Maternal traits have been the core consideration for cow-calf producers when making breeding decisions, and for good reason. Let’s dig into why. The cow is the engine of productivity at the producer level. In fact, it is a fair bet to say a large portion of cattle-breeding decisions made today are still aimed at creating the 15% to 25% of the calf crop that will become replacement females.

Wells kenny
Beef Genetic Program Development Lead / ABS Global

The unintended consequence of this maternal emphasis is that the remaining 75% to 85% of calves who are destined for the beef supply chain often become a byproduct of maternally focused mating. If you are a producer who is willing to buy replacement females or take advantage of sexed female semen to create replacements, there is a real opportunity to maximize profitability by breeding more terminal value into your calf crop.

Today’s terminal genetics differ from the past

Terminal genetics can have a different meaning to different people. For many cattle producers, the word “terminal” has a negative connotation, possibly conjuring up images of extremely lean, double-muscled cattle from decades past. While these cattle largely did not fit the U.S. production scheme, there are cattle in several breeds today that bring exceptional end-product value to the table in a more broadly acceptable package. These modern terminal genetics can marry unprecedented meat quality with tremendous growth performance. A discerning producer can even source genetics from programs measuring and improving feed efficiency.

Operating in a changed beef supply chain

For a host of reasons, the bar for performance and quality has never been higher in the cattle industry than it is today. Technological advancements have made the collection and sharing of carcass data a simpler proposition than it was a decade ago, meaning the days of anonymous cattle are nearly over. The stream of calves coming from the dairy industry has morphed from the lowly Holstein steer into something that more closely resembles a quality beef breed animal at the time of harvest. Additionally, the increased availability of high-quality beef appears to have trained a growing portion of retail customers to seek out and pay for premium beef. These factors, among others, have significantly raised expectations all along the supply chain.

Today, cattle feeders expect fast-growing, healthy cattle that convert feed to pounds of carcass weight efficiently. Packers expect as much high-quality carcass weight as they can get for every hook space. Meanwhile, consumers demand an exceptional eating experience. Producers who wait for a financial incentive to breed cattle that meet these expectations may wake up to realize that quality and performance are the norm, and a discount is more likely to come their way.


Tools, technology and genetics to stay ahead of the curve

Fortunately, we have also never had access to better tools or genetics to address these supply chain demands than we do now. In today’s age of genomics and data, cattle breeders have the tools to race toward any trait that is relatively easily measurable. Growth and carcass characteristics fall into this category. No matter your breed or genetic program of choice, growth trait expected progeny differences (EPDs) are the most reliable genetic prediction you can get.

If you retain ownership to the rail, carcass weight is a major driver of profitability. Remember, carcass premiums are applied on a per-pound basis. Ultrasound technology and carcass data have enabled an astounding transformation in the percentage of fed cattle reaching premium quality grades, yet there is still room for improvement. Emphasizing increasing marbling EPDs can help you take advantage of the premiums available in most grid marketing scenarios. At the same time, maintaining or increasing rib-eye area can help avoid costly Yield Grade 4 and 5 discounts. Finally, selecting bulls from programs with a track record of measuring and selecting on Feed Intake (FI) is vitally important. Carcass premiums can quickly be offset by poor feed conversion.

If balancing all these individual traits is beginning to sound challenging, you are in luck. Most breed associations and genetic programs offer a terminal index that distills the economic importance of the relevant traits down into a single number. While none are perfect, they do an amazing job of predicting the profitability of a group of a bull’s progeny.

Maximize terminal value with A.I.

Artificial insemination (A.I.) is not a new technology, but it is still one of the most underutilized management tools in the business. A.I. offers everyone access to the very best genetics in the industry. At today’s bull costs, A.I. often represents a lower-cost pathway to creating a pregnancy with access to genetics you define as necessary to reach your goals and maximize profitability.

Not to mention, the combined effects of synchronization result in more calves born early, and industry-elite terminal genetics nearly always generate a heavier calf crop at weaning. With the added ability to lock in carcass value and feed conversion, A.I. becomes a no-brainer if your cows are accessible during the breeding season.

Sexed semen is another tool in the toolbox for producers willing to implement an A.I. breeding program. We have recently experienced historic spreads in total dollar value between steer and heifer calves. Male-sexed semen bears the potential to tip the scales of a terminal calf crop in the direction of a higher percentage of more valuable, faster-growing male calves. Beyond the additional performance and market value, male-sexed semen may be the tool to give you the numbers to generate a “load lot” of steer calves.

Set yourself up for success

Fertility is paramount to any A.I. program incorporating sexed semen, so any management practices that might help “stack the deck” for A.I. conception should be considered. Early-calving, middle-aged cows in good body condition are ideal candidates to receive sexed semen. Be sure to consult your A.I. representative for advice on the right synchronization protocol and any specific instructions or insight on their sexed product.

Whether you are looking to reap a wider margin on retained-ownership cattle, build a reputable set of feeder cattle, increase your steer calf percentage, or simply wean and sell heavier calves, a terminally focused breeding plan could benefit you. Eliminating the need for maternal traits in your next calf crop allows for focused genetic decisions that benefit all stages of the beef supply chain. Building this genetic value into your calf crop will build confidence and loyalty in buyers, even if you don’t retain ownership to the rail.

Purchasing quality replacement females or creating them with sexed semen could help you capture more profits from an efficient cow-calf enterprise by reducing management costs of heifer development and generating a more valuable pregnancy every time.

Maternal genetics are as important as ever, but not every calf should be the result of a maternal mating decision. Knowing this, a focused terminal breeding program just might be your pathway to capture a bigger margin in these times of increasing input costs and interest rates.