Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Grass-Fed Cattle :: Chapter 2 Book Report

Chapter two of Julius Ruechel's book, "Grass-Fed Cattle" was a pretty interesting read because it was a topic that I think about often as we plan the direction for our growing Dexter herd. The chapter was titled, "Genetics and Breeding: Selecting the Right Animal for Your Herd," and was an interesting discussion of that topic. I think it would be understatement to say that Mr. Ruechel likes the idea of culling! But, I tend to agree with him that all too often we are selecting our cows, heifers, and bulls for all of the wrong reasons!

The biggest pitfall that Mr. Ruechel talks about in this chapter is the problem of falling into single trait selection. You know selecting cows only for their milk production, bone structure, color, or any other single trait. Obviously in a dairy operation special attention needs to be paid to the milking ability of a cow, but if that is the only trait you select for you may end up with a super milker that is a horrible cow! And, we are supposed to be raising cows not machines. According to Mr. Ruechel we should be selecting for low-maintenance and high-fertility (and all that goes with those things). He also has a short section about making sure that your climate and the natural climate of the breed is taken into consideration when selecting.

Basically, he talks about bulls looking like bulls should look (masculine) and cows/heifers looking like cows/heifers should look (feminine). With that basic picture in mind Mr. Ruechel says we need to look at our herd with a predatory eye, just as a predator would in a natural situation. Because our cattle are domesticated animals we need to fill the role of the predator not only through fencing, but also through selection.

There is a lot of other interesting stuff in this chapter, but there is one last thing that especially piqued my interest. I think I am safe in saying that Mr. Ruechel isn't high on registered-purebred breeding. That is not to say that he doesn't see the importance of it, because he also strongly believes in terminal cross-breeding (crossing two purebred animals, but not using the offspring for re-breeding). His biggest problem with the registered breeding world is that he feels they too often select for a single trait, especially traits that are most popular for the moment.

The reason I found this so interesting is because I tend to agree with it to a point in the Dexter world, and I know some others that agree also. When I began my search for a dun Dexter bull I had a horrible time finding a bull that actually looked like a bull. My theory is because people aren't really culling animals based on fertility or "bullish" characteristics, but rather they are either focused on color, breeding lines, or the feeling that every Dexter born must be used because they are a small breed. This bull problem led me all the way to Southern Missouri for a bull that was dun, relatively masculine, and had a good temperament. As we develop our growing Dexter herd I want to make sure that I have that predatory eye to an extent. Our breeding program will be based on breeding for the true dual-purpose characteristics of the Dexter.

All in all, this was a pretty good chapter and I would say it redeemed the book for me after being somewhat disappointed with the first chapter.

6 comments:

Steven said...

Wow, at this point I can't hardly imagine our bull calf getting that big. He's only 9 months old now though. That's a really cool picture!

I enjoyed that chapter too. When I read it, and even now, I was trying to get a good idea of what feminine and masculine looks like in cattle. That chapter was a good start.

Rich said...

Doesn't the hybrid vigor present in the cross-bred calf and its resulting higher weaning weights also produce a larger animal at maturity?

In the feedlot, a larger finishing animal can be an advantage, but if grass-finishing is the ultimate goal, the increased size of the cross-bred calf might be a disadvantage instead of an advantage.

Unless I'm mistaken, a steer is properly finished (both grain-fed and grass-fed) at about 110% of the cow's weight, but I've never seen any information about the effect hybrid vigor has on the finishing weight of cross-bred cattle. I assume that a cross-bred steer would need to be finished at a much heavier weight (due to hybrid vigor), making the prospect of grass-finishing much more demanding.

Of course, if you were operating a cow-calf operation, and only grass-finishing a portion of your calf crop, a cross-bred calf might be more valuable when sold as a weaned calf, or if kept through the stocker phase, (or even if retained through to the conventional feedlot stage).

Ethan Book said...

Rich - That is a good question and one that I am not even remotely qualified to attempt to discuss! But, Mr. Ruechel writes that, "If your calves are destined for the commodity market, the quick growth and extra pounds will be welcomed by your buyers." Of course he is speaking of grass-fed and hybrid vigor, but I'm not sure if he is talking about grass-finished.

Quicker growth from the hybrid vigor may also play into the equation in his mind also. His main reasoning for not using the crossbred animals to rebred is because he feels the results will vary between close to one or the other breeds used in the cross and not all of the benefits of the hybrid vigor will exist.

That being said I know of plenty of people using crossed cows in their breeding program...

Rich said...

Does "Grass-Fed Cattle" only detail general grass-fed techniques for the cow herd, replacement heifers, and stockers or does it also contain grass-finished beef techniques?

There is a big difference in trying to reduce the feed costs of a cow herd by eliminating or reducing supplemental feeding, and producing higher quality forages and forage sequences that are suitable for finishing growing animals that make high quality meat.

Steven said...

Rich,
If I remember correctly this book covers it all, to some degree or another. Including how to direct market your grass fed and or organic beef and examples of how some farms do their marketing.

JRG said...

What % of the dam's weight a steer or heifer weighs at "finish" depends on the target finish point you're looking for and whether the sire and dam are of comparable frame score.

The 110% weight would probably be a high choice finish grade based on the sire being a larger frame animal than the cow (a common practice). We generally try to get most pasture-finsihed cattle to the high select-low choice transiiton point. Most consumer surveys show this is an acceptable grade range and the difference between high select and low choice are mostly indistiguishable from one another. This is more easily achieved just on pasture than is the high choice grade. We'll usually hit this point at 18-19 months of age.

A steer at this point will weigh 90-95% of the dam weight if bred to a bull of the same frame score, while a heifer will be 80-85% of the dam weight. For each frame score larger than the cow the sire is add 60-80 lb to the target finish weight. Doesn't matter whether they are of the same breed or crossbred.

I think hybrid vigor has much more affect on calf vigor and immunity at birth than on what the final weight will be (assuming both dam and sire to be English breeds). They may grow faster and get there quicker than a purebred calf. We've finished both crossbred and straightbred cattle on pasture effectively.

There is a huge difference in the ability of English x English breeds vs. English x Continental breed to finish on pasture. Eg. an Angus x Devon cross will finish at the targets mentioned above while an AngusxCharolais will not.

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