Experts Evaluate Genetics in Grass-Fed Beef, Dairy

1/25/2014 7:00 AM
By Katelyn Parsons D.C. Correspondent

COLLEGE PARK, Md. — There has been lots of research done lately on genetics and reproduction in pasture-based beef cattle and dairy production systems. Some experts think that by pairing management tools with research on genetics, grass-fed producers can formulate strategies and create business plans that will create profitability.

The role of genetics in the grass-fed cattle industry was one of many workshops held during Future Harvest CASA’s Farming for Profit Stewardship Conference Jan. 17-18 at the University of Maryland in College Park.

Future Harvest CASA is a network of farmers, agricultural professionals, landowners and consumers living and working in the Chesapeake region. The organization promotes what it describes as profitable, environmentally sound and socially acceptable food and farming systems that work to sustain communities.

“Grass-fed cattle is a different kind of paradigm,” said Steve Washburn, Extension specialist and researcher in the department of animal science at North Carolina State University.

Studies have shown that nearly one in five consumers, or about 20 percent, have shown a preference for grass-fed beef. Grass-fed beef has been a niche market in the U.S. But the question was raised: Is there a key element to improve consumer acceptability of grass-fed beef?

According to John Comerford, retired beef Extension educator at Penn State, the most important factor in consumer acceptability studies has been shear force, also known as tenderness.

“Tenderness comes from genetics, animal age, processing, storage, cooking and more,” Comerford said. “All kinds of things can influence this. But one of the biggest predictors we found has been age.”

Grass-fed animals that are marketed under the age of 20 months generally receive a higher score for tenderness.

“For producers, this means that spring-born calves should not be kept for a second winter,” he said. “Effectively this means grass-fed beef producers need to be selecting for growth traits.”

Comerford said the most profitable operations have been based on animals that are heavier when sold and use less and/or cheaper land.

Sire selection is also key element when thinking about marketing goals.

“You should select your sires to fit your marketing needs and your cows to fit your environments,” he said. “In seven generations of a closed herd, 90 percent of the genetics will be from your sires, making your sire selection very important.”

When selecting a sire, Comerford said producers should utilize expected progeny difference, or EPD, data to make their selection.

“While breed differences can be important in your marketing plan, you must remember breed doesn’t always mean the same thing in the meat business as it does to you,” he said. “For example, in the meat business, Angus only means the cattle are 75-percent black hided. It does not necessarily mean they are the breed Angus.”

Cows should be selected based on calving ease.

“The biggest thing you need to remember when selecting replacement heifers is that they have to raise a calf for you to receive a check,” he said. “Therefore, traits like low birth weight, milk and other production traits should be the most important when you purchase these.”

Genetics in grass-fed beef is more than just about selecting a breed; it is about selecting the animals that will be most profitable for your business.

“Your units of profitability in grass-fed beef is pounds of beef, per unit of land,” he said. “The same thing goes in pasture-based dairy production. You use pounds of milk per acre of land to determine your units of profitability.”

In the past 20 years, much work has been done regarding pasture-based dairy systems and the most effective genetics for them. Fertility and reproductive traits are the ones producers should be selecting, according to Washburn.

Seasonal calving is usually practiced in pasture-based dairies. This type of situation takes more management since cows must be bred in an eight- to 12-week period.

“Pasture-based herds typically have higher conception rates than confinement-based operations,” Washburn said. “Typically estrus in these herds last 18 hours and breeding is accomplished with a combination of artificial insemination and natural servicing.”

However, this eight- to 12-week period is crucial so that the cows aren’t calving year-round. To help raise fertility, Washburn suggests crossbreeding.

“Crossbreeding can help improve a pasture-based dairy system,” he said. “If you use a three-breed cross, you can have favorable traits in your herd from three different breeds that complement each other.”

One of the more common crosses that Washburn discussed was the Jersey-Holstein cross.

“One problem with the Holsteins is that they have been selected for solely on milk,” he said. “This has caused some bulls that had low daughter fertility to be used extensively, which lead to low rebreeding rates following first calving.”

It’s one reason why Washburn recommends a three-breed cross between the Holstein, Jersey and another high-fertility dairy breed.

“There has been a bias against crossbreeding,” he said. “Crossbreeding has been practiced in many species, including beef cattle, for years. As long as there is enough information available, any favorable traits a breed can bring to your herd is worth considering.”

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