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Locking in purebred cattle traits

The Lafrentz family relied on planned matings and linebreeding to lock in their genetic package

Denise and Vern Lafrentz started out on their own 20 years ago with a goal of raising commercial-style purebred Simmental and Simmental-Angus breeding stock to meet the needs of commercial cattlemen.

Along the way, their foresight and commitment to their breeding plan has put their ranch, Wheatland Cattle Co. of Bienfait, Sask., in the limelight at Canadian Western Agribition as multiple winners of the Simmental premier breeder and premier exhibitor awards since 2006.

Agribition is the one and only stop on the winter show trail for Wheatland Cattle Co., not only because of its value in marketing their program to commercial cattlemen, but as a learning opportunity for themselves.

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Comparing their cattle to others in the same field on the same day helps them make decisions about their own breeding program.

The couple established their ranch with seven purebred Simmental and 25 Simmental-Angus cows. Their breeding program based on planned matings, the use of linebreeding, and retaining their own replacement females and bulls has underpinned their expansion to the current 170-head herd they envisioned — solid black or red with good hair coats, structurally sound of moderate frame with thickness across the back, easy calving with moderate birthweight, and females with exceptional udders.

They feel this combination packages the convenience that commercial cattlemen are after with traits of economic importance. Convenience traits are those that help take some of the work and guesswork out of raising cattle, such as calving ease, moderate birthweight and great udders so that cows will calve and get calves started on their own.

Planned mating involves visual heat detection and artificial insemination or hand breeding to capture the full advantage of complementary breeding. “Each cow is paired with a bull that could strengthen certain traits to make a better ideal calf,” Denise explains.

They initially started hand breeding as a way to carry out planned matings because they didn’t have a lot of small breeding pastures to run specific bulls with select groups of cows. As cows cycle naturally, they are penned individually with the selected bull until a successful mating is observed. A bull might breed as many as five cows in turn during a day at the height of breeding season.

“The conception rate is very good and we might be getting more mileage out of our bulls than if they had to spend energy finding cows in heat spread across big pastures,” Vern says.

Linebreeding was introduced because it was difficult to find genetics to complement what they were aiming to accomplish. People they spoke with told them it’s a great thing if it works — and it did.

“It locks in some of those traits we strive for. We might have up to three generations of a line in some cattle, then veer away from that line and maybe go back to it in the future,” he explains. “It’s a way to build predictability and consistency into a herd as long as you have good genetics to start with.”

The theory behind linebreeding is pairing animals with common ancestors to concentrate genes for desired traits in their offspring. The offspring are more likely to have more homozygous gene pairs than offspring from mating unrelated animals; therefore, more likely to consistently pass the genetics for desired characteristics to the next generation.

One cow, Wheatland Lady 902J, and one bull, Wheatland Bull 131L (Teddy) in particular have significantly influenced their program. Pairing them essentially lined up the traits they were after and then mating their offspring with animals that have one or both of the lines in their pedigrees stacked the traits and locked them into the next generation.

Cow families that surface time and time again for maternal traits and offspring with the targeted traits are the building blocks of the Lafrentz breeding program. They pay attention to the numbers, such as birth and weaning weights, but phenotype is really important when making selections for their herd and sale bulls.

“Our deal is we want to see consistency and we want people to be able to see the things we believe in and have worked hard to get,” Vern says. “I think our herd is somewhat unique because the cattle are so similar and we can see the phenotype even in calves from our bull customers’ herds.”

They’re not about to stray off in other directions with their breeding program because commercial cattlemen are still telling them that convenience is a big deal. Performance is important but not at the sacrifice of other traits. Cows have to calve and they have to have good udders.

“The future will be even more about convenience because commercial herds are getting bigger. The future is also crossbreeding in commercial herds because hybrid vigour is a freebie,” he says. They’ve seen it firsthand in their Synergy (first-cross Simmental-Angus) cattle and the acceptance of the Synergy bulls by their customers.

Easy-keeping, hardy cows are important in commercial herds as well, so they winter their cow herd on baled hay without a grain supplement. After calving and breeding, the cows with bull calves are separated from cows with heifer calves and turned out to summer pastures with cleanup bulls.

The replacement heifer calves and bull calves receive screening pellets after weaning in early September when the pairs are separated and the calves are brought home from summer pastures about six miles away.

The calves are turned into grass runs enclosed with four high-tensile hot wires, which works well even if some of the cows are just across the fence because the calves are exposed to electric fencing as babies and in some pastures. They winter on a ration of baled hay and screening pellets until January or February when it’s time to start preparing for the annual bull sale and breeding season. They’ll bump up the energy a bit on the heifer ration and switch the bulls over to rolled grain.

This year ushers in a change of venue from the Alameda sale barn to the ranch for their annual Focus on the Future bull sale featuring their purebred Simmental and Synergy bulls as well as some purebred Angus bulls for the first time this year, along with replacement heifers consigned by some of their bull customers. It takes place the last Thursday of March.

A notable change in their operation occurred with their sons, Riley and Cody-Ray leaving home. Riley is attending Hutchinson Community College in Kansas on a judging scholarship. Cody-Ray took an opportunity to gain experience with Rainbow Cattle Services but will be starting to work his way into the family business.

“We feel blessed to have been able to raise the boys in the great cattle industry,” Denise says. “It has given them so many experiences and opened up these opportunities for them.”

For more information, visit wheatlandcattle.com or call 306-634-7765.

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