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Benfield and White Ridge Angus Production Philosophy

The Benfield and White Ridge Angus herds of today represent the results of our quest for problem-free, maternally-oriented performance Angus with extra muscle and fleshing ability. In our search for added muscle, we have never sacrificed the necessary production traits for the allure of highly promoted bulls with wide-spread EPD's who lack the ability to consistently sire functional cattle.

Our Unconventional Wisdom

The Business of Cows

Seedstock breeders must select genetics to produce a marketable and profitable beef product. The American Angus Association has developed eighteen Expected Progeny Difference's (EPD's) to aid breeders in this process, however, no EPD's are available for the two most important economic traits.

summer grazing

As the industry moves to vertical coordination, there are no shortages of advice for the cowman on how to produce for the consumer market. A steady stream of packers, feeders and retailers speak at industry conferences to call for improvements in quality grade, retail cutout, feed efficiency, performance, tenderness and uniformity. And rightfully so, as each of the traits directly affect the profitability of their business and the health of the beef industry in general.

It is easy to call for genetic improvements in specific traits. It is much more difficult to select genetics that increase profitability of the whole beef production enterprise. At the 1999 Beef Improvement Federation meeting, Harlan Ritchie discussed the efficiency of the cattle industry. He cites data from Cattle-Fax, which breaks each sector into quartiles according to profitability. The difference between the highest 25% and the lowest 25% in profitability was $173 for the cow calf sector. This was over twice the difference for feedlot ($84) and over four times that for carcass ($40). He concluded that the greatest opportunity for improving efficiency was in the cow-calf sector.

For seedstock producers to improve all economic traits requires a delicate balance in order to avoid "the law of unintended consequences" which has plagued the industry. Since many traits of economic importance are antagonistic, one must ensure that improvement in one trait does not have a detrimental affect on another.

heading to water

Certainly we are in the meat business, but we are also in the cow business. And for a cowman...reproduction rules! If our females don't breed, their genetic potential is unavailable except for a one way trip through the system. Every study of the relative economic value ranks reproduction as the most important economic trait.

Furthermore, recent studies show fertility is more heritable than previously thought. Although two cows may get bred, their true genetic potential to conceive is quite different. When fertility traits are measured as a binary function (either bred or not bred), then the genetic potential of any cow that becomes pregnant is considered equal to any other cow that becomes pregnant. This erroneous assumption has led to low estimates for the heritability of fertility.

However, Bruce Golden and his colleagues at Colorado State have revisited this issue with newly developed methodology that attempts to discover true genetic differences in fertility as a continuous scale. According to Golden, these experiments indicate that heifer pregnancy is moderately heritable and at least .20. The higher the heritability the more progress one can make by direct selection for that trait. Consequently, a fertility EPD could be formulated which will improve reproductive efficiency. How would it work? Take the Red Angus Association, for example. Their heifer pregnancy EPD ranks sires as to the percent probability of daughters breeding the first year. The range from the highest sire in the breed to the lowest sire is .30. In other words, if 100 heifers by each bull were exposed and 80 heifers by the highest bull became pregnant, you would expect 50 heifers by the lowest bull to be pregnant.

Another area of vital importance is the adaptability and longevity of cows. Developing replacement females is a major expense of time and money. Profits in the cow business are largely dependent on the economic adaptation of cows to their environment. Obviously, this is a cow that every year raises a healthy calf of sufficient weight and growth potential and with carcass merit to meet industry targets. Less apparent is a number of important traits including foraging ability, maintenance requirements, disposition, structural soundess, mothering ability, disease resistance and many others -- some of which may be unique to specific environments. The details are less important than the results. If a cow remains in the herd for an extended period, she is likely to be functionally sound.

summer grazing

An EPD for adaptability/longevity can be calculated from a whole herd reporting system. It could be expressed similarly to heifer pregnancy by ranking sires as a percent probability of their daughters remaining in the herd for a defined period of time. Angus breeders would be able to select appropriate sires to produce herd replacements rather than discover their error three or four years later. Since many commercial customers select Angus for their maternal influence, they may soon require this information due to its direct influence on profitability. An adaptability EPD would provide the additional benefit of leveraging our existing EPD data since females of superior merit will remain in production longer to propagate their desirable traits.

If we are to maintain our position as the leading maternal breed, we must collect and provide as much information as possible on the reproductive efficiency and adaptability of our females.


Contrary To Ordinary Angus

For the last few years, our logo "HEADQUARTERS for HINDQUARTERS" has come to represent Don and I as "Breeders of Problem-Free, Maternally Oriented Performance Angus with Added Muscle and Fleshing Ability". While this statement describes our breeding program, it doesn't separate us from other breeders. We like to think of our cattle as being Contrary to Ordinary Angus. Here is why.

Essential Trait Flaws
We eliminate cattle with essential trait flaws cattle from consideration in our breeding program regardless of their popularity. What is an essential trait flaw? They are problems that directly affect the ability of cattle to function efficiently in low cost, forage-based programs. Examples include problems with fertility, structural soundness, udder quality, and fleshing ability.

No Fads
We stay away from the latest fads. From time to time, breeders are blindly led by the popularity of specific individual traits to practice single trait selection at the expense of balanced essential traits. Single trait fads include the frame size hysteria of the 1980's and the current day over emphasis on marbling and certain anointed, high priced cow families. Products of "faddish" breeding rarely retain lasting genetic or economic value.

Where's the Beef?
We persistently select only the heaviest muscled cattle that meet our other selection criteria for use in our herds. One of the results of "faddish" breeding in recent years within Angus circles is the consistent decline in muscling. Analysis of the Angus breed's database confirms there is a continuing decline in ribeye area per unit of carcass weight, and on a breed-wide basis, there is no reason to expect any near term improvement. Other breeders tend to ignore this problem by claiming there is no problem or by adding thickness with FAT. Ignoring the disappearance of muscling does not solve the problem.

Conventional Lack of Wisdom
We ignore what the promoters and desk jockeys preach about breeding and instead pay attention to what the cattle "tell" us by watching them and their progeny. The conventional wisdom for cattle breeding is to stack generations of highly proven, popular sires. On the surface, this philosophy sounds great. But in reality, many popular sires possess one or more terminal flaws. Popularity and genetic merit are not the same thing. That's why most of the popular bulls of 10 and 20 years ago are shunned now, and why many of today's most popular bulls will be out of favor in the future. Cattle don't perform as ads say they should; they perform according to their genetics and environment. We stack generation after generation of cattle we know will work. We are impressed with the results. Yes, some of the sires we use are widely accepted, but we never base breeding decisions on popularity.

Emancipation Proclamation
Our cattle must work for us. Back in the 1980's, we owned a second breed that was high maintenance. These cattle demanded more of everything: more feed, more vet work. They also had lots of problems with bad feet & udders, hard calvings, and unthrifty calves. During that time, we found ourselves slaves to those cattle. So the decision came to disperse them. These problems have not existed with our Angus cattle and we are determined to keep it that way. We place great emphasis on cattle that are problem-free, designed for longevity, and can function on fescue with little attention from us.

Toads and Giraffes
We spurn frame size extremes. Nothing stimulates more controversy among cattlemen than frame size. Some want small, efficient cattle, but many of these cattle don't grow well and are too small for the box at slaughter. Some like big framed, high performance cattle, but many of these cattle are too big for the box at slaughter and too inefficient on the cow side of the equation. We find that 5 and 6 frame cattle fit our environment efficiently, perform well, and fit the box at slaughter.
By the Numbers
While EPD's rule the roost in many programs, we select cattle for all the important economic traits-not just EPD's. Without question, EPD's are a valuable tool to use in breeding cattle. One concern, however, is that convenience traits-fertility, fleshing ability, soundness, disposition, etc.-are not measured by EPD's. Needless to say, these traits have great economic importance and cannot be ignored. Another concern is that unless used properly, the value of EPD's diminish. For example, every year bulls surface with EPD's that are 0 for BW and 100+ for YW, but with low accuracies. Breeders often flock to these bulls, only to be disappointed when calves arrive. While we would all love to have cattle with extreme EPD's, we must remember that these low accuracy bulls rarely hold their gaudy numbers.

The Money Pit
Our cattle make money for us and our customers. Historically, purebred breeders last about 5 years, primarily because they adopt high input programs. High input programs are money pits. New tractors, fancy facilities, full color ads, extensive embryo transfer, and extremely high dollar foundation cattle sound appealing to many new breeders, but these programs generally do only one thing well, and that is lose money. Many purebred programs are subsidized with outside sources of money until the threshold level for unacceptable loss is reached, at which point they disperse. Money does not equal experience, and the foundation for any successful breeding program should be to produce outstanding bulls for the commercial industry, lessons these breeders learn the hard way. We have been in the cattle business all our lives, with 20 years in the purebred Angus business each. Our capital comes from what we make with our cattle. Money can buy great cattle or bovine junk, but it takes experience to tell one from the other. Low input cattle bred with the commercial industry in mind are the ones that make money for the cowman.

Contrary to Ordinary
So contrary to ordinary, experienced cattlemen appreciate our cattle because they are consistently problem-free, maternally oriented performance Angus with added muscle and fleshing ability. In other words, our cattle are "Contrary to Ordinary Angus"--and that's the way we want it! We hope that after viewing our bull sale offering, you will agree and add a "Contrary to Ordinary Angus" bull to your herd.


Yielding Beyond Genetics
Ron Bolze hits the nail on the head when he correctly states in his October 1999 Angus Journal article "Beyond Genetics":

"Perhaps the answer to the antagonistic nature of quality grade vs. yield grade vs. maternal function lies in the identification and propagation of those lines that can routinely:
(1) marble sufficiently minimal fat cover...
(2) produce above-breed-average muscling per unit of carcass weight; and
(3) produce easy-fleshing, functionally adapted daughters for a given environment."

To achieve these goals, Angus breeders need carcass EPD's that accurately describe the carcass at .4" of backfat--the industry standard for maximizing the antagonistic traits of quality versus cutability--with regards to carcass weight, ribeye area, and marbling (and hopefully tenderness and red meat yield in the near future). Breeders could then readily determine such important factors as ribeye area in relation to carcass weight, marbling at industry target levels of fat thickness, and whether carcass weights fall within minimum and maximum industry target levels.

Do the current carcass EPD's allow breeders to identify and propagate the cattle Bolze describes? Carcass EPD's are currently adjusted to an age constant basis, which does not specifically measure carcass parameters at .4" of backfat.

In the same October issue, Dan Moser of Kansas State University wrote an article titled "Yield!" in which he observes, "Since data used to calculate carcass EPD's are adjusted to constant age, bulls with a superior EPDs for ribeye area could potentially sire cattle that are faster gaining and heavier at processing, but no more muscular relative to their weight". In fact, ribeye area is being lost relative to carcass weight. For steers between 360 to 480 days of age, the Fall 1994 Sire Evaluation shows 8,782 steers in the database with an average carcass weight of 706 pounds and an average ribeye area (REA) of 11.96 square inches. If the yield grade formula for REA relative to carcass weight is used as the industry standard, then these steers are approximately .3 square inches below "average". Similarly, the Fall 1999 Sire Evaluation for the same class of steers shows over 30,000 steers in the database with an average carcass weight of 762 pounds and average REA of 12.43 square inches, which is .5 square inches below the yield grade formula average. Ribeye area per unit of carcass weight has decreased by over .25 square inches in the last 5 years, the very period of time where selection emphasis for carcass traits has been unprecedented.

In the same issue of the Angus Journal, Bob Long's "Beef Logic" criticizes breeders for not using EPD's to select for leaner cattle. While most agree that on the average Angus cattle need to be leaner at harvest, leanness at harvest is a MANAGEMENT issue, not a genetic one. Virtually any and all cattle can be Yield Grade (YG) 1's or YG 5's, depending on when they are harvested. Maturity patterns affect the rate of backfat deposition, (late maturing cattle deposit fat much slower than early maturing cattle) which presents both a possible bias favoring late maturing cattle and problems in adjusting to a constant age. For example, 4 frame cattle and 8 frame cattle cannot deposit fat at the same chronological rate, so why are they adjusted as if they are the same? Selecting for negative Fat Thickness (FT) EPD's will indirectly select for big framed, late maturing cattle--the exact opposite genetics needed to produce females that are functionally adapted to forage programs. A sort of the Fall 1999 Sire Evaluation for bulls that are +1.3" Yearling Height EPD and higher with FT accuracies of .5 and higher finds 24 sires. Nineteen of those are negative for FT, 2 are zero, leaving only three that are positive. This demonstrates an inverse relationship that is highly correlated between FT and frame size. In other words, as frame size goes up, fat thickness goes down. These problems are only magnified when late maturing cattle are slow growth, and early maturing cattle are high growth.

Angus breeders already have excellent growth EPD's to describe performance. We do not need performance confusing the description of carcass traits. Breeders almost universally praise the decision to offer carcass EPD's based on ultrasound data. Since most cattle can be measured for frame size when scanned, more accurate formulas can be written to adjust to constant fat thickness based on maturity patterns. Additionally and more importantly, breeders need carcass EPD's adjusted to a fat constant basis which would provide a more powerful tool to more accurately describe and select for carcass traits.


The Value of Hip Height EPD's
It seems that most of the EPD categories have had their day in the sun--birthweight, growth, milk, and marbling have all been the subject of single trait selection. However, what may be the most important EPD is often ignored-the one that measures frame size--Hip Height!

Nearly all practical cattlemen agree that there are two areas cattle must "fit":

1.) Breeding cattle must fit their environment, and
2.) Market cattle must fit the box.

Cattle that fit both criteria will be in demand in the future whereas breeding cattle that are too big to function in their forage environment and market cattle that are too small or too big for the box will be discounted. (Many breeders need to remember that cattle with length, muscle, and skeletal width don't need to be big-framed to fit the box.)

While improving weaning and yearling EPD's are goals most breeders share, care must be taken not to concurrently select for excessive frame size. Large Hip Height EPD's can indicate:

1.) Big-framed, late maturing cattle with excessive mature size, and
2.) Skeletal structure that is too straight and predisposed to soundness problems.

Both of these are detrimental to selecting replacement females. Yet, there is a place in the purebred industry for the production of bigger framed high-growth bulls that can help maximize production efficiency when mated to smaller framed cows. However, commercial breeders must take care because these gains in efficiency can be lost if "bigger" replacements are retained and then compounded if these females are mated back to big-framed bulls.

We find that five and six frame cattle work best in our programs. Consequently, we refrain from using bulls whose progeny frequently exceed these frame scores. We believe that breeders need to recognize the range in frame size necessary for both market cattle to fit the industry's "box" and breeding cattle to fit their respective environments in a least-cost manner. Cattlemen must then select for performance and other traits within these parameters of optimum size.


The Heritability of Fertility

I am thrilled to read about the studies at Colorado State, which show fertility in cattle to be more highly heritable than previously thought. Some of Colorado's more recent work suggests the heritability could be 20%. I think that figure is low but nevertheless, it is encouraging that the academic community is revisiting this question given the economic importance of annual production and longevity to cow-calf profits.

Over the years, I have heard many presentations on the importance of particular traits to the economic return to cow-calf production. Fertility always ranks first and rightfully so. As any self- respecting cowboy knows--more calves means more money. But the speakers usually claim that the heritability of fertility is low (less than 10%). Hence, they suggest that selecting for fertility will result in negligible improvements only.

This less than 10% figure comes from the appropriate referenced "literature". It has been cited so often by so many that it is nearly blasphemous to suggest it is wrong. However, our own real world experience indicates the contrary. I have pointed out to a number of professors and breed officials that we observe large differences among cow families in pregnancy particularly when following families over several generations. I also suggested there was plenty of evidence to show differences in daughters of one sire compared to another and those differences among sires should be quantified and published in the sire summary. My observations have almost always been met with the same curt response: "The literature shows...fertility is lowly heritable."

I have two cow families that clearly demonstrate fertility is at least moderately heritable. For the purpose of illustration, I'll call them Juanita and Madeline. Juanita raised four calves including three daughters before she was culled for being open. These three daughters combined to produce eight granddaughters and six great-granddaughters. We attempted to breed all of these descendants but six remained open as heifers and were culled. Of those that did breed, only one female raised more than four calves. The average number of calves raised by the Juanita family was two! Although we sold a few members of this cow family as bred females, most were culled due to non-pregnancy. Consequently, this cow family no longer exists in our herd.

In comparison, Madeline raised fourteen calves including six daughters before being culled at the age of sixteen. Although she was bred at the time, we thought her too thin to last another year. Her descendants continue to increase in numbers and include thirteen granddaughters and eighteen great-granddaughters and numerous great, great-granddaughters. Only one heifer has failed to breed out of thirty-seven produced to date. It is interesting to note the record of the first Madeline female born in each subsequent generation. The first daughter raised ten calves before being culled for losing her eleventh in a flood. The first granddaughter has her twelfth calf at side. The first great-granddaughter has her ninth calf at side.

I don't think any rational or logical person can explain away such bipolar results as 90% environment and 10% heritability. It has been accepted for far too long that one could not make significant progress selecting for fertility. So I applaud the efforts by some in the beef industry to formulate an EPD that can predict the most important economic trait. That done, the industry can indeed let the "literature" show...


Genes Don't Read Ads
A number of breeders have told us that calves sired by bulls purchased from us are better than their AI sired calves. We are not surprised. Genes don't read ads, people do. And when breeding decisions are being made, many cattlemen are confused because of the large number of sires from which to choose.

Semen salesmen can help, but the easy path followed by most semen peddlers is to aggressively promote bulls based on whichever single trait is most in favor at the moment. But because of the faults many of these sires possess, following this path can lead to generation after generation of corrective matings. The difficult path to follow is identifying and breeding to bulls that are balanced in the economically important traits and have the genetic merit to make a lasting contribution to a cowherd.

We have traveled tens of thousands of miles and spent the last 20 years identifying superior genetics and breeding to use in our own cowherds. The gene pool we have assembled is deep. Consequently, both our females and herd bulls reflect our commitment to breeding cattle with lasting genetic meritócattle selected for multiple traits that are problem-free, maternally-oriented, and high performing Angus with heavy muscle and fleshing ability.

Powerful promotion campaigns and conventional wisdom can and do help sell cattle, in the short run. However, when the smoke clears, success or failure will be determined by the genetic merit of the cowherd that the breeder assembles.


Don Benner
Benfield Angus
Deerfield, Virginia
Bobby Grove
White Ridge Angus
Somerville, Virginia

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