Going Under The Hide To Sell Bulls This Family Uses DNA Profiles And Carcass Grading Sheets To Back Up Their Bull’s Breeding Potential

Donna McMorris says her husband, Dennis, is an evidence-based kind of guy. Naturally, he was intrigued with the new science of DNA profiling when he heard Igenity’s Saskatchewan representative, Lee Sinclair, explain the program. An Igenity gift certificate won at the 2004 Regina Bull Sale was just the nudge they needed to set them on a most interesting path for their red factor Charolais herd, Crystal D Charolais, at Balcarres, Sask.

Since then, they’ve DNA profiled all of their herd sires and can confidently state that they have calm cattle with good maternal traits that produce high-yielding Canada AAA carcasses.

The McMorrises started down the purebred path in 1996, when they purchased their first purebred Frenchinfl uence Charolais females. It became “crystal” clear that red factor Charolais would be their focus when they made a trip to the Red Bonanza sale at Red Deer, Alta. After purchasing a group of 15 red-factor purebred females, they jumped ahead by purchasing their red-factor herd sire, Lariat 136L, as a yearling bull. A half share in a Canadian champion red-factor cow they bred with red-factor genetics from a New Zealand bull produced two more of their herd sires. The New Zealand cattle are finished on grass and have genetics for that easy-finishing trait that’s important to Crystal D’s program. Today, the McMorrises are the proud owners of 130 red, double-red, triple-red and fourth-generation red-factor Charolais purebreds.

Between then and now, there was BSE. “BSE was a hard hit, but it brought us forward in another way. We knew we wouldn’t be able to sell calves and that we had to do something differently. It was an easy decision to start feeding out our own genetics,” Dennis says. It made sense for their farm — they had the cattle, the barley and the Bovine Bucket.

The Bovine Bucket is a patented automated grain-feeding system Dennis designed to rid himself of the dreaded chore of toting five-gallon pails of grain. The seven-inch diameter auger comes in 20-foot sections to be assembled horizontally above the feed bunk. An electric motor runs the auger to deliver grain through strategically-placed holes. It takes one to three minutes to deliver sufficient grain to feed a group of 150 animals. Their Bovine Bucket system is set up in a separate pen with controlled access from a number of pens so that the cows and the feeders take turns at the bunk. They feed 10,000 bushels of barley every year without lifting a pail or starting a tractor.

Finishing program

The grading sheets have consistently come back with mostly Canada AA and AAA since shipping their first lot of finished calves in 2004. They credit the field representatives from XL Beef and Cargill for helping to make learning how to finish their own cattle a positive experience.

“They came out to the farm, spent time explaining how the calves were doing, why some were ready and others weren’t and what we needed to do to take them the rest of the way,” Dennis says. “They always phoned back after the calves were processed. It is encouraging to get the feedback and to know they are interested in what we are doing.”

They start the weaned calves on a ration of barley grain with alfalfabrome hay, oat yellow feed and/or millet. During the last two to three months he transitions them to a barley grain and straw diet. The ration for the final few weeks is barley grain and flax straw to put on that last layer of nice white fat.

He discovered the flax straw finisher ration by accident during one of the dry years when they were using flax straw for bedding to save the barley straw for feed. It was as if the calves had a craving for the flax straw and they only nibbled at the barley straw in the bale feeder. He feels it has a lot to do with the fibre in the flax straw. It could be that the rough texture stimu-

lates the rumen to keep the high percentage of barley grain moving through the digestive tract.

The experience of feeding out their own calves has sold them on the merit of cows with larger frame sizes that can deliver a 90-to 110-pound calf with ease. You need that frame size in the newborns to end up with a 1,300-to 1,400-pound steer under two years of age that will yield a 900 pound carcass and will make you some money, Dennis explains.

They used to develop their replacement heifers to calve at 1,200 pounds, but now target 1,400 pounds by the first calving to ensure mature cows with adequate frame size to deliver the kind of calves they want for their finishing program. He adds that the gut capacity of the Charolais animals is an important consideration in their feeding program because they rely a great deal on straw.

DNA links breeding with feeding

“We discovered that some of the genetics we were finishing were definitely providing the type of carcass that was of interest to the packers. We decided it was time to DNA the sires we were using to determine whether they carried the genetics that contributed to the positive outcomes in our herd,” Donna says.

They profiled for carcass traits (marbling, quality grade, yield grade, ribeye area, backfat and tenderness) and performance traits (residual feed intake and daily rate of gain). Because they are breeding their own replacement females, they wanted confirmation that their bulls carry positive maternal traits (heifer pregnancy rate, stayability and maternal calving ease). Docility is a very important trait on their farm, with ease of handling and safety being the key issues.

“We scored well and evenly with all of the herd sires in the areas of the profile,” Donna says. Using their purebred records and tag numbers they could see the correlation between each herdsire and the grading sheets of his offspring.

“When you are in the purebred business, you need to have additional information to share with your bull buyers. We decided that the carcass-grade sheets and the DNA profiles were two very evidence-based and important data sheets we could share with these individuals,” she says.

It’s a powerful combination. As they go through the profiles with potential customers, they explain the Igenity scores in familiar terms and point out corresponding examples on the grading sheets.

EPDs are valuable for comparing a bull’s phenotypical traits to breed averages. The DNA profile looks at the genetic potential of individual animals.

Marketing

The McMorrises were fully aware that it would take time to develop a commercial bull market. “You need to develop a sincere trust in people who are interested in your cattle. You need to listen and understand what the producer really wants to achieve with his herd.”

They feel it’s very important to participate in shows, such as Agribition, because it gives them an opportunity to compare their stock with

other progeny and determine whether they are producing animals that are within the same parameters as the other breeders. The point of the shows isn’t to win ribbons as much as to “show off” what they have accomplished in their breeding program that will appeal to cow-calf producers.

They keep only their best top 10 or dozen bull calves and the remainder are castrated in December or January. It’s tough to make the final decisions because some excellent calves and genetics go the way of the feedlot, Dennis adds. That said, under current market conditions — considering all of the breeds and all of the breeders out there — they have to be realistic about the number of bulls they will be able to sell. They also have exportable red factor Charolais semen and embyos for sale.

As is their tradition, six of their top picks from their 2009 bull calves will be sold at the Regina Bull Sale. They don’t usually sell females because they are the building block of the herd — if you want a piece of this program, you have to purchase a bull.

For more information about the Crystal D and the Bovine Bucket, visit their new website at or call 306-333-4904.

other progeny and determine whether they are producing animals that are within the same parameters as the other breeders. The point of the shows isn’t to win ribbons as much as to “show off” what they have accomplished in their breeding program that will appeal to cow-calf producers.

They keep only their best top 10 or dozen bull calves and the remainder are castrated in December or January. It’s tough to make the final decisions because some excellent calves and genetics go the way of the feedlot, Dennis adds. That said, under current market conditions — considering all of the breeds and all of the breeders out there — they have to be realistic about the number of bulls they will be able to sell. They also have exportable red factor Charolais semen and embyos for sale.

As is their tradition, six of their top picks from their 2009 bull calves will be sold at the Regina Bull Sale. They don’t usually sell females because they are the building block of the herd — if you want a piece of this program, you have to purchase a bull.

For more information about the Crystal D and the Bovine Bucket, visit their new website at www.crystaldcharolais.ca,or call 306-333-4904.

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