Genetics, preventative medicine are the beef of cattle operation success


DUBLIN, Ohio – Beef producers hoping to survive in the industry should adopt a holistic approach to raising and marketing their animals, recommends Gerald Stokka, veterinarian for Pfizer Animal Health.

“Animal health, all the way down the line, is in the hands of cow-calf producers in today’s beef economy. If we expect to stay on top of the global competition, we’ve got to start with the basics to ensure that animal is the best we can make it,” he said to participants at the Ohio Cattlemen’s Association Cattlemen’s College. The seminar was held in conjunction with the association’s annual meeting Jan. 19-20 in Dublin.

“We’re not in this business ourselves. Consumers in the United States demand quality, and if we don’t provide it, someone else will,” he said.

Stokka also recommended producers treat their cattle with more respect, and adopt a new mindset on growing their commodity.

“If you’re raising beef expecting to get paid, don’t skimp on your inputs,” including management, genetics, nutrition and health, he said.

Rebuild genetics. Beef cattle genetic selection can’t solve all an operation’s problems, but is a step in the right direction, he said.

Among his top recommendations was to disperse current genetics and rebuild weak operations with genetics that match the farm’s resources. A switch of this type requires less labor and can benefit preventative medicine programs, Stokka said, noting proper genetic selection is the basis for low cost production in any species.

Decision basis. Stokka also praised EPDs but encouraged producers to not base all their decisions on the data they present.

“Bull selection is as important as cow selection, and you’ve got to be concerned with how each factors into your breeding program,” he said.

Some of the most important traits to breed for, including fertility and fleshing ability, udder and teat conformation, and mothering ability, don’t have data available on EPD charts, he said. Charts can also be misleading and don’t consider environmental conditions.

Fertility and fleshing ability – a cow’s ability to carry enough flesh and body to breed back easily – should be determined by examining both her dam and sire. When choosing a bull to sire heifers to keep in the herd, look at a bull’s dam to get a good idea of what his offspring’s udder and teats will look like, Stokka said.

What’s important. Though mothering ability differs by breed, all cows should be able to support a calf. Research proves calves kept on their mother have better immunity and less stress than calves fed by bottle, Stokka said.

Other traits not discernible on the charts are disposition and uniformity.

“Disposition isn’t always easy to relate to health, but plays a big part in how smoothly your operation runs,” Stokka said, noting calmer animals eat better and are less likely to become sick.

Correct genetic selections help promote better growth and uniformity across the herd – a trait that’s worth a premium in the fed cattle market.

Genetics and nutrition are more important than vaccines, Stokka said.

“Vaccines are probably the most controlled factor of the management equation. Your ability to influence the other parameters, like fertility, are what will get and keep you ahead,” he said.

From the beginning. In a 1997 study of losses in beef calves by the National Animal Health Monitoring Systems, 5.5 percent of calves were lost before reaching weaning age. Another 1 percent were aborted, and 10 percent of cows were open. The main cause of death of calves that were born live was scours.

“A whopping 16.5 percent of the calf crop was lost, which is right around the average. But don’t be average. This is a tremendous opportunity to get your herd ahead,” Stokka said.

He recommended saving as many calves as possible, and concentrating on the 10 percent of cows that didn’t breed.

“You may not be able to save a calf that’s born dead or eliminate the threat of scours, but you can sure do something about those cows that weren’t bred,” he said.

The main key to helping an animal be an asset to the herd is ensuring each calf gets the right start, Stokka said. Calves from unassisted births are at a lesser risk of getting disease and are less stressed by weather and environmental factors.

“Beef cows shouldn’t have to be babysat during calving. Fleshing and mothering ability are big issues here,” Stokka said.

Body condition scores also matter during calving; cows with a poor score will pass less immunity through their colostrum, and body condition affects breed-back of the cow, he said.

Bottom line. “The bottom line is to prevent calf sickness and losses. Concentrate on what’s important to prevent disease. The more shots and medicine you’ve given to each animal, the more you’re reducing the animal’s marketability,” Stokka said, noting the consumer-driven market values prevention and reduction of medicated and implanted animals in the slaughterhouse.

“Don’t pinch pennies or cut corners to save a little money when it comes to herd health,” Stokka urged, noting producers should also question every management decision. “At the same time, don’t spend more than you have to if you’re getting good results.”

Stokka also reinforced the importance of keeping accurate records and knowing the fundamental rules of the business – cost, benefits, and benchmarking, or knowing how your operation stacks up with others.

“Don’t forget this: No other meat has a product that brings $16 a pound in the grocery store, and consumers are willing to buy prime rib. It’s your responsibility to produce the best product you can to maintain that high image of beef,” Stokka said.

(You can contact Andrea Myers at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at

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