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Optimism and concerns at the Cattle Convention

Gene Johnston Updated: 02/05/2014 @ 4:20pm On the scene at the 2012 Cattle Convention, Nashville

Beef producers at the National Cattle Convention in Nashville this week have plenty to be giddy about. Most notably, it's the record cattle prices they are receiving this year as the nation's cattle inventory drops to the lowest levels since the 1940s. Fed steers have sold recently for $1.40 a pound live - nearly $2,000 for a finished steer.

Despite their financial fortunes, these ranchers find much to worry about and talk about among themselves. That's what they did at the popular Cattlemen's College over the first two days of the conference.

Bull buying: If you want to improve your herd, do it with better bulls rather than heifer selection. Both are important, says Kent Andersen of Zoetis. "A bull produces 20 to 30 calves a year, and selecting a good one puts more selection pressure on your genetic progress," he says: 75% of the genetics in your herd come from the bulls you use. You change your cows when you buy your bulls. The bull you buy today will produce heifers that enter your cow herd in 2017, and they will impact your herd for a decade or more after that." He says to buy bulls on EPDs - expected progeny difference. It's a ranking that predicts his genetic potential based on his own performance, and that of the animals in his blood line.

Heifer selection: Jerry Lipsey, a retired breed association executive, gives a five-point checklist.

  1. Only pick heifers that are healthy and free of injury, and use good biosecurity of your ranch to keep them that way.

  2. Avoid the too/too factor: too big, too small, too fat, too thin, too lean. "None of those will work," he says of the need in the industry for moderation. Many producers aren't doing a good job on heifers, as the average cow only produces 3.7 calves in her lifetime and is out of the herd at about six years old.

  3. Select heifers that are born early in your calving season, and breed early in breeding season. "Those in the top third are proven to last longer than those in the bottom third for born and breeding," Lipsey says.

  4. Put heterosis - crossbreeding - to work in your cows. You'll get 25% more calf weaned weight over the life of a crossbred cow. And if the cross includes a Brahma type breed, the advantage to purebred is closer to 50%.

  5. Use the tipping points. These are the little things that push you over the edge one way or the other on keeping a heifer. They are things like udder quality, docility, horns, and conformation. "I hear them called convenience traits," says Lipsey. "Fertile longevity is the key issue to making the most admired food in the world - American beef."

Arn Andersen, a practicing vet from Timbers, Texas, with 150 ranch clients, gave Cattlemen's College participants these tips for working cattle through a chute:

  • Have a purpose, and it shouldn't be to entertain guests or break animals to lead. Have a plan, actually walk yourself through the alleys and chute just to verify everything is safe and securely attached.

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