technology that has worked well for them is the radio frequency identification (RFID) tags. Every time an animal goes through the chute for preg testing, vaccinations or any other issues, the RFID tag is scanned with a wand reader and the details entered in the computer. Gone are the days of having to deal with paper while working cattle.

“It makes it easy to keep really good records. Each animal has an RFID tag, a herd dangle tag and a tattoo that are cross-referenced in the software program. We don’t ever lose an animal’s identification and there’s never a mix-up,” Vern explains. The database can be searched by RFID number, dangle tag number or tattoo number to access the history of any animal, which saves time searching year by year through volumes of paper records.

ADVANTAGES OF GENOTYPING

Viv says they tried a couple of other continental breeds before settling on Gelbviehs after purchasing 36 heifer calves from a dispersal sale in 1991.

They turned out to be super cows and their interest in the breed and involvement with the Canadian Gelbvieh Association (CGA) grew from there. Vern served on the CGA board for seven years, including two years as president, and is currently serving in an advisory capacity as past president.

During that time, the CGA became involved in a DNA research project led by Dr. Stephen Moore with the Alberta Bovine Genomics program at the University of Alberta. By submitting hair samples with intact follicles from all cows, bulls and offspring, Gelbvieh association members are assisting with the research to identify future DNA markers of economic significance as well as herd health and disease resistance.

The majority of CGA members are participating in the project that started in 2008 and in time will establish a DNA baseline against which future generations of Gelbvieh cattle can be measured. The samples on file can also be used to build a genetic profile of a member’s herd using the services of genetics companies.

First and foremost, the Pancoasts use DNA tests to confirm parentage. All animals entered into national shows and sales must be “parent verified” by DNA and the CGA spot checks the parentage of every 200th animal that is registered.

The ability to verify parentage through DNA test has advantages in managing their breeding program since most of their purebred females are synchronized and AI’d. Elite cows are flushed and embryos are transplanted into commercial cows. The cows are then turned out with cleanup bulls before going to summer pasture. Depending on the genetics for the gestation period, a cow could calve two weeks earlier or later than the expected date. With the DNA of the parents on file and samples submitted for every calf, there’s never any question of parentage.

The fact that their bulls have been genotyped was definitely an influencing factor in a local grazing association’s decision to purchase bulls from them last year. It’s a selling point for the pasture. If a patron, for example, ends up with too many big calves, they can test to determine if one particular bull is responsible and should be culled. The structural soundness of the Pancoast bulls as well as their quiet temperament were other factors.

DNA tests also confirm whether animals are homogenous or heterogenous horned/polled and in hide colour. Those traits as well as birth weight and calving ease are the questions bull buyers are most likely to ask about. Generally, Vern finds he’s having to explain EPD numbers less frequently to commerical producers in recent years as they have really picked up on how to use them.

PRODUCTION SALE

The Pancoasts’ whole year is geared toward the production sale they have hosted at the farm every March since 2002. The 2011 sale will be held March 18.

Only the top one-third or so of the purebred bull calves make the final cut. They start narrowing the field at branding when they castrate about half of the bull calves based on traits such as birth weight, colour, horns and EPDs. Another 10 to 15 per cent are cut at weaning around the middle of October when the pairs come home from pasture. The steers and heifers that won’t be retained as replacements for their herd or to be sold as breeding stock make nice uniform groups of cattle to move through the local auction ring in the fall.

Selected bulls are carried through the winter on a predominantly oats and hay ration. The final selections are made just before the sale based on eye appeal, hair coat, on-feed performance, ultrasound measurements and a breeding soundness exam.

A new heated shop at the home farm was designed with both the grain and cattle operation in mind. It has an auctioneer’s stand and small ring in one corner and an enclosed kitchen area in the opposite corner. Corrals on the north side of the shop open to alleys leading into the ring. The corrals adjoin the calving facility, which is another multi-use building. They use portable panels and handling facilities arranged so that one person can manage to bring in the cows and move them through as necessary. With painted metal cladding interior walls, the building can be easily washed down and used for other purposes after calving season.

Last year’s production sale featured about 50 of their bulls and another group of eight from a guest consignor with black Gelbvieh stock. Replacement heifers round out the offering for potential buyers who are always welcome to phone ahead or drop by the farm anytime before the sale to view the bulls. You can also catch the Pancoasts on the show circuit each year starting with Farm Fair at Edmonton, Agribition in Regina and finishing up with the Wish List sale at Olds in December.

For further details you can contact the Pancoasts at 403- 548-6678, [email protected], or visit www.gelbvieh.ca.

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