Food for Thought

by Johan Zietsman 

1. Cattle are bred to be lean and “efficient” and fed to be fat and “productive”.

Is it not strange that the so-called “unimproved” breeds out-perform the “improved” breeds in veld tests? Consider the results of the Omatjenne Research Station in Namibia (Landbouweekblad, February 15, 2008). In the driest year of a 16-year trial the calving percentage of Sanga, Bonsmara and Simmentaler cows was 79, 63 and 50 respectively. Total weaning weight over the trial period was 5565 kg for the Sanga, 4462 kg for the Bonsmara and 2864 kg for the Simmentaler. These results are from sweetveld. Imagine what the divergence in performance of these breeds would be on sourveld.

Let us look at the situation in greater depth by considering the reproductive performance of the female progeny of gold merit (high performance) and sub merit (low performance) Phase C tested Bonsmara bulls (Bonsmara 2007). (Unfortunately we do not have the results of slaughter clause bulls.) The average ICP (inter calving period) of the top performing bulls daughters’ for the first two calvings was 449 days as opposed to 430 days for the poorest bulls. In other words a 19 day (5% calving rate) advantage in favour of the slowest gaining and least efficient bulls.

These differences in fertility can only be attributed to differences in body condition. In the case of Phase C and D tests there is a negative relationship between performance and body condition, since more energy is required per kilogramme of gain for high fat content meat. This is borne out be a statement made in Bonsmara 2003:
“The advantage of determining (Phase C) feed conversion efficiency is that the less fat animals are advantaged. It costs less to produce lean meat than fat meat”. How muddled can our thinking become. We breed bulls to be lean and “efficient” give them gold merit awards and then fatten their female progeny with high energy production licks in order to improve their reproductive performance. Some of the more “advanced” studs even go to the extreme of establishing irrigated pasture under centre pivot and early weaning (2 months old) of calves onto calf meal.

The ARC Animal Improvement Institute who sponsored Phase C and D tests are responsible for the breeding of cattle with poor veld productivity. The resulting animals can be “productive”, but they require improved nutrition. This is not conducive to economically or ecologically sustainable production.

2. Academic fertility or practical fertility?

Cow fertility is dependent on two components – hormonal balance and body condition. But, a good hormonal balance, on its own, is merely of academic value. In order for a cow to calve annually from the age of two years it needs both a perfect hormonal balance and good body condition. For practical fertility cows need to be genetically predisposed to good body condition. This is determined by relative intake (intake : size). Relative intake is dependent on size (the larger the animal the smaller the relative intake), climatic adaptation, resistance to parasites/diseases and appetite. All these components have a high heritability.

The majority of cows (barring disease) are capable of calving at two years of age and annually thereafter, but the majority of these require good nutrition and total parasite control. Some will need feedlot nutrition and a vet in attendance 24 hours a day. A small proportion of cows can do it on veld with very little assistance from man. The common denominator is good body condition. The majority require external inputs in order to achieve good body condition. A small group have inherently good body condition. The majority have academic fertility; the minority have practical fertility.

Current breeding practices and selection criteria result in cattle with academic fertility. Nowhere do the ARC Animal Improvement Institute’s A,B,C or D tests result in active selection for practical fertility. Many of their selection criteria, in particular Phase C ADG and FCE, are antagonistic to practical fertility.

Practical fertility has a strong genetic component. We need to have a different understanding of what fertility is and use different breeding and selection practices. With such an understanding any breeder, in any environment, can have a herd with high practical fertility in a short period of time.

3. Large frame cattle are genetically handicapped.

If one looks at the animal world, the large mammals (elephant) have a slow reproductive rate and the small mammals (mice) a fast reproductive rate. This inverse relationship between size and maturity rate (reproduction rate) also applies within a species. Large frame cattle may have a faster absolute growth rate than small frame cattle, but they mature much slower. This slower rate of maturing is reflected in poorer body condition and ultimately poorer reproduction.

The reason for the slower maturity rate of larger animals lies in the discrepancy between the required grass intake to achieve a certain rate of maturing and actual grass intake. For animals of varying size to mature at an equal rate and same degree of efficiency they have to grow (gain weight) in direct proportion to their size. But, the problem is that grass intake is disproportional to absolute size. Intake is proportional to metabolic size which decreases relative to size as size increases. In other words, the relative intake (intake : size) of large animals is less than that of small animals. The only way the average large animal in a herd can mature at the same rate as the average small animal is by discriminatory feeding practices. The only way a herd of large animals can mature at the same rate as a herd of small animals is through better nutrition – greater selectivity of grazing, better quality grazing and increased supplement or production lick. In both cases the naturally unfair advantage of the small animal is cancelled by unfair and economically unsustainable practices. This is the only way large animals can be made “productive”.

The problem with current breeding and selection practices is that earlier maturing (fatter) animals are discriminated against. The penalty that is being exacted is in the form of increased nutrition. Animals raised under stud conditions and selected according to criteria used in Phase C and D tests cannot be expected to perform optimally under veld conditions. There will always be a price to pay for raising genetically handicapped cattle.

4. BLUP : Science or Academic Wizardry?

M.J. Bradfield and G.J. Erasmus say BLUP “will allow the EBV’s of different beef cattle breeds to be directly comparable nationally and internationally” (Beef Breeding in South Africa, p.37). Is this possible for the most important trait – fertility? Where it is possible to accurately measure traits not subjected to genotype x environment interaction does BLUP not accelerate an undesirable endpoint? Does BLUP not accurately reflect Einstein’s contention that the current age is characterised by “perfection of means and confusion of goals”?

There is no universally superior genotype. This applies in particular to a trait such as fertility which is largely influenced by adaptation/body condition. The characteristics that make an individual adapted with good body condition and high fertility in a particular environment are the same characteristics that make the same individual unadapted and infertile in a different environment. Consider the case of Highland cattle in Scotland and Tonga cattle in the Zambezi valley. How can BLUP bridge this environmental chasm?

Another point to consider is that it is pointless to try and accurately measure an inappropriate criterion, (reflect on Einstein’s remark) such as calving tempo, which is influenced more by subjective selection decisions than genetically determined fertility. What value are BLUP derived figures, with an accuracy of less than 30%, for fertility (calving tempo) as seen in sale catalogues? Is it not confusing that a bull, with no progeny, has a calving tempo well above breed average (50 vs 38,4) while its dam has extremely low practical fertility (ICP of 580 days over 6 calvings, reproductive index of 74)?

BLUP is not what it is made out to be. Juggling different EPD figures, often of doubtful accuracy, in an attempt to breed animals with acceptable birth weights, fast post weaning growth, good feedlot performance, veld adaption and high fertility is not science. This is academic wizardry.

Let us rather get our feet on the ground. First decide what selection criteria are necessary in order to achieve maximum profit/ha in a particular environment. Then accurately measure those criteria and implement sound breeding practices. Forget about the juggling trick.

5. Stud Cattle or Veld Cattle

Stud cattle are bred and raised in an artificial environment and are subjected to arbitrary , man-made laws. There is total parasite and disease control. Nutrition varies from well above average to virtually feedlot conditions. This special status has been imposed by man and is largely dependent on lineage and certain superficial characteristics related to size, shape and colour. The latter is changed from time to time by judges and inspectors, depending on the fashion in vogue. Purity and trueness to type, however, are never compromised even to the extent of forsaking adaptation. Stud cattle have an inherently high nutritional requirement.

Veld cattle, on the other hand, are raised in a natural environment and are subjected to natural laws. Lineage and superficial characteristics are no guarantee for success. Nature’s laws are supreme. There are no deferred judgements or appeals. The verdict is final. The result is that veld cattle have inherently good body condition.

S.A. Herd Book recently lamented the use of pedigree unregistered “bosbulle” (Bonsmara 2008). They go on to say that “the availability of software and other services that make performance data available to commercial farmers in order that they may also evaluate bulls exacerbates the problem. It is clear that their concern is less about a lack of performance records and more about the protection of vested interests. The unashamed arrogance of S.A. Herd Book and their affiliated breed societies is clear for anyone to see. If they had their way commercial cattlemen would be forced to buy stud bulls bred “under the guidance of the Agricultural Research Council Animal Improvement Institute and protection of breed societies.”

What the pompous individuals from S.A. Herd Book and breed societies should explain to the “unenlightened” commercial producers is why the “unimproved” breeds excel in veld tests when compared to the “improved” breeds. Could it be that the results are biased in favour of the “unimproved” breeds due to the fact that the trials were run on veld and not under stud conditions? Maybe the commercial producer is not so stupid. Maybe he appreciates the difference between “survival of the fittest” and “survival of the prettiest”.

6. The important is made irrelevant and the irrelevant is made important

Nothing discredits judges and herd inspectors more than the ephemeral nature of the “ideal type” of animal they conjure in their minds. If these images only stayed in their minds it wouldn’t be a problem. The tragedy is that these images materialise owing to the power judges and inspectors have over stud breeders who choose to follow fashion.

In the 1950s the “ideal type” was an over-fed dwarf. In an over reaction to this, the “ideal type” of the 1980s developed into a lanky, slab-sided freak (“draadkar”) whose progeny had difficulty fattening in the feedlot, not to mention on veld. They now seem to prefer a “middle-of-the-road” type, whatever that means.

Judging is, by virtue of its nature, concerned with the superficial. Due to the emphasis breed societies place on appearance, without appreciating the limitations of visual appraisal, there is a total reversal of the value of traits relative to productivity. What is important has become irrelevant and what is irrelevant has become important. Rather than downgrading cows that do not calve at 2 + 3 years of age, inspectors will accept cows calving for the first time at 39 months, yet cull heifers not conforming to their image of the “ideal type”. Where is the logic in discriminating against a certain colour, colour marking (or lack thereof) or twist of the scrotum (when investigations prove no relationship with fertility)? Worse still is the culling of the most veld productive animals (fastest maturing) on the strength of absolute values (size, weight for age, average daily gain) of performance.

The influence that breed inspectors have is also evident in breeds that are not involved in competitive showing but that are subjected to compulsory breed inspections. It is pathetic to see how superficial characteristics are over emphasised and the most important characteristic, practical fertility, ignored. Some will argue that inspectors are capable of judging fertility by assessing an animal’s hormonal balance. The fact they overlook is that there is a big difference between academic fertility and practical fertility.

Visual appraisal does have a place, but when the focus is on an individual and his apparently supernatural ability to judge an animal in terms of productive efficiency the plot is lost. Show judges and breed inspectors have done cattle breeding a great disservice.

7. Cattle to compete with pigs and chickens for grain conversion?

In Bonsmara 2008 D.J. Bosman makes the following statement:
“In order for the beef industry to compete with the pork and poultry industries more emphasis should be placed on (Phase C) feed efficiency.” What this means is that we have to take an efficient grass converter and genetically change it into an efficient grain converter. If the same logic were applied to pig and chicken breeders they would be advised to breed for greater grass conversion efficiency in order to compete with cattle in converting veld to meat. Breeders of monogastric animals would consider such advice to be preposterous, but cattle breeders apparently not.

In line with the above statement Bosman also suggests that the breeding of “2 x 5 Bonsmara cattle could create excitement in the cattle industry”. This refers to “Bonsmaras that grow post weaning 2kg per day or better and convert feed (high energy feedlot ration) at 5:1 or better.”

Surely these are ridiculous objectives for a breed professing to be veld productive. Or, is the current breeding goal different from that of the founding breeders? Assuming there is a bias in favour of feedlot productivity: How are cattle (ruminants) ever going to compete with pigs and chickens (monogastrics) in converting grain to meat? Is practical (veld conditions) fertility not the most important trait determining veld productivity? Would the breeding of 2 + 3 cows (calving at 2 and 3 years on veld) not be a wiser and more appropriate objective?

Cattle have an unfair advantage over pigs and chickens in converting veld to meat. They are also in the unique position of having the tools (large mouth and hooves) to improve the ecosystem and grow much more grass (doubling to quadrupling of stocking rate). Let pigs and chickens have all the grain they need. Revel in the fact that we can breed and manage cattle to produce the cheapest and healthiest meat whilst making the world a better place to live in. In order to do this, though, we have to get our feet on the ground and think very differently.

8. Crossbred cows superior but crossbred bulls inferior?

In the 1960s my father was one of the first ranchers in our area to crossbreed on a commercial scale. At the time he was advised to sell all the progeny, including the females, because they would not “breed true”. Needless to say, being a practical man, he ignored such advice. Today universities and colleges teach us that crossbred cows are superior but crossbred bulls are inferior. When are they going to catch up with reality?

Scientific proof aside; what does logic tell us? If a crossbred cow is valuable then a good crossbred bull must be even more valuable. If the use of crossbred cows is recommended then the planned use of crossbred bulls must surely carry an even greater commendation. Roy Berg, a truly practical scientist, confirmed the value of using crossbred bulls on crossbred cows when he said “whatever a breeder’s goals, they can best be reached starting from a crossbred base – a theory confirmed again and again and again in many places” (The Ranch; Ewing, Sherm: Mountain Press Publishing Company, Missoula, 1995). In a trial conducted by Berg and spanning over two decades progress per year, when selecting for yearling weight, was 4kg in a crossbred herd (using crossbred bulls) as opposed to 2kg in a purebred herd. What this clearly showed is that selection progress is greater in a crossbred herd than in a purebred herd thus contradicting popular opinion.

Further work done by Keith Gregory (Clay Center, Nebraska) clearly shows a four-breed composite breeding system produces more hybrid vigour than a two-breed rotation, retains about 88% of that of a three-breed rotation and about 75% of that of a four-breed rotation. Considering the diversity in genotype over generations as well as the management problems involved with conventional rotational crossbreeding the advantage of crossbred bull x crossbred cow rotations as well as composite breeding become apparent. This is apart from the added advantages of complementarity and the greater selection progress in composite breeding.

The advantage of using crossbred bulls or composite bulls is too great to ignore. Planned composite crossbreeding and genotype fixation are the breeding systems for the future. Those with foresight can enjoy the benefits now.

9. The loose skin and heavy bone syndrome

One often hears the opinion expressed that a particular animal lacks skin and bone which is limiting its potential for growth. This reasoning appears to be based on the assumption that a tight skin somehow physically impedes growth and that more bone provides a greater area for muscle attachment. These “gems” of wisdom are not only expressed by show judges and breed inspectors but also by personnel from the ARC Animal Improvement Institute.

What exactly does a loose skin and a lot of bone indicate? Firstly, it shows the animal has not grown fast enough relative to its size (animals have to grow in proportion to their size to be equally efficient). This is the equivalent of a 10kg packet containing 9kg of sugar. The opposite would be a so-called “pony-type” animal; the equivalent of 7kg in a 5kg packet – clearly an animal with a much higher relative growth/maturity rate. Secondly, such an animal would lack body condition – the prime determinant of practical cow fertility. In addition to all this a loose skin and heavy bone is correlated to a lack of muscling (poor meat : bone ratio), sheath problems, poor udders, a curved cervix in cows and other structural problems.

The fact that these animals have the potential for growth and will have a high absolute growth in the feedlot does not indicate efficiency. Rather, it indicates lost growth and inefficiency. The antithesis of this is the stocky animal that is fatter, with a greater degree of maturity and less reliance on additional nutrition.

The loose skin and heavy bone syndrome is part of a much greater problem. This relates to the notion that show judges and breed inspectors have the ability to assess an animal’s productive efficiency and that some are better than others at doing this. There could be some truth in this if you own a bonemeal factory or make a living selling hides. The reality is that most of us are supposed to be making money selling beef.

10. Body condition is the most important trait

Few will disagree that good body condition is essential for high fertility and and drought tolerance. In practice, though, performance (Phase C and D tests) is negatively correlated to body condition. This results in genotypes that require better nutrition in order for them to attain sufficient body condition to perform optimally.

Since the 1960s cattle breeders and producers have been brainwashed with the idea that fat is bad. This was in reaction to the overfed dwarf-like cattle winning show prizes in the 1940s and 1950s. This resulted in the lanky, slab-sided freaks (“draadkar”) of the 1970s and 1980s. These high frame score, late maturing animals most often also had a hormonal imbalance resulting in extremely poor veld productivity.

What is the connection between body condition (fat) on the one hand and Phase C and D performance, feedlot performance and veld productivity on the other hand? Firstly, it is important to appreciate the difference in energy content between lean meat and fat meat. G. Dickerson (Potential Genetic Improvements in Efficiency of Beef Production) states : 
“The above maintenance feed cost for depositing fat tissue is at least four times that of lean tissue, mainly because of the more than four times higher water content of lean.”

In other words, the energy required for a kilogramme gain of fat meat is much higher than for a kilogramme gain of lean meat. The corollary is that a lean animal looses much more body weight than a fat animal when drawing on body reserves during the dry season or extended drought. This has far reaching implications in terms of veld productivity. Phase C and D growth and feed conversion figures favour animals with genetically poor body condition. Similarly, feedlot performance (gain and efficiency of feed conversion) is in favour of lean animals. Veld productivity, on the other hand, is largely dependent on good body condition.

Cattle producers have an option. They can buy bulls that are bred to be lean and “efficient” and be prepared to fatten their female progeny in order to attain acceptable reproductive performance. Or, they can buy bulls with inherently good body condition (poorer conventional performance) and reap the benefits of high veld productivity. To quote Roy Berg (University of Alberta, Canada): 
“Major changes in carcass composition (fat : lean : bone) are always produced at the risk of upsetting nature’s homeostasis with respect to functional requirements which have developed in each species over its evolutionary history.

11. What is more important : Production/animal or gross profit?

Is it not strange that cattle producers measure productivity in terms of production/animal whilst crop farmers talk about production/ha? This is even more inexplicable given the high capital investment in land to carry an animal. No wonder cattle producers have such a low return on investment.

Even cattlemen who endeavur to increase the profitability of their business get caught in the “per animal” trap. They measure profit/animal and attempt to increase this by increasing production/animal. This is generally done by using high performance genotypes and improved nutrition in order for animals to perform in accordance with their genetic potential. Improved nutrition is achieved through selective grazing at conservative stocking rate and production supplements. In some cases dry season nutrition is bolstered by hay. In order to increase weaning weight calving occurs well before the rains. Such an approach will result in high production/animal and possibly a reasonable profit/animal. It will definitely result in veld degradation and extremely low return on capital investment.

We have been brainwashed to such a degree to believe that maximum production/animal is the ultimate that we have lost touch with reality. Have you ever heard a maize farmer brag about a maize crop where individual plants produce five massive cobs, but are planted 10m apart? He would prefer many, smaller plants each producing less but with a higher production/ha. Cattle producers need to have the same attitude in order to increase profit.

We need to strive for a goal of maximum sustainable profit/ha. This will also result in maximum return on investment (cattle and land). With such a goal it becomes apparent that profit is increased by having more production units (cattle) on the same land even though each unit may not be producing at maximum. This can be done on an ecologically sustainable basis with appropriate grazing management resulting in improved veld (grass and bush) utilisation and increased stocking rate. There is no way that conventional management can match the above approach in terms of profitability unless it is possible to achieve a 200% calving rate and wean 500kg weaners.

12. Cattle have a dual role : To make money and improve the land

Conventionally cattle are managed as though they are not part of the environment. They are protected from parasites with expensive and poisonous chemicals that pollute the environment and facilitate the breeding of super parasites. Their inordinately high nutritional requirements are generally met with selective grazing at conservative stocking rates, production supplements (mainly energy) and delayed breeding (in order to grow out). In some cases, in particular the top studs, irrigated pasture and two month weaning of calves onto calf meal allow high reconception rates among first-calvers.

The above scenario is a recipe for low profitability (return on capital investment) and land degradation. We have to understand that in order for cattle to fulfil their dual role they have to be bred and managed very differently to convention.

The most important factor determining ranch profitability is stocking rate. The more production units, even with lower production/unit, the greater the profitability. Stocking rate can be increased through better grass and bush utilisation as well as the growing of more grass. In practice this is done by time-controlled high animal impact and non-selective grazing. To ensure the most efficient conversion of veld into beef, different breeding practices have to be followed. Animals have to be bred with a high relative intake (intake:size). This is determined by size (smaller frame is an advantage), climatic adaptation, resistance to parasites/disease and appetite. A high relative intake will be reflected in better body condition and higher reproductive efficiency.

Current breeding and management practices are not conducive to land improvement and high profitability. Increasing the gross margin of a small number of production units, relative to increasing stocking rate, will not help much unless twinning becomes common. In addition to this, in general, more animals are required to improve the land.

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4 Responses to Food for Thought

  1. Jim Elizondo says:

    Johann Zietsman has observed nature ( both animal and grass ) and with his keen understanding of the whole process can bring much needed light or understanding to the cattle ranches which desperately need to improve their profits and environments

    Kudos !

    Like

  2. Oscar Nielsen says:

    I have always enjoyed reading Johan’s informed articles and this one hits the nail square on the head. I have been a cattle man all my life and now recently employed at the Africa Centre for Holistic Management near Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe ( Allan Savory Institute) and fully appreciate the value of his sentiments. Well done Johan

    Like

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