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Genetic Modifications Observed in cattle

From the Ground Up with Steve Kenyon

If you can select for low-maintenance cows, your profitability will go up.

I am not an expert on cattle genetics. Not even close. I believe that in today’s livestock genetics, there is just as much variability within a breed as there is between breeds. We have diluted our genetics far too much with most breeds and most species. But I would like to share with you a few of my ramblings on the subject.

Now, they are not all my ideas, as I like to surround myself with people who are a lot “smarter” than me am. (I had to do it.) I have had, however, quite a few years dealing with GMO (Genetic Modifications Observed) in cattle. As a custom grazier, I have seen many different herds of cattle over the years.

One of my greatest mentors was Gerald Fry. Not only for his years of experience, knowledge and wisdom when it came to cattle genetics but for his humility as a speaker and educator. I aspired to be an educator like him. A lot of Gerald’s work was done through observation and I know some people criticized his work because it was not scientifically proven. Years and years of observation can be a lot more real than some of the scientific studies I’ve seen. We lost Gerald last year and his passing was a huge loss to the cattle industry. May he rest in peace.

I will keep it very basic today but he selected cattle for two main traits — high reproduction and low maintenance. I will not even get into his selection process of linear measurement, but I highly recommend you look into it.

High reproduction and low maintenance — which means she can re-breed each year with very minimal rations — she’s a keeper. I am afraid most of our genetics today would not make that cut. We are selecting for far too many other traits and in my opinion, going down the wrong path. (I know, that might offend some people.)

High reproduction

If a heifer catches on the first cycle, keep her. If the second-calf heifer catches on the first cycle, keep her. If a cow catches on the first cycle, keep her. If that cow continues to catch on the first cycle every year, keep her, and then keep her calf.

Years ago I had a customer that bought a herd of cows sight unseen and they shipped them straight to me to take care of. They arrived at my ranch and they looked pretty good. (No, I am not going to tell you the breed, as it does not matter.) They were supposed to have been five- to eight-year-old cows.

The first summer went well and I really liked the herd. That winter I had two cows die for no apparent reason. If you have livestock, you have dead stock, was my first thought. But then, the next year I had three more cows die for no reason. Okay, something was not right. That fall, I had the vet do dental checks on the entire herd. The herd was between 12 and 18 years old. They were simply dying of old age.

Did my customer get ripped off? Or did he get an amazing herd of cattle? In my opinion, these were the best of the best. We had a very experienced herd of cattle that had rebred every year. I was very excited and I wanted to buy the heifers from this herd. The best way to lower the depreciation of your herd is to retain heifers from your oldest cows. The longer a cow can stay in your herd, the lower her depreciation. High reproduction is a very important trait because cow depreciation can be one of your biggest costs. I was disappointed because the owner wanted to build his herd and his heifers were not for sale.

Low maintenance

How much do you feed your herd? How much supplement do you give? Can they graze late into the winter on low-quality forage and still maintain condition? Can they maintain condition throughout the winter grazing stockpiled grass, swath grazing or bale grazing through the snow with low-quality feed? If you can select for low-maintenance cows, your profitability will go up, I am sure.

I am a custom grazier and I have been for 20 years. From my observation during that time, I believe that my gains have not gotten any better over those 20 years. What? I must be a bad manager. I am pretty sure that it is not due to my abilities as a grazier but more from the genetics that I receive. (I know, it is a poor carpenter that blames the hammer, but…)

Let me tell you my own thoughts. Every time our industry selects bulls that are more “efficient,” it is done so in a feedlot situation. At a bull test, they are all measured in a grain-fed situation. The better the gains, the better the genetics, right? When the feed efficiency of gain goes up on grain-fed cattle, what do you think happens to the feed efficiency on grass? From my experience, it goes down.

I guarantee that I am a better grazier than I was 20 years ago. Don’t take this the wrong way, my gains are not terrible now, but I think that genetics plays a huge role in feed efficiency. I am sometimes disappointed in my gains.

What are you selecting for on your ranch? Grain efficiency or grass efficiency? If you are looking for a low-maintenance cow herd, you better aim for grass efficiency. A cow that can get fat on low-quality forage, all year long, and still wean a big calf, now that is a keeper. I do not own any of the cattle here at Greener Pastures Ranching and I have the opportunity to observe many different herds. I have witnessed herds that can gain weight on only pea straw, or any other very low-quality feeds. In contrast I have had herds that waste away to nothing unless you pound the grain to them. I believe that it is genetic selection over the years that makes the difference more than anything else.

Parasite resistance

I would like to add one more trait to my genetic selection process. Not that Gerald overlooked this one but I think that it is worth mentioning.

Our industry has been trained to treat for parasites, whether the livestock need it or not. For years we have been mass-treating our herds and therefore, masking animals that do not have good parasite resistance. There are other factors contributing to parasites, but we will just stick to the genetic component for today.

I am sure everyone would agree that there are animals in your herd that are more susceptible to lice than others. With a louse issue, it is very easy to see the hair start to scratch off, exposing patches of bare skin. Some cattle get it worse than others, but then we treat and hide the animals that don’t have resistance to lice. We should cull them out of the herd. Instead, we retain their offspring and continue to breed with these poor genetics.

This would be the same with internal parasites. Some animals are more resistant than others. Parasite resistance, or lack thereof, would correlate with our first two selection traits. It would cause them to need more nutrition and lose body condition if fed a low-maintenance diet. Eventually those animals would be culled out of the herd because of low fertility.

A few years back I was managing a “relatively new to organic” herd. The owner was just transitioning into organics but had not culled out very hard yet. The price of hay was high so I managed to find 450 acres of pea straw crop residues to swath graze in the field. I did not have enough animals for this field, so I asked a friend who raises organic cattle if he wanted some less expensive feed for the winter. He was very happy to send me his herd.

We ended up with three different herds in this accidental experiment because my friend was trying to expand his herd and had just bought a handful of additional commercial animals. Herd A was my newly transitioned organic herd. Herd B was an organic herd that has been genetically selected for all three of our traits for over 25 years. Herd C was a commercial herd that was chemically treated for parasites that fall. All three groups were the same breed and colour. Together, they made a very uniform-looking herd.

The winter went well and we managed to graze right through until mid-March with no issues. It was a grain field, so as you might assume, there was not much for trees out in the field. The second-last paddock had one small bush in it. As soon as we turned the herd into the bush paddock, it was clear that they had picked up some lice along the way. Cattle started rubbing and skin patches appeared quite quickly. The last paddock was right next to the highway so, as you would guess, I decided that we needed to ship these girls home ASAP. I had already had calls to the SPCA for these cattle by the highway.

It was time to sort. As we started pulling out the three herds, a very visual difference jumped out at us. Herd A had quite a bit of hair missing but there was a big variance in susceptibility. Some were good and some were not. The long-term organic Herd B was perfect. Not a hair patch missing at all. Even though the animals next to them had lice, the animals in Herd B were resistant to them.

Herd C, which had been treated for parasites five months earlier, were the worst. Huge hair patches missing and they also had other health issues. Out in the field I had noticed that a few calves had pink eye, which was odd as I have never had pink eye out swath grazing before. After sorting, we noticed that every one of the calves with pink eye was from Herd C. Did the treatments weaken the immune systems of the cow? Or the calf? Or both? You tell me.

Now, you can take any of these experiments with a grain of salt if you like. They were not controlled, they were not documented or peer reviewed. They were simply my observation as an outside third party. I like to think that I am unbiased, as I do not own any of the cattle herds I manage. Most people only get to observe a handful of herds in a lifetime. I have seen over 100 so far. Just like a lot of Gerald Fry’s work, years of observation holds a lot of merit in my mind.

Within our industry, we have been genetically modifying our herds for years through trait selection. Have our herds been genetically getting better? Or worse?

About the author


Steve Kenyon runs Greener Pastures Ranching Ltd. in Busby, Alta. You can email him at [email protected] or call 780-307-6500.

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