The importance of utilizing maternal traits for herd improvement 

At times it may be difficult to determine which indicators to place the most importance on when it comes to selecting traits for improving a cattle herd. Though they may not be every producer’s first pick, maternal traits are a critical component of a successful cattle operation. “Maternal traits are a long-term investment and really drive the sustainability of a cow/calf operation,” Parker Henley, Ph.D., professor and extension specialist for beef seedstock management at Oklahoma State University, said. 

However, the management decision to focus on maternal traits requires patience. “When you select for maternal traits, your return on investment is more drawn out,” Henley explained. “It takes a lot of commitment just because of the time lag that occurs in beef cattle production. You cannot turn a blind eye to maternal traits either because it will really impact your bottom line over a decade.”

Maternal Traits

If producers choose to focus on maternal traits, then livestock specialists recommend looking at the cow’s fertility and longevity. “One of biggest factors that impact how profitable a cow is fertility and longevity,” Henley stated. Those two traits shape how productive a cow is in the long term. The longer she remains in the herd producing a calf each year, the more profitable she will be for the operation.

 Some breed associations are implementing a longevity or stayability EPD for producers to utilize. The longevity or stayability EPD gives producers an idea of the likelihood of a cow staying in the herd past six years. Most cows typically become profitable in their lifetime between six and eight years of age. 

 Other EPDs to consider include Milk (Milk or MM), Maternal Calving Ease (MCE), Mature Cow Size or Mature Cow Weight (MCW). Livestock specialists say EPDs are a reliable indicator of progeny performance. “It is stated that EPDs are seven to nine times more accurate at predicting an offspring’s performance than that of a phenotypic trait,” Henley stated. “And EPDs take in parentage information and how an animal relates to an entire data base. So, the EPDs are substantially more accurate at predicting performance than that of just phenotype.”

Selection Criteria

When utilizing maternal EPDs in management decisions, producers will want to access their own herds and determine where they want to make improvements. “I think seedstock producers need to be concerned with the specific EPDs and the average commercial cow/calf producer may be better off utilizing combined selection indices,” Henley added.

Seedstock producers may choose to focus on specific individual maternal EPDs such as Milk or Maternal Calving Ease, whereas commercial producers may want to concentrate on EPDs that combine several traits in one number. For example, the American Angus Association collects data for Maternal Weaned Calf Value ($M). This economic selection index combines data from multiple traits to predict the profitability differences from conception to weaning. 

Though EPDs are an excellent tool, livestock extension specialists remind producers to also make visual appraisals of animals. Regarding maternal traits, evaluating the female for udder quality and feet quality are important indicators as well.


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