Making Hay · Beef Checkoff · EPDs · Sustainability · Creep Feeding · Selection · Replacement Heifers · Fertility · Cattle Market · Commodities vs. Beef · Letter to Drovers
"...the folks who exhibit livestock are, as one exhibitor told me, “in another world.”
Published in 2001
Selection, Sustainability, Nutrition, and Health
This year I made a one-day tour of the 2001 livestock show in Fort Worth. It’s one of the nation’s premier livestock exhibits showcasing our country’s sophisticated business of production agriculture. I visited with breeders of pigs, chickens, and cattle, my primary areas of interest. I watched part of the sheep show and spent some time checking out cattle-handling systems. I even watched some horses do their thing.
As we all know, the folks who exhibit livestock are, as one exhibitor told me, “in another world.” This particular exhibitor was a Polled Hereford breeder who knew where I was coming from. Between the two of us we enjoyed a lot of laughs from our good-natured kidding about our different roles in the cattle business. He proudly showed me one of his prize bull calves, and it certainly was a marvel to behold. The calf was just nine months old and weighed more than 1,100 pounds. I’d never seen anything quite like it. Oh, I’ve heard about calves like that, but seeing one in person is something else again.
About 50 feet down the aisle was the Reserve National Champion Polled Hereford Bull from Denver’s big livestock show. The handler got him up for me, and I think my eyes must have bugged as the critter stood up. This bull was just shy of 24 months old and weighed 2,200 pounds. He was slightly over a frame score of 7, so “he wasn’t too tall,” I was told. In fact, the handler informed me the bull was exactly what a fellow needed in the feedlot.
I produce forage-raised bulls and grass-fed beef. My cattle don’t get any hay, grain, cubes, or protein licks--365 days a year. That means I don’t push them. They are fit as fiddles, but with slim pickings at times they rarely exhibit their full genetic potential. For sure they are vigorous, virtually nondiscriminating forage hustlers in good times and bad. But in January, compared to the champion bull I saw, my bulls looked like beach rats. By mid-February, though, my grass starts “coming on” and my cattle will fill out and look quite good by late spring, in spite of their comparatively “oversized” rumens.
Champion Lard on the Hoof
Yes, the champ was amazingly straight gutted. His body was the same thickness from front to rear and from top to bottom. In spite of his “trimness,” my impression of the champ was that he was so grossly fat he reminded me of the fat lady at the circus or maybe a sumo wrestler. In other words, in my eyes he looked like a tub of lard on the hoof and didn’t appear healthy. I wouldn’t have wanted to eat him, and I surmised that maybe it was because of bulls like him that the Beef Checkoff tells folks to eat beef in moderation.
Surprisingly, the pigs didn’t look like the cattle. Over at the pig arena the show stock looked like greyhounds. I’d always been under the impression that pigs were supposed to be fat. Yet the show pigs looked lean and tough, like they could run a mile. I asked some breeders where I could buy a few hogs to let loose in a special fenced-in wooded area I’m setting up just for hogs. To my surprise, all the breeders told me that without grain and shelter the pigs would die. For sure they wouldn’t be good to eat!
While ruminating on all this, I thought about some comments sent my way by Kent Powell of Powell Angus Ranch, Kalvesta, Kansas. His Web page is http://www.agdomain.com/web/powellangusranch/. Here’s some of his philosophy about cattle.
“Today the ‘outliers’ are largely identified by the EPD system. The maximum values are pushed up every year. The current trend seems to be maximum values for every trait. Producers are stacking pedigrees for maximums generation after generation.”
Then he quoted Larry Leonhardt, whom he says pointed out the problem with this selection approach long ago.
“Today, looking back at all that has transpired, I honestly believe that the more we change cattle, the more we need to make a kind the same. Ironically, contrary to purebred principles, for the most part, the economics of the registered industry thrives on motion, commotion, and promotion of difference in order to sell illusion that descends from confusion; to change the most of what we have into what we have the least. Then when the least becomes the most, we change the most into the least of what we now have. We call these endless cycles progress, and the cattle that we are constantly changing are called purebreds.”
Having It All Is Pipe Dream
“When we ‘line up’ cattle, it hardly matters whether it is on the basis of showring standards, EPD, performance, or bull test stations. Until the ‘middle’ (the optimum) is considered the ‘top,’ the connotations of the words we use like predictability, consistency, purebred are virtually so much smoke when the ‘best’ bulls we use or buy are also the rarest (e.g., the heaviest, the milkiest, the winners, the tallest, the sale toppers, the highest EPD for all traits, the unique combination of the highest milking cow mated to the growthiest bull, etc.). It happened at the WYE Plantation in Maryland years ago, it happened here, and it happens everywhere by observing the corrective sequence of the kind of bulls that breeders use over the course of time . . . the ‘motion, commotion, and promotion’ of cattle on the move as evidenced by sire summary trends. Averages are positively predictable, but what really happens is that the cattle themselves become more unpredictable, inconsistent, and ‘purity’ becomes irrelevant. A preference of values for either a little bit of a lot of things, a lot of a few things, or an optimum balance of compromises for the main thing--beef. But we can’t have it all.”
Kent then reminisced about his upbringing.
“My grandfather had Hereford cattle. They ran on the same pasture all their life, feast or famine. They were probably the type of cattle I am trying to get back now. They were bred for and adapted to the environment. After 15 years of AI they suffered from outbreeding depression. They were no longer suitable to the environment.”
Kent warmed to his subject and provided a warning all livestock and poultry breeders should consider.
“In the book, ‘The Natural History of Inbreeding and Outbreeding,’ by Nancy Wilmsen Thornhill, she writes about the outbreeding depression that happens when they introduce outside genetic influences to wild populations.
“The F1 offspring are, depending on the environment, usually stronger and more productive than the wild parents. The F2 generation tends to show a degeneration of fitness as compared to the original wild parent. If all components of fitness are estimated it may be that the TOTAL reproductive success of inbreeding pairs will exceed that of outbreeding pairs. Nature does not necessarily favor the outbred.”
Breeders Are Driving Down a Dead End
In case you couldn’t recognize it, Kent was talking about the fundamentals of genetic selection in beef cattle production. His goal is doability, thriftiness, productivity, predictability, and sustainability. When I looked around at the selection emphasis expressed by the exhibitors at the Fort Worth livestock show, I became more concerned than ever about where our nation is headed. It seems to me breeders of modern livestock are driving on dead-end roads.
Nearly everyone in the cattle business is in the food business. At least that’s the bottom line. At Fort Worth’s Food Industry display area, where livestock and crop production are related to food products to show city folks where their food comes from, the emphasis was on price. Yes, Americans pay a smaller percentage of their paychecks for food than all other people on Earth (11% of their personal disposable income in 1997 versus 25% in 1960). The USDA’s nutritional food pyramid was also displayed. It showed the typical recommendations for big servings of grain as the pyramid’s foundation and the recommended moderate servings of livestock products at the top. (That display always makes me feel like I’m growing poppies or something illicit.)
When it comes to the typical diet of the “modern” American, grain is found in nearly all foods except fresh fruits and vegetables. This means the typical American diet is similar to a diet for cattle in feedlots, pigs and chickens in confinement houses, and diary cattle in confinement dairies. Modern Americans are grain-fed, and they’re looking more like the champion bull every day. Their diet certainly isn’t helping their health, because health is America’s number one concern.
As a result of all this I think we have to ask ourselves, “Is cheap better?” and “What nutrients are we missing if most of our diet is grain based?”
Changes to Food Must Come
There are answers to those questions, and I’ll guarantee you, you won’t like them. That’s because if proper nutrition is your first and most important criteria for the food you eat and the food you sell to others, then nearly everyone in American agriculture is going to have to change. When American agriculture finely addresses the need to make those changes, and if its goal is to be profitable and sustainable, then most livestock producers will have to rediscover the basic fundamentals of livestock nutrition and production. That means they’ll want livestock types similar to those that producers sought out 100 years ago, which are cattle (and other livestock species and poultry of all kinds) that can thrive on grass without extensive supplementation and still produce a good eating experience.
I don’t want to unduly alarm you. But the importance of naturally farm-raised, grass-fed beef may vault to the forefront sooner than you think. Just talk to European beef producers, who are contending with consumer concerns over Mad Cow Disease. Which European producers are winning that battle: those who raise livestock the old-fashioned way or the “sophisticated” cattle feeders?
Copyright 2001, Slanker Productions, Powderly, Texas
Ted E. Slanker, Jr., firstname.lastname@example.org
R.R. 2, Box 175, Powderly, Texas 75473-9740
903-732-4653 Ofc, 903-732-4151 Fax