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5 takeaways from the 2021 NCBA Cattlemen's College

The 2021 Cattle Industry Convention, delayed from last winter, kicked off this week in Nashville with the Cattlemen’s College, the main educational event for cattle farmers and ranchers. Here are five takeaways.

1. Feed animals, or feed people? Jayson Lusk, a Purdue University economist best known for surveying consumers about their food preferences, told cattle producers that consumers often make inaccurate assumptions when they say we mismanage resources by feeding animals to produce meat. “One of those inaccuracies is that people can eat grass,” he says. “Another is that people will gladly eat corn and soybeans directly, and like the experience. And finally, they seem to think there are tasty alternative crops farmers should be producing.”

2. Sustainability. This buzzword isn’t going away. Jessica Gilreath, a Texas A&M economist, said beef production should be looked at as a way to upscale human-inedible protein (grass and forage) to a high-quality product (beef). The upscale is by a factor of at least 3:1, and much more than that if you just look at the cow/calf business, which relies almost exclusively on forages. But cow/calf ranches also produce 70% of the methane gas from the beef business, which contributes to greenhouse gases, Gilreath says. Her advice to cattle producers to reduce their environmental footprint: Produce cattle with better feed efficiency, move to terminal cross breeding programs (no retained heifers), and reduce cow body size. All of those practices could reduce cattle greenhouse emissions by 13% to 18%, and all also line up perfectly with economic priorities for producers.

3. Which cow? Can you tell your best replacement heifers by a simple eyeball exam? That question was put to the test in a live cattle demonstration. Eight bred heifers were paraded in front of 200 cattle producers for the eye test. Over 40% of producers liked heifer #4 the least – she was the first they would cull. But then experts from Zoetis Inherit Select, which makes a DNA prediction test for cattle, showed results of #4’s DNA: She came in first in terms of total returns over her lifetime because her DNA total fertility scores for breeding and longevity were “off the charts” on the high side. “It takes a heifer four years in the herd to just break even, then after that she starts making you money,” says Kent Anderson of Zoetis. “So the better job we can do of selection for total fertility, the better chance of a heifer staying long enough to pay you for the investment.”

4. Heifer selection, again. Vitor Mercadante, beef reproductive specialist at Virginia Tech University, gave his list of things that a replacement heifer must do for you.

  • Calve for the first time by 24 months of age.
  • Have another calf every 365 days.
  • Calve without assistance.
  • Be genetically capable of performing at a high level.
  • Provide sufficient nutrition for her calf to survive.
  • Maintain her body condition.
  • Not be crazy!

That last point, on cow temperament and calmness, needs more attention, says Mercadante. “It’s about safety for you, but it’s also about better performance,” he said. They did tests on heifers to measure the level of calmness displayed as they went through a working chute. As they got used to the chute, the heifers got calmer. The cortisol level in their blood (a measure of their excitement) went down. And the calm heifers showed a 20% improvement in pregnancy rates.

5. Healthy predictors. You may soon be selecting replacement animals in your herd for their ability to resist disease. “It’s the new frontier,” says Fernando DiCroce of Zoetis. He said some dairy farmers they work with are sharing data about health issues on the farm, and those records are being correlated to DNA. Then, experts can look at DNA snippets to pinpoint the ones that impact disease resistance. Soon, the disease risk will be in the DNA reports. “It looks at the immune response of an animal to a disease challenge,” DiCroce explains. “We think we can explain more than half of some health issues with our genomic predictions.”

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