Fertility… the Most Important Economic Trait

Cow-calf producers who make a living from their cows know fertility is by far the most important economic trait. University studies have shown reproductive traits are twice as important as growth traits, which are twice as important as carcass traits. Ironically, the status quo beef industry has been selecting almost exclusively for growth and carcass traits for the past 40 years – at the expense of reproduction.

For at least 40 years, academics have told us that the heritability of fertility is very low – so low we shouldn’t waste our time selecting for it. If you were able to isolate fertility from everything else, then that assumption might appear to be true. In the real world, however, nothing is isolated. In fact, the opposite is true.

Truth be known… it is very easy to select for fertility. Fertility is more a function of fleshing ability than of anything else – and fleshing ability is more a function of low maintenance requirements than of anything else. Reproduction cannot take place until maintenance requirements have been met and the cow is storing up energy reserves in the form of fat. Since fleshing ability and maintenance requirements are very heritable, fertility is also very heritable.

As members of the status quo beef industry selected for more and more growth and for less and less back fat (fleshing ability), they inadvertently selected for lower and lower levels of fertility. They created hard-keeping, high-maintenance cows that struggle to reproduce under what was once considered normal ranch conditions. The status quo solution to this problem is to reduce stocking rates and/or increase supplemental feeding. Instead of producing cows that fit their environment, they artificially change the environment to fit their cows.

This would be a great time to share another comparison of the steers in our grass-fed program at Cactus, Texas. In addition to the 120 PCC steers, Cactus Feeders added two groups of ten head each of some mainstream genetics they consider to be among the very best they have fed in the feedlot. Since the mainstream steers were selected for growth and carcass traits, they are taller, leaner and harder keeping. It takes a long time and a lot of feed before they start to lay down fat.

It’s not difficult to see the difference between the thick, easy-fleshing PCC steer and the lean, no-gut, no-butt mainstream steer. These steers had similar weights when put together. They have been grazing together for over three months. The mainstream steer may perform well in the feedlot – but he is not performing so well on an all forage diet. Sisters to the mainstream steer will be difficult to get bred, because it takes so long for them to start storing up energy reserves in the form of fat.

If profit is important to you, then fertility should be important to you. If fertility is important to you, then you shouldn’t purchase bulls that were bred for growth and carcass traits. Nearly all of the bulls being sold today have been bred for growth and carcass traits. Instead, you should purchase bulls that were bred for low-maintenance requirements and fleshing ability. As the above pictures depict, there is a big difference.

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