Terminal or Maternal? Where are you headed?
There is no doubt that there are two camps in the Angus world today. There have been for a while. Sometimes we can’t see what’s happening as the change has been gradual.
For around 30 years, cattle producers all over the world, have been joining their cowherds to terminal sires in an attempt to capture some heterosis (hybrid vigor).
This practice became very popular from the 80’s onwards by crossbreeding with the “new breeds” that were becoming popular, like Simmental and Charolais etc. The traditional bos taurus herds, that were common in Australia, at the time were Angus, Hereford, and Shorthorn. These cattle tended to be moderate, easy doing cattle that were fertile and could raise a good calf under tough
Within the pure breeders there was also a change. The Angus cattle got bigger and harder doing. Breeders tried to compete with the Euro breeds and ended up creating the same type of terminal animal. Cattlemen and women were hunting for more frame, improved growth rates, weight, and more carcase. There was an expectation that these new improved animals would also have better feed efficiency and improved carcase quality. This really was not the case. We became willing to accept animals that had a higher feed intake to keep their motors running to capacity. So, what did we do? We just adapted and ran less cattle and accepted the empties and finishing issues.
The improved carcass quality that we were expecting came with more meat and less fat. So, we ended up with more yield but less quality. A poorer eating experience. I have always said “Soft cattle, soft beef” and I will stand by this. In addition, these leaner animals had less ability to handle tougher environmental conditions.
The problems with keeping terminal replacements
The original concept of terminal mating was to mate a moderate cow to a larger breed bull and gain some hybrid vigor and a better price for the resulting bigger offspring. This worked well on that generation of cow, but her daughter, who was retained in the herd was marginally bigger than her, and subsequently her daughter was also kept, and the frame creep began with associated problems of a terminal heifer calving. The result was weaning weights increased, but so did cow size and milking requirements.
The industry got pretty used to the big cow. We loved the big weaners and refused to recognise that maternal traits: conception rates, maintenance, environmental adaptation and the increased milk production and large frame were very expensive to maintain. With the gap slowly widening, from the moderate cow to the bigger terminal cow, we actually forgot how low maintenance the traditional cow was.
Just add Marbling
Marbling has been the other catch cry that our industry has embraced. We are fortunate that the Angus breed have a good degree of natural marbling within the genetics to start with. The problems start when the phenotype of the animal is disregarded at the expense of carcase and marbling.
There is a definite antagonism between marbling and external fat and consequently, doing ability. Animals selected for marbling exclusively will start to exhibit wagyu characteristics, we’ve all seen them. No back end, harder doing types, high flanked and narrow. They will fatten, but it takes a lot of resources. These types are the reason the feedlotters are now out to 250 plus days on feed to finish and pick up that extra score of marbling. Who wins here?
Losing our on-farm performance traits to terminal sires.
The constant upwards pressure on carcase, size and milk production affects all of the crucial maternal traits: conception rates, maintenance, environmental adaptation and calving ease.
In other words, we threw out the key profit driving traits in search of a terminal carcase.
There were a few decades in the Angus world where we just got used to the tall, leggy, slab sided and lean sire bulls we had to choose from. It’s amazing what we get used to! Every year the demand for “heifer bulls” is growing, why? I would hazard to say that it’s a direct fall out from terminal sires. Angus cattle used to be known for ease of calving.
Seeing for ourselves.
We ended up travelling to the USA to see for ourselves in the late 90’s. We needed to see if the sires in the genetics catalogues were all that was actually there. What we found was enlightening, the USA were a few steps ahead of Australia and had turned the corner.
The breeders who didn’t deviate from the maternal, low maintenance cow were still there. Actually, there were great cow herds who were doing both the maternal and terminal breeding who hadn’t lost their valuable cows.
The tide has turned we believe and at Eaglehawk we have stuck out our necks again to say that the genetic changes that have occurred since the 80’s have not necessarily been an improvement to the Angus breed.
The losses on farm directly caused by using terminal sires has been a direct cost carried by the producer.
BALANCE IS THE KEY
We need to always improve our on-farm efficiency plus keep on the pulse of the beef consumption sector, they are the reason we are here, after all. We are falling short on key maternal traits, and these will become something we must reinstate as our society demands more efficient production with less environmental impact. Combining farm efficiency and cost effectiveness to breed a soft, tender eating experience doesn’t have to be that hard. We have lost on the per capita meat consumption to chicken, lamb and pork by focusing on things like big growth.
We need to do all of this without sacrificing reproductive and feed efficiency and consider the traits that matter.
We must remember that terminal sires were intended for use where both male and female progeny were sold for consumption. Let’s not forget that.
A couple of interesting reads to get you thinking.