By Steve Cornett
Gosh. I hope I don’t sound defensive here, but my recent piece about more Choice cattle and instrument grading included a gratuitous tease about Brahman influence cattle, and—no surprise here, now that I think about it—it upset some big ear guys.
They are legion, loyal and—as the guys from Excel learned a couple of decades ago when they publicly broached the subject of docking cattle with more than ¼ brammer in them—about as thin skinned as their cattle.
That’s a joke. Just teasing again, guys.
Let me enunciate more clearly.
What I was talking about was the fact that cattle in Texas feedyards, where a lot of Southeastern cattle are fed, tend to produce a smaller percentage of Choice carcasses than those farther north, where more of the feeder cattle are British and Exotic cross cattle.
My stated theory—and I just repeat what folks tell me, you know—is it’s because Texans feed more Bos indicus cross cattle and because there are more small producers in the Southeast than in ranch country.
It’s not my theory. It’s what the guys who actually feed a lot of the cattle suggest.
I’ll stick with that. But, let me rush to enunciate more clearly. Quality grade is just one—a minor one, judging by the market—of many attributes a breed of cattle needs. Gosh, look at the list of EPDs to get a partial list of stuff that separates right from wrong cattle.
Among the folks who upbraided me publicly with a reply to the earlier blog was a guy whose opinions I trust far more than I trust mine, that being Joe Paschal at Texas AgriLife Extension Service. He’s usually kind, but one blog I make fun of Aggies and the next one I denigrate brammers. I guess he decided enough is enough.
So what he did was suggest that I educate myself about the Bos indicus breeds and the progress they’re making on carcass traits and share some of the information with the Beef Today readers.
That’s a good idea. Since the Excel guys stirred them up, a lot of them have been working overtime developing programs to identify and multiply good carcass genetics.
They have good stuff to work with. Without giving ground on my earlier theory about generic Bos indicus carcasses—the real world beast that help hold Texas grading to 50% Choice while Nebraska runs 70%—I should note that there is plenty of diversity within the breeds. Grading isn’t their thing, but they are nonetheless pushing forward.
So I contacted a couple of the more prominent breeds. Ervin Kaatz at the Santa Gertrudis outfit and Chris Shivers at the American Brahman Breeders Association. Both were kind enough to provide me with quick updates on where they’re heading.
From Kaatz’ email: .
"At one time most of our Bos indicus related breeds were content to play on the female side of the equation – relying on the accepted superiority of our breeds in the southern third of the U.S. as the best cow for the environment. Here at Santa Gertrudis, we have been pushing for performance data not only on growth, but on carcass quality as well. We have no illusions about turning our cattle into high grading Angus. In fact, that effort would probably be the ruin of our breed. But what we do realize is that we have to have enough quality so that when used in a commercial program with Angus; our contribution will not reduce the quality and affect the value in a great way. We recognize that our strong point in a commercial program is our adaptability and compatibility with other breeds.
"So we are very involved in finding those cattle within the breed that need to have their heads cut off. They are the small percentage of the breed that cause a high percentage of the problems. We have an ongoing National Steer Feedout where purebred steers are fed, slaughtered and data collected. We are doing WBSF on them to get a handle on tenderness. We have our 11th set of cattle in the yard now with over a thousand head evaluated to date. Our association is as far as I know, the only one that had ultrasound machines and staff measuring cattle. That did a lot to get our breeders into the carcass quality arena. We have since switched to using certified technicians and certified labs to match industry guidelines. We were the first Bos indicus type breed to adopt DNA testing on a large scale. In fact, King Ranch was sending hair to Australia to be analyzed before that technology was even available here in the U.S. We are currently producing carcass EPDs incorporating carcass data and ultrasound data, and will soon use DNA data as well.
"Just this last fall, we implemented a whole herd program known as Total Performance Records. This was done in a very breeder friendly way while still meeting the basic need for data on complete populations or contemporary groups in order to increase the accuracy and predictability of our genetic evaluations as reflected in our EPDs.
"The major thrust of our breeders today is to produce an animal that can contribute positively to the commercial industry. In visiting with our breeders, I am constantly noting that it doesn’t matter what we would like our cattle to look like – what is important is what our potential buyers want them to look like. That means if the industry wants them to have a yellow spot between their eyes; we better figure out how to put a yellow spot between their eyes. There is nothing to be gained from producing a product that no one wants to buy.
"One of the biggest challenges we are facing right now as a breed is the lack of enough cattle to meet the demand. We have a commercial percentage program that also doubles as a grading up process. It is known as Star 5 and includes half and three-quarter blood cattle. The demand for these percentage females as commercial replacements is tremendous. One of the most popular crosses is the red mott or half Santa Gertrudis & half Hereford. The adaptability of that female is unbelievable. She is less that a quarter Bos indicus and when bred to an Angus, she will produce as fancy a black baldy as anyone could ask for. And that calf can be sent anywhere in the country. If the market changes, all the producer has to do is change bulls and he is right back on track.
"Going the other direction, the Santa Gertrudis X Angus (black or red) female is almost as popular. A typical scenario is the black half blood Star 5 cow or red half blood Star 5 cow bred to Charolais, Gelbvieh or Simmental bulls. You get a black, smoky or yellow calf that can go anywhere.
"I have always had a problem with the gurus constantly talking about the type of calf the consumer wants. What the rancher needs more than anything else is the most efficient cowherd he can put together. That is what he lives with 365 days a year and hopefully 10 to 12 years. Those cows better be right if he expects to stay in business. If he has the cows right, he can meet any market demand simply by choosing the right bull. Like I said earlier, if the market moves; he can move with it by changing bulls. He shouldn’t have to change his cows. He can’t afford to change his cows."
I want to concede every point he makes, except that “gurus” thing. If efficiency was all that mattered, we’d all be raising goats. You can grow those things for nothing but the embarrassment. The problem is goats taste like goats, and that rather limits the market.
Over at ABBA, Chris Shivers suggests a different approach, and one I enthusiastically applaud. They are pushing to find and promulgate tenderness genes. In a time when more than half of all cattle grade Choice and consumer surveys still show a wide level of dissatisfaction with eating quality, that might be wiser than simply trying to get high marks in what is, after all, a subjective measurement of one characteristic of one eating quality, which is itself only one of many important qualities you want to see in a cow you’re buying.
Anyhow, Chris writes:
"Since 2001 we have harvested 767 head of Registered Brahman steers through the ABBA Carcass Evaluation Program.
"This program is set up just as many of the other carcass evaluation programs. Ranch to Rail, etc. Producers nominate the cattle, they are fed in a commercial feedyard, weights are taken at entry, re-implant and then at harvest. We collect the customary carcass data as well as take a steak to perform Warner-Bratzler Shear Force at Texas A&M. The data is then recorded and Carcass EPD's are calculated on the sires. We currently have EPD's on 279 sires. These sires represent close to 5,000 head of purebred Brahman Steers fed through our program and programs at LSU and the University of Florida.
"ABBA was second behind Simmental to produce a Tenderness EPD. The data on the ABBA Program is the following:
- Sale Weight/Live Weight: 1170
- HCW: 735
- Dressing %: 63.3
- ADG: 2.7
- Backfat: .31
- REA: 12.9
- REA/Cwt: 1.8
- QG: Se
- WBSF: 8.5 lbs. - 47% under 10 lbs.
- % Choice: 25%
"These are actual USDA Grades. Dr. Joe Paschal collects the data and also calls the QG and he has called closer to 40% Choice. As you reported in your article with machine grading we would expect our cattle would grade higher. The grades have varied quite a bit due to the difference in graders.
"Basically we have not seen a big change in any of the categories over the past 6 years except in Tenderness which went from 12.1 the first year to 6.7 in 2007.
"I can honestly say that some of the breeders who had bulls that produced tough carcasses in the first project did cull their bulls based on the results from this study. Most of these continue to participate in the program and select for bulls with better WBS Forces.
"Our goal is to produce cattle that will grade Select & Choice with Yield Grades 2-3 and are tender. We are really focusing heavily on tenderness, as consumer research has shown that consumers want a lean tender product.
"Many of our members are incorporating the use of DNA Markers primarily the Genestar Technology. When the technology was first introduced Brahman ranked 2nd behind Angus as far as utilization.
"We do have breeders who utilize ultrasound and we are seeing this used more and more.
"I know you are focusing primarily on the carcass side but much can also be said in regards to the efficiencies and productivity of the Brahman influenced cattle on the female side which is its primary use. Hybrid vigor, environmental adaptability, longevity and productivity are the strong suits of these breeds especially in the cow herd. Although Brahman influenced cattle make up 30% of the cattle in the U.S. over 80% of the world’s cattle population is comprised of Bos Indicus Cattle."
I snipped some in both notes as well as nudging the spelling a little in one, but the point is taken. These cattle are not high grading cattle, but that’s ok. They don’t grade like Angus or run as fast as corrientes. But, they’re not supposed to be race cows or grace the tables at Ruth's Chris.
They have other qualities. Great qualities, in fact. They produce well where other cattle might not produce at all. They are just better at producing Select beef, and there is a huge market for Select beef. Consider that Texas cattle—those 50% graders—often sell above their higher grading cousins up north.
So, gosh, I didn’t mean to disparage the guys’ cattle. If I wanted to disparage a breed it would be Longhorns, and even they have their place. Did you ever see some fancy-grading Angus over a mantle?
So there’s my bottom line: Different purposes call for different genes. This has got too long, so I’ll defend my stand on small producers and their impact on Texas quality grades another time.