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Optimism and concerns at the Cattle Convention

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.

  • Have the right people, and it usually takes three good people running the chute and two moving cattle in the back pens.

  • Pay attention, people get hurt when cows aren't properly controlled; a working cattle chute is no place for children or barking dogs. Politeness (and the boss sets the standard for this) makes a high-stress situation like working cattle more tolerable for everyone.

Cattle seedstock producer Jonny Harris from Greenview Farms in Screven, Georgia, told other cattle producers that two things set the stage for success. One is willingness to change.

"If I see the science to prove a practice, and I can see what it does on MY dirt, then I will make the change," he says.

For instance, he now grows winter annuals like rye, oats, and triticale that provide the bulk of his forages in the form of baleage. "We don't use much dry hay, partly because we get 52 inches of rain a year, and it's hard to get it put up dry," he says.

Baleage solves that weather problem. His other tip is about building relationships with people.

"Our farm has been in the family since the 1860s. I'm the fifth generation," he says. "We've survived by working well together as a family, including those who don't live on the farm anymore."

Harris has 400 cows split between Herefords and Brafords. He sells both bulls and heifers. "We have heifers sold already that won't be born until 2015," he says of the popularity of his heat-resistant Brafords. The heifers sell for about $1,500 right when they are weaned.

Bob Langert, the McDonald's VP who came to the cattle gathering, told cattle producers that the Big Mac is their No. 1 selling sandwich. Annual revenues for that popular hamburger alone: $3.9 billion.

Wells Fargo chief economist Michael Swanson told cattle producers that in the future, there could be a "new China" when it comes to international markets: Rest of World. Of the world's 7 billion people, about 2.3 billion of them are in that ROW category, not from developed countries or China or other Asian Tigers. "Mostly, they are in India and sub-Saharan Africa," Swanson said of this emerging consumer group. They now eat less than 20 kilograms of meat per capita annually, while the U.S. is at 80, and China is at 60. "People in India are not going to eat much beef or pork, but they will eat more other meats like fish," he said. "They could have a bigger impact on the future of meat than China." They also have more potential for increase in grain yields. "It will take decades for this cycle to play out, but you can make the case that the marginal producers in the world are the biggest competition in the future."

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