Influencers eye the future of seedstock industry

Seedstock producers might have one of the toughest jobs in the beef industry as they’re tasked with raising quality animals that can go down several different avenues. Whether it be into commercial herds or registered, the resulting animals need to be able to perform.

Several influencers sat down on a panel at the first Cattle U event in Dodge City, Kansas, at the United Wireless Arena July 31. Cattle U was sponsored by High Plains Journal. The seedstock panel included Glen Klippenstein of Missouri; Lee Leachman, Leachman Cattle of Colorado; Rick Pfortmiller, Neogen; Kelli Retallick, director of genetic services at Angus Genetics Inc.; and Tom Strahm, commercial marketing director for the American Gelbvieh Association. The panel was moderated by Lorna Marshall of Select Sires.

What are the top factors that you think influence bull purchases the most, today and in the next five years?

Strahm said a couple of traits come to mind for him.

“Well, I think two of them would be calving ease and growth right now,” he said.

Pfortmiller, who works for a genetics company, said choosing the most important traits depends on what the beef producer is going to do with their resulting calves.

“As we interact with customers, we hear a couple of things,” he said. “One would depend on where they’re kind of coming from, in terms of their cowherd, what their focus is.”

If the producer is strictly in the business to sell calves right off the cow, traits like longevity and docility rise to the top.

“Docility is one that we get that’s justified as more of our customers are getting a little longer in the tooth,” Pfortmiller said. “Then the other piece that I think is just all that is an increase of predictability. People are looking at any of the information that’s coming in, and how can I reduce my risk?”

Leachman said producers are paying attention to indexes that help predict profitability in the cattle.

“That’s probably the No. 1 driver, maybe even more than any other component traits,” Leachman said. “They probably have gone to worrying less about how they get there, and more about how much profit they generate.”

And that surprises Leachman, because if you look at the industry as a whole, yearling weight tends to be a big driver.

“But in our model, it’s not a big driver,” he said. “Our customers are pretty much not worried about buying lower growth cattle, which I found surprising, and that we put more emphasis on explaining the difference between the maternal index and just went profitability from birth to weaning versus weaning to yearling, weaning to harvest.”

What technology is going to be most applicable for commercial cow-calf producers in the next five years?

Pfortmiller is both a commercial producer and works in genomics and believes the “holy grail” is efficiency—and just not feedlot efficiency.

“The notion of cow efficiency out there on the range, the things that I think we’re going to learn about animal behavior, and adaptability and all of that,” Pfortmiller said.

However, there’s not many good phenotypic databases out there with the genomic companies.

“We get approached nearly every day by groups, small breeds, other groups wanting us to find a DNA test,” he said.

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But that requires a couple thousand phenotypic records of cows who are all the same age, raised the same way and raised in the same environment. That’s nearly impossible.

Strahm agrees. He knows of a commercial producer who’s selected traits that are important to him and his production system and environment. He selected certain traits and had done a considerable amount of DNA testing, which he used to select replacements. His home-raised replacements go back into the herd and the others are fed out. The producer has a very extensive data set for his Balancer bulls and cows.

“Recently, he took 10 years worth of data from feeding his own cattle, put it all on one grid to keep the value and price constant,” Strahm said. “And he increased the value of those cattle $300 per head for a 10-year period, and primarily focused on improving marbling, improving growth, and maximizing carcass growth.”

Strahm was impressed he was able to market those cattle and get top dollar.

“Then to be able to market those cattle in the end and keep everything in check, and take a balanced approach so that you can keep those replacement females in his herd,” he said.

From Marshall’s perspective at Select Sires, she thinks producers need to use the tools that are already available.

“I think sometimes we leave a lot of money on the table, we don’t pay attention to dollar values or selection indexes, or we don’t pay attention to the EPDs, maybe as much as we should have,” Marshall said. “I’m taking advantage of things even as simple as parentage testing.”

In pastures with multiple potential sires and trying to avoid inbreeding, it gets hard to determine which bulls aren’t doing their job. Using a genetic test to determine exactly which animals are from each bull can be really valuable to the commercial producer.

“When we think about things like Gene Max Advantage, and some of the other commercial heifer replacement tests that are out there, there’s things out there right now that we can capitalize on,” Marshall said. “I know when we talked about the cost per test, $28, it seems like enough of an upfront cost test for your replacement females to find the best ones. But when we think about how much it costs to actually build that replacement female, right to get her into production, you know, $28 actually seems like a pretty incremental piece of cash.”

Leachman sees the benefit of DNA tests to help predict which cows are going to stay in the herd for a long period of time.

“If our DNA tests can predict that, that’s something you should go home and use, because right now, you pick those heifers and there are differences in productivity,” Leachman said.

There are tests that can help predict calf performance and weaning weights on the cow’s progeny, but it’s still hard to predict a cow’s longevity.

“What we can’t predict really well is whether they’re going to stay there and be there,” Leachman said. “I think we all know that when we go out in our herd, and we look at these 10-year-old cows that have had nine calves, that they’re making us money. We also know that when we go out after preg check, and we get rid of those young females that are open, they didn’t make us money.”

Leachman believes a tool is close that will help producers find out which heifers have a higher propensity to end up in the “10-year-old category instead of the open two and three and four.”

“I think that we need to be testing that tool and putting it to work,” Leachman said.

What would be the most important thing a commercial cow-calf producer needs to look for in their seedstock provider?

Klippenstein shared a quote, “in life, business, and politics it’s one third motion two-thirds promotion.” And in order to succeed in the beef industry, one has to promote.

“Otherwise, you’d never get a chance,” he said. “Which is the most important thing to develop a positive reputation.”

Klippenstein said he always aimed to raise good bulls that would make his customers money.

“The sum total of all kinds of things that all of us, any one of us, who are in the cow business can do, if we want to,” Klippenstein said.

In his time in the business, he’s seen some “magnificent herds” from guys who just went through high school, but knew exactly what kind of cattle they wanted and spent time with the herds.

“Now we’ve got all these tools,” he said. “Let’s go to the people who have the reputation and understand the use of the tools and say this is what I want to do with my genetics with bulls I buy from you.”

Pfortmiller said it comes down to one thing—integrity.

“Find a seedstock supplier that is managing their cattle in a way that you’re trying to manage them,” he said. “There’s all kinds of tools that you can use, but if you start with those two things you’re going to be pointed in a pretty good direction.”

In the future, Pfortmiller believes transparency will stay at the top of mind.

“I think the technologies we hear about—the block chain and all of that—I think we’re going to have a greater opportunity to transfer that transparency to all the related parties.”

Leachman echoed those sentiments, and believes the biggest thing cattle producers are going to have to deal with in the next three years, is something that’s been lurking in the shadows for a while.

“Maybe we don’t think about it enough, but seems like the last time the dairy herd had to liquidate we had a significant disruption in the market,” Leachman said.

With the alleged animal abuse videos coming from large dairies, Leachman thinks it will influence how consumers see beef producers even though the industries are different.

“We’re not dairies, but those videos are what people think about us,” he said. “They’re coloring how they think we treat our animals. It’s a big problem for us, because we are going to get judged by the rotten apples that are lying in the grass. And I think it’s a big risk right now.”

He believes “we’re dangerously close to seeing a massive reshuffle in the dairy industry,” that could hurt the beef industry in the short run.

“It could change the way calves are being raised on dairies and they’re precarious enough at this point that this would push a bunch of dairies out of business,” Leachman said.

For Retallick, picking a seedstock supplier that aligns with breeding goals and objectives is vital.

“If you are selling your calves and weaning and finding those seedstock producers that are really developing their bulls and aiming their genetic potential towards that specific environment versus are you retaining ownership on those animals through the feedlot and hanging them on the rail,” she said. “And really trying to approach your seedstock provider as a person who really aligns with your own personal goals.”

Also create your own breeding objective first, then knowing where you want to go and create that plan.

“I think one of the biggest things we have to do is stick with the plan,” Retallick said. “I see it in the seedstock industry more probably than in the commercial industry, but in the seedstock industry it seems like we can really chase things. We can chase the biggest number.”

Cattle producers should stay disciplined and believes some of the most successful seedstock producers are the ones who have stuck to their goals and objectives for their operations.

“It doesn’t matter what your breeding goal or breeding objective is as long as it’s making you profit and it’s making your customers profit,” she said. “But make sure you have a breeding goal, and stay disciplined to it. Stick with it.”

She said when incorporating genetic or tech tools, remain disciplined and carry through with them—even when the data doesn’t show what a producer was wanting or expecting.

“Then they don’t reap the full benefits of something like that and so if you can remain consistent I think and disciplined, I think that’s one of the biggest things we can kind of do in all segments of the industry,” Retallick said.

Kylene Scott can be reached at 620-227-1804 or [email protected].