Our Journey as Producers of Fleckvieh Simmental Cattle.

Archive for July, 2011

The Virtue of Patience

I will be the first to admit that I am not a patient person.  It might not be totally my fault – I think to some extent society has changed.  Take sports for example – we have progressed from getting our box scores from the morning newspaper, to watching highlights at the top of the hour on the 24 hours cable sports channel, and now we get it on demand, as soon as it happens, on the internet.  When we used to vacation, we’d go to see Jeanne’s Grandpa in Nova Scotia – he of no TV, let alone internet.  The first 48 hours were a bit of a withdrawal – you couldn’t just get up and ‘check things out’ on the ‘net, you had to be patient and wait for the next mornings’ paper.  Once you were there for a few days, it became a lot easier, but those first few days were tough!    I hope the same trend follows for me in the cattle business – maybe after a few more years, I’ll  be more patient!

It is always so exciting to put together a genetic mating – the hard part is waiting to see how it turns out. It takes nine months from breeding to calving, then six months to weaning, and six months of development to a yearling.   And even then, as a yearling, genetics are just getting started.  For bulls, it is another year until you see their calf crop (and then a year after that to see how those calves develop).  For heifers, it can be even longer – it is said that a Fleckvieh cow doesn’t hit her stride until age 5 or 6!  That’s at least 7 years since she was conceived!  That is a long time to wait in a world where we want answers instantly.

The commercialization of DNA and genomics into the beef herd does have the potential to accelerate the process, but a lot of other factors such as feet, temperament and milking ability need time in order to be evaluated.  These can represent ‘checkpoints’ along the way to evaluate potential, and where animals rank within your own herd.  The bottom end cattle always need to be cleaned up, and replaced with something that has at least the potential to be better.  If we are doing our jobs right as cattle breeders, then a cow should produce a better offspring, so the herd should gradually improve.  The challenge, of course, is ensuring that the offspring are indeed better than the parents, an assessment that is not always that easy to make – at least in less than 7 years!

Needless to say, maybe I should have chosen a passion in life other than cattle – it is certainly a career totally at odds with today’s instant availability of information.  But maybe, just as importantly, cattle are a steady reminder that the best things in life take a little patience – as well as some effort; some attention to detail.  Accentuating the importance of taking a longer term approach in life as opposed to instant results.  Maybe purebred cattle are really just doing me a favour; re-emphasizing patience, in a world that has got seemingly so fast, so full, and reminding me to sit back and relax a little.   Maybe a little patience is not such a bad thing after-all.

The Great Halter-Break

Jeanne with 2010's APLX Ensign 2X

So, I married a city girl. Well, I guess not technically a city girl.  Jeanne grew up on 10 acres just south of Hamilton, on Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula.  There was just enough land for a cow, a couple of horses, and all the pets (dogs, cats, rabbits and a hamster) that a house full of three tom-girl daughters could handle.  With Jeanne’s and her family’s involvement in the military, her life revolved substantially around the armouries in Hamilton, and she always seemed quite at home navigating the one-way streets of the downtown core.  A ‘farm’ girl to her city friends, but a ‘city’ girl compared to where I was from, she has always been a unique blend of urban smarts with country calm.

Jeanne’s love of nature and the environment led her to the University of Guelph, where we met.  We studied topics about as diverse as you could get and still be ‘Aggies’ – Jeanne in Environmental Biology, and myself in Agricultural Business. They grouped all of the first year agriculture students in one big common ‘Agriculture’ course and, through luck of the draw, we ended up being in a lab group together.  One thing led to another and, somewhere between my volunteering to cook her breakfast if she would finish typing our final group report on a Saturday morning, and becoming couple-number-two on the class square-dance set, a partnership was formed that has now lasted almost 20 years.

When we started Applecross, Jeanne was convinced that a portion of her summer off from teaching school should be spent halter-breaking calves – the thought being that with both of us working full-time, there was more time in the summer to train cattle than immediately prior to the sale.  While Jeanne has been around Fleckvieh cattle since we met, she had never actively worked them. I was a 4-H’r all the way up (it was a 4-H interprovincial exchange to Alberta in 1991 that first piqued my interest in farming here some day), and had spent a lot of the summers of my teens preparing my 4-H heifer for our fall achievement days, and the fall shows.  Jeanne, however, had none of this experience, but she was quite keen to give it a go.  Armed with the assistance of our vacationing eight year old nephew (also a city boy), and a 16 year old neighbouring farm girl (who is a dance student of Jeanne’s), she started the task in August of 2010 to spend three weeks prepping bull calves.

Last summer, the primary focus was APLX Ensign 2X. We thought he was a really good calf, and we were hoping to display him at Transcon’s National Trust Bull Expo.  This was our first public display so we wanted to do a really good job with him, as we have always thought that first impressions mean a lot – not only for Ensign, but also for Applecross and establishing our reputation as a breeder. While Jeanne worked with all the bulls, Ensign did receive some extra attention – he was the one that would be showcased in two months, and we wanted him to be ready.

Needless to say, we were quite pleased with how things turned out, both in compliments and observations at the event itself, and in how Ensign eventually sold in March’s Red Deer bull sale. Pam Langer first saw Ensign at the Trust, so it was easy to relate their March purchase back to his original display last October. While we know there won’t always be this definitive link between the two; it was great to experience a direct correlation between our original promotional/marketing efforts and the final results. We definitely plan on displaying at the National Trust Bull Expo again in 2011.

Now summer once more, Jeanne has enthusiastically decided to halter-break calves again. She is starting earlier (July vs. August), so that the calves will be 100lbs lighter and thus a little easier to (wo)man-handle. She will have her trusty assistants available to help at least some of the time, and we look forward to continuing our efforts to turn our now nine year old nephew into a farm boy.  Jeanne has even decided to learn how to clip this summer (thanks to some encouragement from ‘Becca Beechinor), in order to complete the full fitting experience for future sales events. Not that  I am concerned, but I figure that, worst-case scenario, by practicing in the summer at least the hair will grow back prior to the bulls needing to be showcased. We might have some funny looking cattle in the pasture for a few weeks, but there is only one way to learn (4-H’s ‘learn to do by doing’ motto sure stands the test of time). And hey, it has been almost 20 years since I clipped in 4-H, so it is not like I am a seasoned expert, either.

So, as we start on season two of the great halter break today, I thought it fitting to talk a bit about Jeanne and her efforts that go on behind the scenes; getting cattle ready.  Applecross is a partnership in the truest sense of the word, and while we both have specific roles that we work best in, together we are definitely more than just the sum of our parts. Here is to Jeanne – nose to nose with an opportunity and desire to learn a new skill, taking that plunge, and then coming back for more in year two.  It is always wonderful and astounding that she wants to be actively and enthusiastically involved in this crazy passion of mine called Fleckvieh cattle.

Genomics and DNA – Yes We Test

Every year, about the 2nd week-end in June, we vaccinate the cow herd.  The timing usually matches two weeks since they were put to grass, which allows them to ‘get a little more solid’ when working behind them.  For the last two years, we have also taken the opportunity to collect DNA hair samples for genomic testing.  In 2010 we profiled our entire cow herd and a portion of our calf crop; leaving just our top 2011 calves (and any purchaseslast fall) to be done this year.   Our testing is all done through Merial’s Igenity Profile.

We got started in genomic testing in large part due to my parents operation.   Dad has been an advocate of DNA profiling for a number of years, and we have debated the merits of this new technology many times.  The introduction of Igenity’s RFI test for feed efficiency in late 2008 was the tipping point.  We always thought that Fleckvieh’s were highly efficient cattle, but outside of a complicated and expensive research trial, there was no way to quantify how much feed each animal consumed.   Pasture is pasture, bunk space is bunk space – does a bossy cow who gets there first, eats her fill and goes and lays down eat more than another cow that might get there last, but eat all day?  Which one needs less feed?  Thanks to genomics, those animals with a genetic pre-disposition to be efficient, can
be readily identified.

In today’s world of volatile markets and razor thin margins, the best agricultural producers aren’t maximizing their revenue stream, they know their costs in order to maximize their efficiency: it isn’t the top line gross sales figure that matters – it is the cash left over at the end of the day that is important.  This is an important distinction. (And a discussion topic that should merit a future post all to itself).  That is why I think the RFI test has the most value when used in conjunction with Average Daily Gain.  A highly efficient animal that doesn’t gain, may not be any better off than one who both eats and gains.  The best of both worlds, are the animals that eat less but still put on the pounds.

From an industry supply chain perspective, in my mind, our business works like this: Purebred breeders supply genetically superior bulls to cow-calf operators, who in-turn multiply those genetics into calves that go to backgrounders or direct to the feedlot. If feed represents 85-90% of all expenses to feedlot operators,  then they should be prepared to pay a premium for calves that can be documented to be highly feed efficient.  This translates into higher returns for the cow-calf producer, and in theory higher bull prices.  Even if revenues aren’t consistently higher, the efficiency gains on feed for each stakeholder should bump net returns.

I think the long term potential of being able to genetically reproduce more feed efficient cattle is tremendous – but at the same time, I don’t discount the importance of physical traits.  It is often said that a beef cow doesn’t generate profit for her owner until she is 5 or 6 – the thought being, that with thin profit margins, the first several calves just make up for the costs of developing the cow in the first place.   So if you aren’t going to make a profit off the first few calves, then the cow has to last long enough – that means sound feet and legs, a balanced udder, the ability to breed back every year, and a decent disposition – all traits that are difficult to evaluate from a DNA spreadsheet.

So, at the end of day, I think it is a balance between the two – recognize the importance and value of genomics and DNA testing, and utilize it in addition to the traditional methods of evaluating cattle. In a perfect world selecting for a combination of low feed requirements, high gain, while still maintaining a balance of strong maternal and physical traits will lead to superior breeding stock, an improved animal, and more money in everyone’s pocket.   Genomic technology is new enough that it will certainly evolve over the years (and we are really pleased with the recent CSA research announcement), but we already feel it is an important part of our evaluation tool kit, and one we look forward to utilizing on an expanded basis in the future.