Cattle Breeds, Breeding and Genetics

When raising cattle for grass-fed beef there are, of course, various breeds to choose from. But with them come specific pros and cons, not to mention differences in their meat quality and your breeding options.

Row of cattle

Learn the characteristics of the different breeds before you commit to raising a herd of them.

Photo by Fotolia/gozzoli

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There is a continuously growing interest in the consumer market for grass-fed, pasture-raised, antibiotic-free meat, whether it be chicken, beef, rabbit, or even venison. Rebecca Thistlethwaite and Jim Dunlop are here with The New Livestock Farmer to discuss how farmers can most effectively tap into this daunting venture. They speak from experience about regulations and logistics, about the requirements of raising various animals, plus processing the meat and selling it. This detailed guide spans the market and will prove useful for everyone: consumer, backyard hobbyist, and full-time farmer.

Breeds

Marbling Breeds or British Breeds

British cattle breeds include Angus (Red and Black), Hereford (polled and horned), Galloway, Devon, Dexter, Jersey, Shorthorn, Scottish Highlander, and Holstein. Some of these are considered dairy breeds (Jersey, Holstein, some Shorthorn) but can be used in beef programs for certain characteristics such as ease of fattening, smaller frames, calving ease (smaller calves), mothering abilities, and beef tenderness.

Some producers choose to raise dairy bull calves because they are easy to obtain, usually for a very low price (depending on the strength of the beef and veal industry). One must factor in the cost of milk replacer or come up with another source of milk such as dairy goats or a nonconforming nurse cow for it to be economical. When sourcing dairy bull calves, try to find a farmer who allows the bull calves colostrum from their dam. Dairy bull calves are delicate enough even with colostrum, and even more so without it (scours is more prevalent in calves that do not receive colostrum).

Continental Breeds or Exotics

These large-framed cattle breeds include Tarantaise, Salers, Limousin, Maine-Anjou, Gelbvieh, Charolais, and Simmental. Many of these breeds were used as oxen centuries ago and to a lesser extent are still used as oxen today. They are large-framed animals with a lot of fast-twitch muscling. They produce large, meaty carcasses, but generally have leaner and potentially less tender meat. Some grassfed producers have been able to cross these animals with British breeds or select for smaller-framed continental breeds for grass-finishing quality beef. (Gelbvieh and Maine-Anjou are a couple that seem to do well on grass.) The downsides of these animals are the difficulty to adequately finish them on forage alone and the potential for calving difficulties due to their large size.

Composite Breeds and Cross-Breeding

Included in this group are Murray Grey, Red Poll, Brangus, Black and White Baldies, Balancer, and many others. Composite breed cattle have the advantages of a cross-bred animal in a stabilized breed.

There is a science to cross-breeding that we can’t possibly cover here, but there are a lot of advantages to mixed-breed cattle. Hybrid vigor is one reason to produce cross-breeds; hybrid vigor is the production advantage that can be obtained from crossing breeds, or strains, which are genetically diverse. The new combinations of genetic material can lead to production advantages over and above the average of the two parent breeds or strains. If you are breeding for meat production, then cross-breeding will likely be to your advantage in developing a mixed-breed animal that is best adapted to your regional situation.

However, some customers will be looking for a purebred animal. For example, there seems to be growing consumer awareness about the eating qualities of Scottish Highlander beef, and of course everyone goes goo-goo for so-called Angus beef, even though that is mainly marketing hype, since most “certified Angus” today is not even 100 percent Angus cattle — they just have black hides. However, a black-hided animal will always fetch a premium at auction, so it’s a good fallback plan for producers to sell off extra animals or ones that don’t make your finishing program. Even if you have a goal of protecting a rare breed of cattle, you can still do terminal cross-breeding for beef animals while keeping another line pure for breeding purposes.

Bos indicus Breeds

These include Zebu and Brahma. These animals are best for hot and sometimes humid climates. Although not noted for their eating qualities, some farmers choose to breed in one-eighth to one-fourth Bos indicus types for hot climate conditions. Most branded grass-finishing programs prohibit indicus cattle genetics in their protocols. That said, many independent producers in the South (-west and -east) have incorporated some indicus genetics into their herds for better adaptability to hot climates. The Beefmaster breed developed in Texas and Colorado is one such example of a composite breed that incorporated some Brahma genetics for hardiness, mothering abilities, and other desired characteristics.

Genetics for Grass-Based Finishing

The genetics for grass-based cattle production are not breed-specific, but rather bloodline-specific. It is your job to identify that bloodline. That’s the hard part.

According to a paper written on the genetic aspects of beef marbling by Dr. A. D. Herring of Texas A&M University (2006) there are substantial differences in marbling ability across breeds of cattle, and within breeds of cattle (bloodlines). Heritability estimates of marbling ability have ranged from 13 to 88 percent in particular groups, with a mean value of approximately 45 percent. As a result, marbling will respond to selection in all breeds, but the amount of genetic variation is not constant within all breeds, and the relationship of marbling with other traits is probably not constant across all breeds. This means that marbling ability is kind of heritable.

Relationships between important cowherd traits and end product traits need to be considered in beef production systems. In the attempt to increase genetic ability of marbling, for example, producers need to be careful not to ignore, and thus possibly sacrifice, desirable cow functionality and reproduction traits. In plain English, this means don’t sacrifice important mothering, longevity, and other traits in your quest for maximum marbling and size.

Kit Pharo asserts that many of the measurable traits and expected progeny differences (EPDs) do not directly affect ranch profits. Some breed associations are coming up with ways to measure and compare economically relevant traits (ERTs) instead of EPDs. Two rather new measurements that Pharo Cattle Company is excited about predict the amount of energy required by mature cows to maintain their body weight. Kit says that almost all of the bulls promoted as sires by artificial insemination and seedstock companies score poorly for maintenance energy. This means that the cows they will sire are too big and produce too much milk to be efficient in a grass-based, low-input system. That is the definition of a high-maintenance cow.   

Pharo Cattle Company has also devised a measurement formula to predict longevity in cows sired by the bulls it sells. Longevity is the best predictor of a profitable and efficient cow. The old cow in your herd is one that produces a calf every year without fail, because you cull the ones that don’t. Longevity requires the cow to possess a combination of fertility, structural soundness, mothering ability, correct frame size, productivity, efficiency, and good disposition. Kit concludes that these are time-proven animals that can seldom be improved upon.

Another trait that Kit keeps scores for in his bulls is for healthy hair coat. Bulls with a soft, healthy winter coat that is easily shed for a shiny short summer coat are scored 5 on a scale of 1 to 5. Kit learned from famed South African animal scientist Dr. Jan Bonsma that, for functional efficiency, there is no single factor that can give such positive results as early hair shedding, and that acclimated, well-fed, and hormonally balanced cattle share this trait. Kit recommends a high hair coat score for bulls destined to live in the South and Southeast because this indicates that they will be fully shed and less likely to overheat in the hot, humid summers found there.

One of the most important economic traits that Kit selects for is fleshing ability. This is a measure of the animal’s ability to gain and maintain body condition. Cows with good fleshing ability will generally breed back sooner and have better longevity in the herd. Easy-fleshing cows also appear to have a higher level of fertility, which makes this trait even more important.

Disposition, or personality, is a highly heritable trait in cattle. Bulls with a bad disposition will pass this characteristic on to their offspring. Cattle that are high-strung are hard to work with and their stress instigates unruly behavior in the rest of your herd. Stressed cattle will also have lower meat quality due to the stress hormones. Stressed cattle may also fight during transport or while penned at the slaughterhouse, which can damage meat with exterior bruising or even puncture wounds if horned. Cull these animals out of your herd.

Breeding

There are two ways to conduct breeding: through natural mating or through artificial insemination (AI). Natural breeding is simpler, but it requires that you purchase, borrow, or rent a bull. AI is more complicated, but it allows you to get more specific about the genetics you want and to maintain a more disease-free, closed herd. Either way, you need to do some planning. At the minimum, follow these steps:

1. First figure out the best calving season: either in the spring when the grass is the best or in the fall if you have decent winter pasture, so you can take advantage of the peak market value for calves, which is usually in March through May. If you are keeping your calves to grow out yourself, then market value for calves is not your driver.

2. Make sure your calving season is no longer than 80 days, because you need to breed back your cows in the same year and gestation is around 280 days (280 + 80 = 360). Try to get all your cows bred during the same window of time. You could also split your cows into a couple of different breeding groups so they calve together but the groups calve at two different times of the year. This is helpful if you are moving toward more of a year-round beef production model. Of course, you have to have the pasture base to support this.

3. Plan and implement an estrus (heat) synchronization and AI program, or release bulls into the pasture with females. To get the cows cycling around the same time, run your bull in the adjacent pasture for at least 30 days. Even if you are going to use AI, you should use a teaser bull to get the cows into heat at the same time.

4. After each calving, cows should be rebred within 80 days. Do not rebreed a cow in poor health. Cows with a low body weight or other health conditions may lack the energy reserves needed to support simultaneous lactation and conception, so it is best to allow these cows to recover before rebreeding. The best production usually occurs in cows with a body condition score (BCS) of 5 or 6. Too fat (over 6) will also result in reproductive problems.


For more from this book, see: A Comparison of Chicken Shelters.


Reprinted with permission from The New Livestock Farmer: The Business of Raising and Selling Ethical Meat by Rebecca Thistlethwaite and Jim Dunlop. Published by Chelsea Green Publishing, 2015.