If you raise cattle most of your life, you’ll have the opportunity to influence about 10 generations. Therefore, each generation and each mating is a big responsibility. As a breeder, commit to identifying not simply the most popular bull but the BEST fit for your herd. To accomplish this, you’ll have to sort through all the information to find what you need and want.
There are countless pieces of data available when seeking to evaluate potential A.I. sires or herd bulls. While originally developed decades ago, Expected Progeny Differences (EPDs) are considered the gold standard of tools available for genetic progress. Today, EPDs are available for performance, maternal and carcass traits. Indexes also exist for different situations, and these continue to evolve (more on indexes another time).
Even after seeing EPDs in bull sale catalogs and A.I. sire directories for years, making sense of it all can sometimes seem mind boggling. Let’s take a step back and review the foundation.
Where are you now? Where do you want to be? What are you paid for?
Before making mating decisions, consider the genetic makeup of your cowherd. Are your cows predominantly British-based, Continental-based or a blend? For commercial herds, it makes sense (and cents) to utilize crossbreeding for the added benefit of lowly heritable traits like reproductive traits. It also makes sense to select for highly heritable traits like growth and carcass traits using EPDs. For example, Angus-based commercial herds would mate well with a Simmental or Charolais bull that has top percentile EPDs for growth, ribeye area and low fat thickness EPDs.
Also, consider the strengths and weaknesses of your cowherd. For instance, if your herd has a higher than desirable amount of thin and/or open cows it may be beneficial to choose sires that are lower milk EPD and higher $EN (Angus) or Stayability (Red Angus). Different areas of the country and different management levels require different levels of milk EPD, so it is important to select the optimal EPD level, not necessarily the highest. The use of high accuracy A.I. sires is the best method for matching the needs of each female in the herd as well as the goals of your breeding program as a whole.
After considering the current genetics of your cowherd, think about your goals for future production. Do you wish to grow the herd by retaining home-raised heifers or will most calves be sold to the feedlot?
If you intend to keep your heifers for replacements, then emphasis should be placed on bulls with high-ranking maternal EPDs like Calving Ease Maternal (CEM), Milk, Mature Weight (MW), Mature Height (MH) and other similar traits. EPDs are even (finally) available for foot and udder traits in some breeds. In contrast, if you sell all calves to market, you should focus on A.I. bulls that are trait leaders for performance traits like Weaning Weight (WW). Both herds should keep Calving Ease Direct (CED) and Birth Weight (BW) at reasonable levels (many herds use breed average or better as a threshold); this helps keep calving difficulty to a minimum and maximizes the number of weaned calves. Ranches that retain ownership greatly benefit from selection for growth and carcass traits (YW, Marbling, REA, Carcass Weight).
In short, by using EPDs and selecting for practical and functional phenotype (structure, muscling, capacity, balance, etc.), you can be certain you are making the most informed decision possible. At GENEX, this is called a combination of cow sense and science.
Understanding EPDs and Accuracy
EPDs or Expected Progeny Differences do exactly what their name implies: predict how a bull’s calves will compare to calves of the average bull of the same breed.
When making breeding decisions using EPDs, it is helpful to consider the accuracy values of those EPDs. Young sires with genomically enhanced EPDs usually have accuracy values in the .30-.40 range while mature bulls with recorded progeny data have much higher accuracy values. The closer the accuracy value is to one, the window of change for each EPD becomes much smaller. Using high accuracy A.I. sires chosen to complement the needs and goals of the ranch is undoubtedly the most economical and practical method to make multi-trait genetic progress in a commercial cowherd, regardless of the herd’s goals.
Build Your Team, Build Your Knowledge
While reading this article, if your mind drifted to thoughts of corn yields or those truck commercials featuring new fancy tailgates, hang on for this one last point: if genetics isn’t your strong suit, build your team!
Don’t be afraid to seek assistance from an A.I. industry professional, breed association representative or your seedstock provider. Ask lots of questions of these people and use them as part of your network of trusted professionals.
Use all the tools available (information and people) to breed your 10 generations of better, more profitable cattle.
After making the progressive decision to implement artificial insemination (A.I.) into your herd, there is one big word to focus on: STOCKMANSHIP. Stockmanship is the knowledgeable and skillful handling of livestock in a safe, efficient, effective and low stress manner (Stockmanship Journal).
While it’s important to practice good stockmanship skills whenever handling cattle, it’s especially important when you have a group of females set up for A.I. You have to realize this is the third time in 20 days the females have gone through your facilities, you have manipulated their hormones and, if you’re A.I.ing cows, there are now calves involved. That might sound like a lot of hassle, but the results next spring or fall will be well worth it!
Here are a few simple points about stockmanship during an A.I. project that will make your day
much more enjoyable.
1. Get the right crew
That means the right cowboy crew. GENEX will provide you with an excellent breeding crew. You can count on that!
Get your crew involved and excited about the A.I. project before it starts. Don’t be afraid to talk to them about showing up on time, making certain someone is in charge of supplies, sharing the value of A.I. and reminding them this is a little different than branding or weaning day.
When it comes to gathering, sorting and getting cattle through the A.I. barn, nothing is worse than having people there who don’t believe in what you are doing. If your cowboy crew is excited about A.I. day, they are calmer, more patient and easier on the cattle. All these things translate to more pregnancies and more money in your pocket.
When it comes to the cowboy crew, remember less is more. Less people with more experience and patience yield better results almost every time. The right crew will be the difference in your success.
2. Facility design
When it comes to facilities, it’s not about trying to reinvent the wheel; it’s about making sure everything is in the right place so you can do more with less. With a virgin heifer A.I. project, you can usually leave everything the way it is for everyday use. Not much sorting needs to happen, and facilities are usually designed to process yearling size cattle.
With an A.I. project involving mature cows, her calf is added to the equation, but it’s not that bad! Anyone who has A.I.ed mature cows will tell you the first time they were a little uneasy, because they didn’t know what to expect. In the years to follow, it just becomes part of the process.
GENEX can help with minor changes to your facilities to get pairs split in a safe, low stress and efficient manner. Little things, such as removing the bottom two rails of a panel for calves to go under into a separate holding pen, can be an easy add-on to any facility.
See how one person can sort pairs without additional labor or stress. http://bit.ly/SortingCow-CalfPairs.
3. Cattle Handling
First things first, please do your A.I. crew a favor and check everyone’s truck, trailer and even their saddlebags to ensure every hot shot was left at home! The WORST tool someone can bring to an A.I. project is a hot shot with fresh batteries.
Based on firsthand experience, standing behind cattle that have had a hot shot used on them in the alley makes for an unsafe work environment. Instead, use tools such as flag whips, sorting sticks or fiberglass poles. These items induce less stress on cattle than hot shots, and when the cattle aren’t stressed neither is the crew. Everyone wins!
It doesn’t take much to make your A.I. project a success. A little stockmanship goes a long way. Don’t be afraid to talk to your crew beforehand about what is expected, and never miss an opportunity to help correct what someone is doing in order to make things run smoother. Handling cattle is a continual learning process, and every situation is unique. Sometimes you have to be creative and think outside of the box. If you have any questions or would like assistance on your next A.I. project, contact GENEX at 888.333.1783.
Embryonic loss is the greatest economic loss in the beef cow/calf industry. Therefore, your management decisions around breeding time should consider factors that may influence embryonic mortality and calf survivability. In this article, Sarah Fields, a previous Graduate Research Assistant in Beef Production, and Dr. George Perry, Beef Reproduction & Management Specialist with SDSU Animal & Range Sciences, help you better understand the effects of stress on embryonic mortality so you can make management decisions that minimize its impact.
In order to understand how stress may increase embryonic mortality, you must first understand the development of the embryo (Table 1).
Just like the estrous cycle, embryo development begins on day 0, or the day of standing estrus. This is the day the female is receptive to the male and insemination occurs. Ovulation occurs on day 1 or about 30 hours after the first standing mount (Wiltbank et al., 2000). If viable sperm is present, fertilization occurs inside the oviduct shortly after ovulation. The first cell division occurs on day 2, and by day 3 the embryo has reached the 8-cell stage (Shea, 1981). Between days 5 and 6 the embryo migrates into the uterine horn and by day 7 to 8 it forms into a blastocyst (Shea, 1981; Flechon and Renard, 1978; Peters, 1996). At this stage two distinct parts of the embryo can be seen: 1) the inner cell mass, which will become the fetus and 2) the trophoblast, which become the placenta.
Between days 9 and 11 the embryo hatches from the zona pellucida, a protective shell that has surrounded the embryo to this point (Shea, 1981; Peters, 1996). Then, on days 15 to 17, the embryo sends a signal to the cow to tell her she is pregnant (Peters, 1996). This is the first signal the cow receives to know she is pregnant. The embryo attaches to the uterus beginning on day 19, and around day 25, placentation, an intricate cellular interface between the cow and the calf, begins. By day 42 the embryo has fully attached to the uterus of the cow (Peters, 1996).
Shipping Stress and Embryonic Mortality
With knowledge of the critical time points in embryonic development, it becomes easier to understand how stress from shipping can result in increased embryonic mortality in cows (Table 2).
When you load your animals on a trailer and haul them to a new location, they become stressed and release hormones related to stress. These hormones lead to a release of different hormones that change the uterine environment where the embryo is developing. During blastocyst formation, hatching, maternal recognition of pregnancy, and attachment to the uterus, the embryo is vulnerable to these changes.
These most critical time points are between days 5 and 42 after insemination. Before day 5, the embryo is in the oviduct and is not subject to changes in the uterine environment. Therefore, stress does not influence embryo survivability at this time.
The greater the length of time after day 42, the less severe the influence of shipping stress on embryonic loss appears to be. At the time of complete attachment of the embryo to the uterus the embryo is supported by the mother and appears to be not as easily affected by changes in its environment. On the other hand, between these time points (5-42 days), the embryo is at greatest risk.
When Should Cows Not be Shipping?
Shipping cows between days 5 and 42 can be detrimental to embryo survival and cause around a 10% decrease in pregnancy rates (Table 2). Research has also demonstrated that shipping cattle 45 to 60 days after insemination can result in 6% of embryos being lost. Therefore, even shipping cattle 45 to 60 days after insemination may increase embryonic mortality.
Critical time points such as blastocyst formation, hatching, maternal recognition of pregnancy and adhesion to the uterus take place during the time of pregnancy. If these events are disturbed, it leads to increased embryonic mortality and decreased pregnancy rates. Therefore, it is important for you to transport cattle before the breeding season or immediately after insemination.
When Can Cows be Shipped?
Shipping between days 1-4 is best. The embryo is still in the oviduct during this time and therefore likely not subjected to uterine changes.
After day 45, the embryo is well established and fully attached with the placenta. Therefore, it is less susceptible to the changes resulting from stress as well. Shipping at this point is less risky; however, embryonic loss from shipping has been reported up to 60 days after insemination. Take care to reduce the stress involved when animals are shipped. Do not overcrowd trailers. Handle cattle as gently and calmly as possible.
Heat Stress and Embryonic Mortality
The best time to ship cattle is during early stages of embryonic development. However, this is also when the embryo is most susceptible to increased temperatures. Temperature, humidity, radiant heat and wind all affect heat stress in cows.
The rectal temperature of cattle is normally 102.2°F. An increase in rectal temperature as little as 2°F can result in decreased embryonic development (Ulberg and Berfening, 1967). When those temperatures reach 105.8°F for as little as 9 hours on the day of insemination, embryonic development can be compromised (Rivera and Hansen, 2001).
Heat stress has also been reported to change follicular waves, resulting in reduced oocyte quality (Wolfenson et al., 1995). Researchers have reported heat stress 42 days prior (Al-Katanani et al., 2001) and up to 40 days after breeding can affect pregnancy rates (Cartmill et al., 2001). This illustrates how important it is to plan ahead for the breeding season.
There are several ways to reduce the effects of heat stress. Shade, fans and misters can all reduce the effects of heat stress in natural service or artificial insemination (A.I.) programs. These methods allow animals to stay cooler during the hottest parts of the day. In humid areas, misters may not actually benefit animals. If the water cannot evaporate, it is not effective at cooling the animal.
Producers who utilize A.I. can also implement timed A.I. (T.A.I.) protocols to increase pregnancy rates during the hot summer months. Timed A.I. has increased pregnancy rates over animals inseminated 12 hours after estrus detection in conditions of heat stress (Arechiga et al., 1998; de la Sota et al., 1998). This is most likely due to fewer animals showing signs of estrus when under heat stress. When the weather is too hot, animals tend to not move around as much and do not show signs of standing estrus. Heat detection is a vital part of getting more animals pregnant. Since fewer animals are seen in heat, fewer animals can be inseminated. In this case, T.A.I. would be the best protocol to use, because it eliminates heat detection.
Using embryo transfer during times of heat stress can also increase pregnancy rates. High-quality, fresh embryos have been proven to increase pregnancy rates over A.I. in heat-stressed cows (Putney et al., 1989). Embryos at time of embryo transfer can adapt to the elevated temperatures. Therefore, use of embryo transfer during times of heat stress can improve pregnancy success.
Planning for Success
Getting cows and heifers pregnant during the breeding season - especially early in the breeding season - can have a tremendous impact on your profitability levels. You’ve already put forth the time, effort and cost to have a successful breeding season (natural service or A.I.). Ensure your management decisions lead to success too. Don’t stress animals during critical time points in embryo development. Consider heat stress and shipping stress as well. In short, planning around the breeding season becomes an important management tool for you to maximize pregnancy success.
Have you ever wondered what a large artificial insemination (A.I.) breeding project is like? The logistics and planning required can seem overwhelming and is often the reason beef cattle producers choose not to A.I. However, if the logistics can be solved - and they most always can - the advantages of A.I. can help improve your bottom line. Think more calves born earlier in the breeding season, the ability to use proven genetics and value-added replacement females.
Follow along on this recent breeding project and you will understand why GENEX is known for offering the industry’s best chute-side service!
Sarah Thorson, GENEX Beef Education & Marketing Manager, makes her way down to the hotel lobby where Justin Hergenreder, GENEX Beef Large Herd Development Manager, is anxiously waiting to get on the road. Justin is the logistics guy. If you are concerned about the facilities, time or labor involved in a breeding project, Justin is the person to talk to. While Sarah grabs a cup of coffee and a quick bite to eat, Justin briefs her on the day’s events. There are about 550 total head of cows to breed at two different locations. Talk about logistics! As always, Justin has a plan and is confident the day will go smoothly.
After a quick trip to the local doughnut shop to get a treat for the cowboy crew, Justin and Sarah arrive at the ranch. The ranch’s cowboy crew has already been hard at work. They have gathered the first group of cows and are just finishing sorting the calves off. Troy Carruthers and Matt Dolezal, GENEX Independent Contractors, have arrived as well, and the GENEX team gets to work setting up the double-stall breeding barn, filling thaw units with water and plugging in the A.I. gun warmers. The portable breeding barn makes it possible to breed cows almost anywhere. If you have some kind of corral and alley (portable, temporary or permanent), the breeding barn can be backed up to it and, when things are moving smoothly, 80 females can easily be bred per hour.
A portable breeding barn makes it possible to breed cows almost anywhere. The breeding barn can be backed up to a portable, temporary or permanent corral and alley for efficient and stress-free breeding.
The first cows start rolling through the chute right on schedule. There are about 280 cows to be bred at the first location. The GENEX team quickly falls into place. Justin, Troy and Matt take turns A.I.ing in a three-man rotation, while Sarah starts off the morning thawing semen.
The cows are being bred with semen from 1AN01300 INVESTMENT. The ranch feeds their own calves, so INVESTMENT was a great choice as his progeny are known to feed well. That, however, isn’t the only reason they chose him. INVESTMENT also has a 103 PregCheck™ ranking. The PregCheck™ fertility ranking system, proprietary to GENEX, is the first of its kind in the beef industry and evaluates an individual sire’s frozen semen conception rate. While everyone knows some A.I. sires get more cows pregnant than others, in the past it was difficult to measure a bull’s conception ability. With PregCheck™ rankings it’s easy! At a 103 ranking, you can expect INVESTMENT to achieve about three more pregnancies per 100 breedings than his contemporaries. On the 550 cows being bred today, that’s 16 extra A.I. calves!
The cowboy crew loads up their horses and heads five miles down the road to the second group of cows while the GENEX team finishes the first group, cleans up the breeding barn, hooks it to Justin’s pick-up and heads out. At the next location it’s a tight squeeze for the breeding barn, but Justin gets it backed up and the team works to put everything back where it belongs while the cowboys finish sorting.
After a quick breeding barn picnic consisting of Little Debbie® Honey Buns and Double Stuf OREO cookies (no one said a breeding project would be good for your diet), the GENEX team is back at work. This time Matt takes a turn thawing semen, and Sarah jumps into the breeding rotation.
Although Sarah’s been breeding cows for almost 20 years, her job as the Beef Marketing and Education Manager keeps her at a desk most days, so she loves an opportunity to be out at a breeding project. She always learns something and is amazed at how efficiently the team can manage a project of this magnitude. Everyone has a role to play. As indicated, Justin is the logistics guy. He takes his job very seriously. While he is always up for a joke in the breeding barn, he also sets the tone and keeps things moving. He is also the cleanest A.I. technician ever; don’t you dare run into him with a poopy glove on! Matt is an Angus genetics and pedigree guru. He knows what it takes to make a good one. Troy is the energizer bunny of the breeding barn. He never seems to get tired. Everyone else is always willing to take a turn thawing semen so they can stand in one place for a while. Not Troy. He wants to be where the action is.
Chute-side service breeding projects are a team effort. You get the cattle to the alleyway, and GENEX takes care of the breeding!
A quick look out the back window of the breeding barn shows the corral behind the alley is nearly empty! The last few cows flow smoothly through the barn, and the job is done! Everything is packed up and the breeding barn is hooked to Troy’s pick-up, so he can drop it off for tomorrow’s breeding project. There are another 300 head to breed tomorrow morning! It’s been an awesome day. Things couldn’t have gone smoother, but now it’s time for a cheeseburger, fries and a hot shower!
This is just one example of a recent GENEX breeding project. Nearly every day of the spring breeding season, 17 full-time employees and 180 independent contractors are working on breeding projects of all sizes throughout the U.S. Don’t let logistics be the thing that keeps you from using A.I. to add value to your breeding program. The GENEX team has the experience to help you make a plan that will achieve your goals. Whether looking to add value to replacement females, have more calves born earlier in the breeding season or benefit from use of proven genetics, GENEX will be with you every step of the way!
Kelli Retallick, Genetic Service Director with Angus Genetics Inc. recently shared this informative piece on calving ease.
Calving ease is a desired trait. Most would argue it is not
only desired but necessary, as calving difficulty can lower
calf survivability and extend post-partum intervals for cows,
which then lowers breed-back rates. Expected Progeny
Differences (EPDs) can be utilized to help manage this risk.
Often, producers ask, “Can we have too much calving
ease?” To answer, it is important to reflect on the basis of
the calving ease argument, the build of the EPD and what
to expect when using these tools. Knowing this, cow/calf
producers – both seedstock and commercial alike – can
make informed decisions about their own herds.
Using the tool
Calving Ease Direct, or CED, is the
most effective tool when deciding
which bulls to mate to first-calf
heifers. Expressed as a probability
percentage, CED aims to predict the
percentage of unassisted births a bull
will produce when mated to heifers.
Let’s compare two bulls. Bull A has
a CED EPD of +2, and bull B has a
CED EPD of +7. When mating these
two bulls to similar groups of heifers,
phenotypically and genetically, one
would expect, on average, bull B
to produce 5% more unassisted
births than bull A. While no one can
indefinitely state the perfect cut?off
to be used across the industry, producers can rely on the information
available to them to make the best
decisions. It gets even simpler
when producers can rely on past
records to benchmark the amount
of calving difficulty experienced to
understand where selection pressure
should be placed.
Behind the EPD
Calving ease scores collected by
breeders are utilized to predict CED.
These scores range from 1-5, where
1 would indicate a birth with no
assistance. For Angus cattle, only
scores reported on first-calf heifers
are used in the prediction of the CED
EPD. Mature female scores, while
they can be reported, are not used
in the national cattle evaluation as
not enough variation, or differences
among reported scores, exists to add
value to CED predictions.
Birth weight is used as a correlated
trait in the calving ease evaluation.
The correlation, or strength of
relationship, between calving ease
and birth weight is -0.65 which is a moderately strong, negative
relationship. A negative correlation
suggests as one trait goes up
the other goes down. Therefore,
in most cases, as calving ease
increases, birth weight tends to
trend downward. When focusing
on decreasing calving difficulty in
first-calf heifers, it is most effective
to focus on CED EPDs as this is the
economically relevant trait. On the
other hand, if the focus is to strictly
increase or decrease birth weight,
the BW EPD is the tool of choice and
most effective to influence changes
on actual birth weights of calves.
These scores and weights are then
evaluated together in a threshold
model, but it is important to
understand in a threshold model
an underlying assumption is made
about the amount of existing calving
difficulty. Therefore, if the tool is
predicting the decreased number
of assisted births in a population,
a percentage of assisted births is
assumed. In the case of the Angus
CED EPD, this threshold model was
designed to help lower the level of
assisted births present in a mixed
breed commercial cowherd, which
in most cases would have a higher
incidence of calving difficulty than
a purebred registered Angus herd.
This is why patterns in the data
representing the percentage of
assisted and unassisted births of the
purebred Angus herd are not always
completely linear when tracking up
or down the CED scale. Figure 1
breaks out the percentage of assisted
births recorded for each CED EPD
possessed by the sire when bred to a
breed average Angus female. As the
CED EPD of the sire increases, the
number of assisted births decreases.
However, the decrease may not be
by an entire percentage point as
expected. The reason? Mating Angus
sires to Angus females who are breed
average for both calving ease direct
and maternal is not the expected
industry average mating.
In a recent survey conducted by
the American Angus Association,
producers reported treating calving
ease as a completely separate trait
using independent culling levels
when making genetic decisions.
Independent culling is a selection
strategy stating an individual animal
will be culled if it does not meet the
specific requirement of a single trait,
regardless of the levels of other traits.
Using this method of independent
culling, while efficient in making
genetic change in that specific
trait, can lead to drawbacks which
can affect herds in the long term.
Producers setting specific thresholds
on any trait, ignoring a multi-trait
approach, can lead to eliminating
bulls for falling just under this
culling threshold even though they
may possess other characteristics
valuable to the operation.
The bottom line – not all cowherds
are created equal. What can be
utilized safely in one herd may cause
problems in another. Knowing CED is
designed to be a heifer mating tool,
using different bulls to mate first-calf
heifers and mature cows may be
logical. The best advice may be to
understand the cowherd these bulls
will be utilized in.
As a cattle producer, you know your
cowherd better than anyone. If the
bulls used on first-calf heifers have
averaged a +6 for the CED EPD for
several years and you have yet to
pull a calf, then a +6 CED bull is a
safe option. On the other hand, if
your bulls have averaged +10 CED
and you have repeatedly pulled a
higher percentage of calves from
first-calf heifers than desired, then
more calving ease may be necessary.
Understanding the relationships in
your herd is crucial to the overall
success of the genetic program.
Connect with us to learn how our world-class cattle genetics, progressive reproductive solutions, and value-added services can advance your operation. Click here to contact us today!