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Why old beef rules just don’t apply

Breeding season for the 2012 spring calving season will soon be in full swing. Cows calving in winter and early spring should be coming into heat from April through July.

But with $110 slaughter-cattle prices and a growing beef shortage, are you really sure you want to stick with the same old routine?

Much attention is being placed on this breeding season, given the rapid decline in the national cow herd and the resulting beef shortage. Thirty years ago, we had a total herd of over 111 million head. We started the current year at only 92 million — down 2.5 million from only two years ago, and during generally profitable times!

Feeders have seen double-digit advances in prices, and still higher prices are expected for this year. So why haven’t cow herds rebuilt?

Key Points

As cow-calf producers age, they’re not big on expansion.

U.S. producers raise 21% more beef cattle with 16% fewer cows.

Newer DNA tools can help design calf crops to your liking.


Aging cow-calf owners is one of the biggest factors. Many just aren’t interested in expansion at this point in their lives. Can you relate to that? When prices are good, why bring on the added work of more cows and larger supplies — then the inevitable price decline?

Actually, the cow-number decline is a bit misleading. While the cow herd declined 16%, beef supplies actually rose 21%!

Most industries would be thrilled to have that kind of productivity increase. Increased slaughter weights are a factor. But increases due to nutritional management, reproductive efficiency and use of genetic selection tools have been huge.

‘Design’ your next calf crop

Expected progeny differences have been around a long time. EPDs are widely embraced by both purebred and commercial operators. Using DNA testing to enhance EPD data accuracy, especially in young, unproven animals, is the next leap forward.

Yes, this technology is still developing. The Angus breed is already at the forefront of providing such data to producers. And the artificial insemination cooperatives are quickly catching on.

Sexed semen is another technology that’s readily available, at least on a limited number of sires. If you’ve decided to be one of those producers who’ll expand, it would be nice to ensure (largely) a heifer calf from your best cows.

On the other hand, if you plan to stabilize herd numbers, a few more bull calves may be to your liking.

Each AI cooperative has its own unique name for the technology. Select Sires offers their SELECTed program. Genex calls their product line GenChoice sexed semen. GenChoice 75 and GenChoice 90 are expected to produce 75% and 90%, respectively, of the desired male or female offspring.

Bottom line: You’ve never had a greater opportunity to “have it your way” in designing your next calf crop. Tools exist to boost the predictability to your breeding decisions — and obtain the sex ratio most consistent with your goals.

Harpster is a Penn State University animal scientist and a beef cow-calf producer.

Pros and cons of sexed beef semen

The availability of sexed semen on a number of outstanding beef bulls is a huge leap forward. Even so, the adage “no free lunch” applies. Weigh these pointers:

It’s expensive to produce sexed semen. Expect to pay about twice the cost of unsorted semen from the same sire.

Conception rates are roughly 75% of those achieved with unsorted AI semen.

Field results show that the best results are obtained in heifers bred during observed standing heat.

Sexed semen isn’t recommended for timed AI programs or embryo transfer programs.

There is no difference in calf livability or performance.


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PRETTY BABE: Calves have never looked prettier than the ones hitting the ground now. But they might look even prettier with new design tools.

This article published in the April, 2011 edition of AMERICAN AGRICULTURIST.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2011.