Producers should consider the goals for their herd when making breeding plans

Producers face a difficult task when determining whether to breed their stock for maternal traits or terminal traits. When profitability is the name of the game – the breeding strategies necessary to get there are not always cut and dry.

Maternal traits lean heavily on calving ease, milk and mothering ability. On the other hand, terminal traits emphasize growth and carcass characteristics. 

“Producers should consider their production goals to determine what traits to focus on for their breeding decisions,” Elizabeth MacConnell Picking, University of Missouri Extension Livestock Specialist, said.

If the production goal is to produce feeder calves, then terminal traits would prevail. Terminal traits like weaning weight, average daily gain and carcass merit should be the focus of feeder calf operations. 

However, if the operation puts its emphasis on raising replacement heifers, then the focus should be breeding for maternal traits. Important maternal traits include mature weight, calving ease, docility and fertility. 

There are times when smaller commercial producers get caught in the middle. These are producers who are selling steers as feeder calves and also keeping heifer calves as their own replacements. 

They must strike a balance between producing high-growth, terminal-type calves and also raising replacement females that will eventually be efficient cows. “When considering herd sires for this scenario, there should be a balance of both maternal and terminal traits without putting too much emphasis on a single trait,” Picking added. 

If producers focus their operation on retaining heifers and/or selling replacement heifers they can tailor their breeding decisions to help them achieve their goals. 

“When retaining or selling replacement heifers, selecting a bull that will produce efficient female offspring that will need little assistance during calving is important,” Picking advised. 

Picking also noted selecting a bull with a higher Calving Ease Maternal (CEM) EPD ranking will help produce daughters that will need less assistance with calving. In addition, the Maternal Milk (Milk) EPD should be considered because the higher the Milk EPD, the more those daughters will produce milk for their calves. 

However, a top Milk EPD can be a red flag for some producers. In some cases, cows that produce a lot of milk may have higher nutrient demands which may not be suitable for all operations. 

Further, choosing sires with a higher Heifer Pregnancy (HP) EPD can increase the number of first-calf heifers successfully breeding back during the normal breeding season. Another EPD producers may want to look for in a herd sire is Cow Energy Value ($EN), which evaluates cow efficiency in a dollar value. 

Farmers may want to implement management practices specifically for breeding heifers. For example, breeding heifers earlier than the mature cow herd, gives first-calf heifers more time to breed back after having their first calf. “Farmers should also consider using artificial insemination for heifers, which allows them to get pregnant and subsequently calve in a smaller window of time.” Picking said. 

When developing a breeding prograM, producers need to analyze the costs and benefits of developing their own replacements. This is especially true for a smaller producer with one to two bulls. 

If a producer wants to develop replacements and market calves, AI would be a recommended strategy. “Especially for smaller herds, using AI can give the producer freedom to select high growth trait EPD bulls for their feeder calf production and more maternal bulls to sire their future replacements,” Picking said. In addition, implementing AI improves the cowherds’ production and quality over time as the AI sired heifers are retained as replacements.  

Lastly, commercial producers should think about taking advantage of the benefits of hybrid vigor due to crossbreeding. Crossbred calves have improved calving rates, survival to weaning, birth weights, weaning weights, yearling weights and daily gains. Crossbred cows demonstrate improvements in calving rate, survival to weaning, birth weight, weaning weight, yearling weight and cow longevity.


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