NY Beef Producer Shares Tips on Building a Good Herd

10/26/2013 7:00 AM
By Chris Torres Regional Editor

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Selling bulls is big business for Trowbridge Farms in Ghent, N.Y.

In fact, the farm has become nationally known as a place to get high-quality Angus cattle.

But for owner Phil Trowbridge, it doesn’t matter if it’s Angus or any other cattle breed. Building a good quality herd starts with answering a simple question: “You want to ask yourself, what do you want the bull to do other than breed cows? Something that will go to the feedlot, or a bull to be used on heifers to limit dystocia issues?”

Whatever the reason, finding a bull that will do everything extremely well is difficult to come by. “So you have to decide what’s going to work in your herd. What you really need,” he told a group of people gathered at the recent Keystone International Livestock Expo in Harrisburg, Pa.

Trowbridge, who was elected president and chairman of the American Angus Association Board of Directors last December, runs his family’s farm, which has been in operation since 1954.

“It was founded by my dad and we’ve always had high-quality Angus cattle,” he said.

While he makes most of his business selling cattle, he spent the better part of an hour going through things he thinks producers should look at when selecting bulls.

“Determine what type of animal is profitable to produce. You can be organic, grass-fed, traditional, whatever it is, I encourage you to look at genetics that fit for you appropriate thing,” he said, adding that genetics can be a useful tool for producers looking to improve certain things such as feet, legs, udder quality or calving ease.

“The most important part of a bull is his mother. When you get right down to it, if they’re not out of a really good female, they are probably not going to reproduce consistently,” he said. “But on the other hand, the most important part of the herd is a bull. His genetics are going to effect the majority of your herd in a very short period of time.”

When it comes to bulls, Trowbridge said one of the most important things to look at is its serving capacity, which he said can be gleaned by just looking at the size of the testicles. He spoke of the experience he had with a bull that had small testicles. Trowbridge said that while the bull produced a lot of good semen by the time it was 11 months old, it’s ability to breed cows was greatly diminished by its small size.

“If you have a bull with small testicles, he’ll get on the cows, but the daughters may not breed back the way you want them to. Really pay attention to that,” he said.

Understanding expected progeny difference, or EPDs, has become a key tool for producers trying to develop a good herd. But Trowbridge thinks producers should start with a good evaluation of the bull or heifer.

“If you start at the ground and the first thing you see you don’t like, kill it. Just stop. Don’t go any further,” he said. “I expect a cow to last 10 to 12 years. If they last five or six, we’re in trouble.

“The most costly part of that animal’s life is the first two years. You have to pay a lot of expenses and no income. So if they have bad feet, get rid of it. Structure is very heritable,” he added.

Understanding the gene pool where an animal comes from, he said, is important so producers know they are selecting the best cattle they can afford.

Things such as birth weight and marbling, he said, are complicated inheritable traits and might need a little more study before making any decision on an animal. Other things, such as reproduction, don’t pass well to the next generation. But growth and carcass quality do.

“If you’re going to finish cattle, concentrate on carcass numbers along with growth, because you can have great carcass numbers, but if they only have 600-pound carcasses, you’re not going to be happy,” he said.

When it comes EPDs, Trowbridge thinks producers should study them closely, since it’s one of the best ways to measure cattle and to figure out what will work best for a herd. And while they can be used for across-the-board comparisons between animals of the same breed — since you’re taking an animal’s environment out of the picture — he doesn’t think they’re quite as effective at comparing animals on different farms.

“You can use them across the board, but actual performance data, you have to use it in a contemporary group,” he said.

When it comes to his own farm, for instance, all of his bulls are born and raised in the same place, which he thinks makes it easy to figure out who the “pretenders” are.

Keeping good records on animals, he said, has also been a key to his success. Trowbridge scores each of his bulls every 30 days from the time they are weaned to when they are sold. Everything from the animal’s disposition to its feet and legs, as well as its scrotal circumference, total weight gain and weight gain per day, is measured.

“Without genetically superior parents, no herd improvements are made in the next generation. My goal every year is to get better,” he said. “We take the bottom out of our cow herd every year. If you buy a bull that doesn’t do what you expect, get rid of him. It’s pretty simple.”


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8/27/2014 | Last Updated: 7:01 PM