Making Hay · Beef Checkoff · EPDs · Sustainability · Creep Feeding · Selection · Replacement Heifers · Fertility · Cattle Market · Commodities vs. Beef · Letter to Drovers
“A good genetic package is a well-balanced package that performs optimally in one’s environment. Maintaining and reproducing that balance is the key."
Copyright 2001, Slanker Productions, Powderly, Texas
Just MANAGING to get by . . .
by Ted Slanker
EPDs: A Problem, Not a Solution
When I speak to cattlemen on my favorite topic, “Sustainable Beef Production,” I like to open it with the following aside.
“I’ve made just about every mistake a fellow can make in the beef cattle business. For sure I’ll make some more mistakes in the future. In fact, I’m probably making some mistakes right now and don’t even know it.”
That’s right. I’m not like most of the cattlemen you know. I wasn’t born knowing everything there is to know about the cattle business. So I had to learn it the hard way, and I did it with my own money. My desire to be economically and environmentally sustainable motivated me into keeping an open mind and to seek knowledge. I sought out the fundamental reasons for why things happen like they do, which resulted in a better understanding of the trade.
One of the undesirable side effects of learning new things is that I’ve had to eat my own words–over and over again. And wouldn’t you know it, it happened again just recently.
Ever since the mid-1980s, I’ve been called “Mr. EPD.” Many times the label was sarcastic rather than complimentary, which was probably because numbers give some folks a headache. On the other hand, I’ve always liked numbers and minored in statistics in college. So I was a quick study on EPDs and drove folks crazy with them.
Yes, for 15 years I selected the best total performance bulls I could find. I used sophisticated computer searches, and in the early years of EPDs, I bought bulls from folks who didn’t even know their bulls were outliers. In my quest for the best I kept stacking EPD pedigrees like the books said. My numbers improved, and eventually some of my sires ranked within the top 100 total performance bulls in the breed. But even with all the good news, I wasn’t happy.
Back in 1980 I had a show string and a big truck to haul it around. I was a really big deal. But I kept good records, and my winners weren’t performing. I canned the whole venture and went after total performance.
I did my best to select for the right type. For years my bulls were frame score 5s to 6s. They were thick and came from superior cows. I bred my cows based on sire groupings. Therefore, after a few generations many of my cows were 15/16th sisters! My goal was not only superior performance, but uniformity and predictability. This time, however, instead of the averages telling me I had a problem, it was my eyes and a flat bell curve.
Over the years I had asked around about linebreeding. Folks generally condemned it. I read some on it, but the authors weren’t encouraging. For sure, the idea of inbreeding one’s cows sounded sacrilegious.
Several years ago I started using some of my own bulls on some very distantly related cows. Then two years ago I used some on distantly related cows. For sure, I was afraid of inbreeding. I was just trying to save money by not buying replacement bulls. Then last year, four out of the five bulls I used were born here. I bred them to “distant” relatives. Their calves are just now arriving.
Jim Lents: Master Breeder
Last fall I was contacted by Jim Lents (580-246-3560 in the evening or firstname.lastname@example.org), a fellow breeder. Jim immediately struck me as a knowledgeable fellow. What I liked most were his positive views regarding linebreeding. That inspired me to get in touch with managers of the linebred Hereford herd in Miles City, Montana. They sent me some information, which created more questions than answers. Then I bought Jim’s book, “The Basis of Linebreeding.” Soon, I was communicating via the Internet with Jim on at least a weekly basis.
Jim told me that the only way to get cattle to replicate like a flock of quail was to linebreed. He provided numerous examples of how it works and why. Jim exhibited tremendous patience by explaining various aspects of breeding over and over again. For sure, I’m now convinced I wasted many years in my program by not linebreeding sooner and closer. But there was one point where I disagreed with Jim. That was regarding the value of EPDs. He said EPDs were worthless. That I found hard to believe.
For months Jim kept repeating the fundamental requirements for the cattle type that works and the types that don’t. On that I’d agree, but for the life of me, I just knew I had to measure to see the results. But then the fundamental truth finally dawned on me and I had to write the following note to Jim, which I did by publicly posting it on an Internet chat room.
Confessions of a Sinner
“If I’m right about balance in the mineral, then maybe (gulp) you’re right about EPDs. That’s why I thought I’d ‘drag’ you into this. It will give me a chance to bring up (once again) one of your favorite topics.
“I’ve been stewing on your (and Kent’s, and others) ‘backward’ thinking regarding EPDs. I’ve read your book and several issues of the ‘Lamplighter.’ I’ve read your posts until I’ve been blurry eyed. I’ve tried to examine your approach from your viewpoint, my viewpoint, other viewpoints, and from every angle.
“Over 15 years ago I was known as ‘Mr. EPD.’ So I’d heard all kinds of folks over the years condemn and sneer at EPDs. All of them did it for reasons that didn’t make any sense. For the most part they didn’t know how EPDs were calculated or how they were used. Then you called up one day. You tweaked my brain on linebreeding like no one else. I’d been floating around on the edges of it for years in my program, had searched around and asked questions of the most ‘knowledgeable types,’ but no one gave me satisfactory answers that enlightened me. But you did. The only problem was, you ‘didn’t know nothing’ about EPDs. Hell, you didn’t even send your data, if you collected it, to the AHA to compile EPDs. Obviously you were a lost soul.
“But, as I said, I’ve been stewing on your blasphemy. I’ve gone out and looked at my cattle. That was always disappointing. Sure I’ve got some ‘great ones,’ but the uniformity and predictability I’ve strived for all too many years is not there. And I’ve used EPDs in my search.
“Another nagging point is that some years ago I started thinking that at some point there has to be an optimum BALANCE in my EPDs. For instance, just like high birth weights are bad, so could high milk be a disaster. The idea of balance really started coming into play when in 1997 I stopped feeding hay to the entire herd and stopped graining weaned calves. When I eliminated all subsidies from my program, man it was like hitting a wall around here. Quite a few of the ‘good ones’ weren’t so good after all.
“So this thing about balance and optimizing kept ringing away in my head. It nagged at me, and your continuing blather about EPDs only measuring pounds, etc. ad nauseam, just pounded away in my head. Egad, I thought I was going mad!
“Anyway, now I’m starting to calm down a little. I’ve decided that maybe I should look more and weigh less. I’m thinking that if I select for the optimum balance of traits that perform best in my environment and put a good eating experience on the table, then why in the hell would I need EPDs. Yes, I’m going to say it: ‘Selecting cattle by maximizing EPDs in any one or all areas can tip the cattle out of balance. Since EPDs are for maximizing not optimizing, they’re worthless.’
“A good genetic package is a well-balanced package that performs optimally in one’s environment. Maintaining and reproducing that balance is the key. Tweaking the optimum balance, which is the optimum genetic package for the environment, by asking for more here and less there can tip the scale so that it is out of balance. Therefore, change has to come slowly and it has to involve the entire package, not just a few popular traits.
“Damn Jim, you’re not so bad after all. I do think I see the light!”
Yes, that’s it. It’s like as if I’m looking at my cattle for the first time. What package works and which packages don’t is most important. I’m factoring in more traits now than ever before. And I can’t wait for this year’s breeding season to start. I’ll be linebreeding exclusively and close with a plan for improvement, and I won’t select my bulls on the basis of EPDs.
Copyright 2001, Slanker Productions, Powderly, Texas
Ted E. Slanker, Jr.
R.R. 2, Box 175
Powderly, TX 75473-9740