Hereford Breeders Look To The Next 150 Years

Andy and Margaret Schuepbach of Lilybrook Herefords run anywhere from 500 to 700 purebred Horned Herefords on their ranch east of Claresholm, Alta. As such they have a shared history with Fredrick W. Stone of Guelph, Ont., who imported the first Herefords from Britain in 1860.

Stone’s experiment worked so well that others started to take notice of the strong maternal traits, hardiness and easy disposition of these early Herefords. By 1890 they formed the Canadian Hereford Association (CHA) to record Hereford pedigrees for the expanding breed.

In 1903, Mossom Boyd of Bobcaygeon, Ont., took the next bold step importing the first polled Herefords from the U. S. where a breeder had developed the line using what he called “hornless freaks.” This natural mutation was quite common in U. S. Horned Hereford herds at that time but polled were not acknowledged by Horned Hereford breeders and separate herd books had to be kept for many years.

Between then and now Hereford breeders chased the demand for smaller cuts in the 1950s with “belt buckle” cattle before shifting to taller, leaner cattle to compete with the new exotic breeds in the 1970s. Those bigger Herefords made a lasting impression on representatives from 20 countries at the World Hereford Conference in 1976 at Calgary and Banff resulting in lucrative export sales for a number of years.

By 1980 the CHA had 45,000 members, but then the trends started to change again with a shift toward black cattle to meet the expanded export sales of beef and cattle to the U. S. where Angus was the predominate breed.

Today’s Hereford breeders have found their future by maintaining those strong maternal traits, thriftiness and good disposition that appealed to Fredrick Stone so long ago and it is the predominance of baldie and buckskin cows and calves that now promote the value of Hereford sires and dams in commercial crossbreeding programs. Though there are only 1,500 members in the CHA today an estimated 30 per cent of the Canadian cow herd still carries Hereford influence.

The new emphasis on environmental stewardship alongside the ever-present need to cut production costs in cow-calf operations bodes well for the future of Herefords. And that brings us back full circle to Andy and Margaret Schuepbach. They are strong proponents of using EPDs to measure genetic merit and ultrasound to predict carcass composition to achieve the balance and consistency they believe commercial cattlemen are looking for now.

Their U. S. bull buyers have always asked for EPDs, particularly birth weight and carcass traits. In Canada, commercial producers have been somewhat interested in birth, weaning and yearling weights but they now see the younger generation really making full use of EPDs. They know where to look for them on a breeder’s website, and usually know which animal they want before they call the ranch.

To meet this growing demand for information Lilybrook Herefords enrolled on the CHA’s total herd evaluation program (THE), which has been available to members since 1982. This allows them to submit the performance information needed to calculate EPDs for all of the calves. If they want to register animals, that’s a separate fee.

“On the THE program, we don’t have to submit information for every trait for every calf,” Schuepbach explains. “But if we submit a birth weight for one calf, we have to submit the birth weight for all of them. The same goes for weaning weights and yearling weights — it’s everything or nothing. The other traits are optional.”

He feels that’s a big benefit for their herd and the breed as a whole because breeders can’t pick and choose certain animals for EPDs. With more animals included in the data, the accuracy ratings are as high as they can be.

The CHA is now turning its attention to carcass trait EPDs based on ultrasound measurements. For the past two years the association has offered a rebate on the cost of ultrasound testing to encourage breeders to scan all their yearling bulls and potential replacement heifers.

The Schuepbachs were ultrasound testing even before the CHA began offering the incentive. They started looking at the research in the late 1990s and had ultrasound measurements taken on their yearling bulls for the first time in 2001-02. Andy admits he was tempted to stop when BSE shut off their U. S. market for breeding stock. Looking back now, he is glad they didn’t.

“If you pay attention to it, it makes a big difference in a short time — three or four years,” he says. “The animals with extremely big rib-eye areas tend to be larger and best suitable for use as terminal sires, whereas the animals with extreme marbling tend to be a bit on the shallow side and maybe a bit harder doing.”

They look for a balance in carcass EPDs when selecting their own herdsires and replacement heifers. Because carcass traits are highly heritable, the balance transfers to their offspring. Ultrasound is the only way to predict carcass composition in live animals, he adds. A recent Hereford trial involving straight-bred steers in the GrowSafe pens at Cattleland Feedyards showed that ultrasound measurements are highly correlated with final carcass data.

On-farm testing is done by certified ultrasound technicians every spring. Measurements provide an estimate of marbling, rib-eye area, back fat and rump fat. The rib-eye area and back fat measurements are used to calculate lean meat yield. The ultrasound images are evaluated by a third-party lab contracted through CHA to ensure that the reports are interpreted uniformly.

Heifers that don’t make the cut as replacements for their herd or for sale are generally sold through the auction market as yearlings in the spring. The tough post-BSE marketplace was behind their move to retain ownership of their market steers for the first time in 2005- 06. The steers are backgrounded at the ranch until February, then go to a custom feedlot for finishing.

Lilybrook Herefords has also been an active participant in breed feedlot trials. In 2006 and 2007, they were encouraged by the excellent performance results and carcass data on the steers placed on the Alberta Hereford Association’s feedlot steer trials at Hwy 52 Beef Producers and Kasko Cattle Co. feedlots. The rest were finished at the Stauffers feedlot. In the fall of 2007, a group of market steers went into the CHA steer test at Cattleland, directed by Dr. Kee Jim of Feedlot Health Management Services in Okotoks. The Scheupbachs received carcass data through that arrangement as well. In 2008 and 2009, the steers were again finished at the Kasko feedlot. This spring, the steers were sold on a 50 per cent retained ownership basis to Dr. Jim, who is managing the CHA fed-steer project, which will provide individual carcass data.

“It’s very difficult to get Canadian packers to give carcass information back to the producers,” Andy adds. “It seems that if you sell the cattle into the U. S., it is easier to get some information.”

The bulls are sold at the Calgary and Medicine Hat bull sales and by private treaty. The bull calves are weaned on irrigated pasture of Italian wild ryegrass, which he under-seeds with barley and oats to cut earlier for silage. The heifer calves are weaned on dry-land pasture about three miles away. The cows with bull calves are separated from the cows with heifer calves prior to weaning. They leave the calves in their familiar pasture surroundings and lock up the cows for three days before turning them back out to pasture.

When they established a new yardsite across the road from the home place, they knew they needed a bull facility located away from the cow wintering area. They divided a field into a battery of seven runs measuring more than 1,500 feet in length providing enough feed bunk space and shelter to winter bulls in groups of nine to 20 head. Windbreak fencing shelters the north end of each run from the prevailing winds. Adjoining those runs are two big pastures where they winter the bull calves in groups of 50 head. With strong performance and longevity in mind, the bulls have lots of room to exercise all winter long.

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