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Livestock Adaptation: What Should You Choose?

16 July 2015

US - Fitting livestock to environmental scenarios will remain key for ruminant production in the future, although more confined systems will probably expand, writes a US rancher.

Colorado sheep and cattle producer, Andrew Schafer, says that livestock selection should be informed by the environmental constraints and how this will play on productive longevity.

He writes that, in his opinion, while he sees more confined production systems coming in the future, he says the environmental approach for pasture/rangeland systems will prove "beneficial in the long run".

Andrew Schafer breeds Angus cattle and Rambouillet sheep in Colorado

Conversely, the poultry and swine industry is predominately a confinement scenario, writes Andrew. With either type of production system consideration must be given to the environment in which the livestock were produced.

In the one scenario, the livestock must adapt to the natural environment - the genetics must fit the environment. In the other, we have adapted the environment to the livestock, the environment has been created to fit the genetics.

Genetic Trade-off

In the modern era of livestock production there are numerous traits upon which to select. As should be the case in any production system, a road map is needed.

Often times as livestock producers, the short term rewards appear to be so enticing it can be easy to get distracted from the long run goals. Particularly, the continued trend towards larger carcasses and heavier weaning weights. These very terminal focuses have become centre stage for what has been the biggest success and tragedy in the beef business.

With record high average carcass weights it cannot be argued that great genetic progress has taken place. Has production like this come at a cost? For example some producers report lower retention rates on heifers. This often seems to be fertility related issues, such as open coming three year olds.

Tick the Boxes

Great selection pressure should be placed upon the fundamentals. The major factors to maintaining a cow herd with longevity are fertility, foot and leg structure, body condition, vigour and performance.

With all of these there is an optimal level that should be targeted. In regards to fertility no open cow should be kept in the herd. A rigid calving window should be maintained, sixty to ninety days is preferable.

Selecting breeding stock tends to rest on fertility, foot and leg structure, body condition, vigour and performance. 

The only exception would be if a year around calving system is used to meet local direct sale demand. However, with a year around system, four separate sets of cows should be managed for a ninety day calving window.

A cow that does not produce a calf is only costing the operation. Foot and leg design are what allow the cow to travel and move. The poorly designed individuals will sort themselves with limping or cracked toes. It would be recommended to cull these sorts of trouble individuals.

No amount of hoof trimming will change the fact that the individual was not suited for the rocky or boggy environment in which she lived. Body condition is another measure of adaptability. There is often a mentality that a heavily conditioned cow is better adapted to her environment, however, this philosophy may not be accurate.

Most Visual Measure

If the cow had the ability to put on excess fat reserves beyond the BCS (Body Condition Score) 5 she has wasted resources to do so. With this mindset, it can be safe to say that a BCS 3 was meant to be in a lusher environment, while a 7 could perform well in a less prolific grass stand.

This is the most visual way to measure whether or not the cattle can genetically fit with the environment they are being raised in.

Vigour is another measure that may shed light on the right replacements to keep. Baby calf vigour is important, there is no more joyous moment than observing a calf that hits the ground and is up nursing before mom has dried him off completely.

This is a behavioural trait that should be evaluated. Breeding vigour is another aspect that is valuable. In a multi-sire breeding pasture the bulls that are up moving and breeding are more valuable than the ones that stay in the shade lounging around while they should be working. The third aspect of vigour that should be considered is grazing vigour. Cows that will dig deeper and climb higher to get the best forage teach their offspring this behaviour.

Don't Ignore Performance

Daughters should be selected from females that exhibit this type of grazing habit. Finally performance cannot be ignored. The cows that wean a large healthy calf clearly fit their environment. This performance stems from the many facets of the elements above. Cows that wean subpar calves are not going to change their productivity under the same environmental conditions.

Some of the hardest aspects to measure have the largest impact on a successful grazing livestock operation. Choosing the appropriate replacement stock and culling the problem stock over time,can reduce management hassles and increase a producers bottom line.

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