When Alan Kelley was a boy, his father bought him a handful of purebred Brahman cows. One was accidentally bred and produced a Simmental-sired heifer calf. It was the beginning of a new way of thinking about herd genetics.
"She was a great cow," recalled the Kenansville, Florida, cattleman. "She had over 12 calves and just never missed. She could be poor, we could have rough weather, good weather, all of it. She had a bunch of good heifers we kept an eye on, too."
Lessons learned from that cow, along with research by top-notch animal science professors at the University of Florida, stuck with Kelley. It's why today he's 20 years into a three-breed cross made up of Red Angus, Hereford, and Brahman.
"You're keeping a cow with a very high percent of heterosis, and as you're breeding her back to other breeds, you're keeping a calf with a very high percent heterosis," he explains. "We're lucky in the way God created these things. Because when you create heterosis, you cover bad traits, and you keep the good traits. So, you have animal health, vigor, heat tolerance, carcass quality, all of those things (thanks to heterosis)."
Retired Auburn University animal scientist Lisa Kriese-Anderson agrees, adding that in a planned crossbreeding system, the good traits of one breed can mask bad traits of another. That improves the weaker traits in both breeds. This is known as "breed complementarity."
In Kelley's herd, she said Brahmans bring longevity, heat tolerance, superior mothering ability, and growth. The Herefords and Red Angus contribute muscling and carcass quality. And because the three breeds are so different, the boost in hybrid vigor is especially strong.
Kriese-Anderson explained, "In the end, planned crossbreeding systems with breed complementarity produce offspring that should outperform the average of either parent."
BEAUTY IN THE DIFFERENCES
No surprise, calves from Kelley's 1,500-cow herd at Kenansville Cattle Co. are not consistent in color. There are no more than a handful of blacks, a fact that concerned Kelley when he and other ranchers created Florida Heritage Beef (FHB) in 2013.
These ranchers sell their calves as a group to enhance marketability, and they sell directly to feedlots. After a couple of years of feeding Kelley's calves, one feedlot manager told the rancher he didn't care what color the cattle were as long as he kept sending them. To ensure nothing but high-value animals make the trip to those feedlots, Kelley even adds a fourth breed to his FHB herd.
At around 45 to 60 days into a 90-day breeding season, he pulls the Brahman bulls and replaces them with Charolais for a terminal cross.
"Come fall, our least-valuable animal is a lightweight Brahman steer and a lightweight Brahman heifer. So, you need those Brahman steers to be the same age, the same size, the same type to go to the feedlots," he said.
The bull switch also means Kelley can quickly spot those heifer calves conceived later in the breeding season, which he marks for feeder heifers rather than as potential replacements.
HEALTHIER ANIMALS, FEWER INPUTS
Actual feedlot and carcass quality data varies year to year. But, for starters, he points out, these hardy cattle live. Death losses occasionally creep up to 2%, but they are usually lower -- and that is with no preconditioning, including weaning.
Weaning calves in the summer in central and south Florida is a nightmare between the heat, humidity, muck, and bugs. So, these calves are truck-weaned, as are most of the FHB calves.
Early on, feedlot managers voiced concerns about the practice, but they quickly found out these calves thrive. While genetics plays a big role in that, Kelley stresses that before shipping in July, he makes sure all of his calves have had at least two rounds of vaccinations. And whether it is a trip to the pens for castration, deworming and vaccinations, or shipping, low-stress handling is a top priority here. Kelley insists that calves are worked quickly and quietly. At shipping, timing really does matter, the rancher added.
"You don't just take a calf and put it on a truck at 5 in the afternoon in July and hope for the best," he said. "We want every truck out of here by 10:30 a.m. That way they're not buckling from heat stress."
Wendy Kelley, Alan's wife, added, "Most of the time, they're gone by 9."
GAINS AND QUALITY STAND STRONG
Once these Florida cattle are in a feedyard, which can be from Texas to Colorado, Kelley said they feed out competitively. On average, with a Brahman-cross animal, the gain may not be as high as other breeds, but it's an efficient gain.
With quality grades, once again, it varies. In 2018, when Florida experienced a severe drought, Kelley shipped calves to a growyard before they went to the feedlot. Around 85% graded Choice. The next year's calves were conceived in the same drought, and fetal programming was all too evident. Choice grades dipped to 50%.
Kelley added that cattle prices and feed costs can also play a role in how calves grade, noting that if the feedlot manager is trying to hurry them through, they don't grade as well. Still, on average, Wendy Kelley added, their three-breed rotation averages 75% Choice most years.
BEST BULLS FOR THE JOB
No matter what the breed, Kelley said he focuses on the ability to grade, the ability to marble, and the ability to produce less outside fat when he's buying bulls. He conscientiously studies carcass EPDs but added he doesn't lose sight that it all starts with the female. So, breeding back on time every year, weaning a 600- to 650-pound calf and doing it efficiently is key. That's no short order in Florida's climate.
But the females from this three-breed cross do that. Kelley said heifers average around a 90% conception rate, and mature cows are at 92%.
"On cows, I've been up as high as 95% conception rate, but I spent too much to get there. I've been lower than 90% and not spent enough. For me, the sweet spot for my cows is 92%. Then, I feel like I've done pretty good management-wise." He added, laughing, "I've made them 96%. Let me brag about that one until somebody asks me what my feed bill was."
GENETICS GIVE MANAGEMENT OPTIONS
A meticulous recordkeeper, Kelley said the data led him to tweak his three-breed rotational cross in 2015. He said it showed his predominately Red Angus females had too little Brahman in them.
"Preg rates stayed pretty good, the maternal traits stayed, but (the issue was) winter feed costs and longevity in our brutal environment," he explained. "You can spend 10% less on winter costs on a good Brahman cross cow and still maintain a really high amount of efficiency."
Kelley's solution was to breed back females to Brahman bulls every other cross rather than every third cross. A predominately Red Angus female then winds up being bred to a Brahman bull. Her heifer calf is bred to a Hereford bull, and the resulting heifer is bred to a Brahman bull again.
That leaves Kelley with four distinct types of females, and it gives customers for his replacement heifers more choices. And it gives Kelley what he needs to keep hybrid vigor high and inputs low.
Two years ago, when fertilizer and feed costs skyrocketed, for example, he put his money in fertilizer rather than supplemental feed for a group of Brahman-cross cows.
"Those cows bred at 92%; 90% got pregnant in the first 60 days and weaned 650-pound steers."
He is quick to add that's a risk he wouldn't take most years, even with his heavy Brahman-cross females, but in that case, the moisture was right. "Even then, I think for that mama cow to have supported herself only on the grass I raised without any outside supplementation, it really shows what she can do."
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