Fixer uppers? Improvements in herds can be made


I got my start with other people’s cull cows, just a bid or two above the hamburger market — which was not so dear back then. 

Decades of using at least breed-average bulls in the pasture and artificial insemination (AI) on the top half moved their progeny up from 10% premium Choice to eight times that.

No starting over

I would not want to start over with any other cows now, but it’s still easy to find a bottom 20% in these.

When disposition or inconsistent performance crops up, I still blame the “first cows.” Science probably wouldn’t assign much culpability back through several generations, but somehow it helps me to see those family trees with questionable roots.

Improving disposition

Besides, it has helped improve disposition to cull high-headed granddaughters of certain foundation cows while using bulls in the top 5% for docility and monitoring daughters.

Many, if not most herds have humble beginnings, left behind by decades of keeping replacements from the best bulls. Whether yours are just coming out of that phase or well improved by now, bull selection still brings up questions of balance and adding value to the next generation of calves.


I’ve heard people justify some pretty strange choices when they see the bulls with everything bringing $7,500.

I guess financial pressure makes people look for justification to back away from the top. One of the strangest is the idea that I have too much marbling in my herd. It was fine when I brought them up from 50% Choice to 75%, and few would argue that I erred in pushing that a little more to 90% Choice and 40% Premium Choice.

Great beef?

But going beyond that point? That’s irresponsible. If we produce more and more great beef, next thing you know, we have too much great beef. Folks won’t pay more for it and we’ll have a glut of great beef on the market. Besides, you can ignore marbling and maximize pounds while paying less for bulls.

Sounds like an excuse for single-trait exclusion based on a wrong reading of consumer demand.

Have you seen the Prime grid premium lately? The boxed beef has been $50/cwt. or more above Choice, and half of that is available on the grid for each animal that qualifies.

Research has shown over and over that we need give up nothing to keep on progressing. But the bulls that will lift these fixer uppers to that level do cost more, because of what they can do for a herd over the next decades.

Bull affordability

When all the bulls you marked go to other bidders, the illogic of single-trait exclusion comes to mind because you can more easily afford bulls with that hole in their EPD profile. All cattle are sky high, so it can’t hurt to back away from quality for a while. Besides, you heard somebody say we might get too much Prime some day.

You can rationalize all you want, but premium brands and Prime beef are the only parts of our smaller overall supply that increased volume and price in the last few years. That’s real demand, less subject to a switch to pork or chicken than commodity beef.

Satisfies the craving

Consumers stayed with beef at these prices because it satisfies their craving for a great eating experience, and there are fewer disappointments than ever for those who buy a Prime or leading premium brand steak. Maybe it’s time to think like those loyal beef consumers.

Stay on course to produce the best beef, rather than trade down to something that will have to compete on a sensory level with cheaper proteins.

Next time in Black Ink® Miranda Reiman will look at marketing calves based on what they can do.


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Steve Suther, director of industry information for the Certified Angus Beef Program, writes from his farm office near Onaga, Kan. You can e-mail him at or call toll-free 877-241-0717.



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