Herd Makeover

The Wow Cows

Victoria G Myers
By  Victoria G. Myers , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
Transforming this cow herd to reduced frame size and higher weaning weights has been a team effort, including (left to right) Tommy Yankey, Les Anderson, Jeff Lehmkuhler and producer Mike Wilson. (DTN/Progressive Farmer photo by Jeanie Adams-Smith)

Mike Wilson's cows have that "wow" factor. It's a description straight from the mouth of his county Extension agent Tommy Yankey. The agent said Wilson's herd stands out, not just in terms of the data, but phenotypically. Good udders, wonderful feet, great personalities. Most notably these girls have lost a little weight -- on average 500 pounds each.

This commercial Angus-cross herd is in its seventh year of transition, said Wilson, who farms in Anderson County, Kentucky. His is one of 90 herds statewide to participate in the University of Kentucky Beef Integrated Resource Management Program (UK-IRM). Administered through the Kentucky Beef Network and the Agricultural Development Board, UK-IRM emphasizes improved genetics through the use of artificial insemination (AI) and correct bull selection.


A set of purebred Simmental cows helped Wilson start his cow herd in 2004. Within five years, average, mature cow size was 1,825 pounds. Weaning weights averaged 550 pounds per calf.

"Those cows could eat a lot of groceries," said Wilson. A plan was put in place to help downsize cows, while increasing weaning weights using AI and tailored sire selection. Wilson kept replacement heifers to help him moderate frame size in the 45- to 50-head cow herd.

"We brought mature weights down to an average of 1,265 pounds on a mature cow -- that's around 500 pounds less. We increased weaning weights by 100 pounds per calf to 650 pounds. I've got less cow to feed and more calf to sell."

Bull selection was tailored to location and feed availability. Yankey, who is working with 17 participating herds this year, explained that in the western part of the county where Wilson farms, the limestone-based soils aren't deep. Pastures are primarily Kentucky 31 Tall Fescue, interseeded with ladino clover. Some are also drilled with red clover and orchardgrass. Producers feed hay over the winter and they don't need cows that are at the top of their breed in terms of EPDs for milk. So the team focused on genetics that could help moderate frame size and allow cows to maintain body condition when forages were limited.


"We typically have six categories of traits we are looking at when we select bulls," said Yankey. "Those include heifer acceptable or calving ease, balanced trait, carcass merit, high productivity, low maintenance and terminal bulls.

"As a general rule our producers will select for calving ease. Most of them are concerned with getting a calf on the ground where they don't have to assist, and they don't mind giving up a few pounds to do that."

Les Anderson, University of Kentucky Extension beef specialist, said the initial goal with Wilson's herd was to organize a three-breed crossbreeding system to maximize heterosis and improve cow productivity.

"We chose Angus, Hereford and Simmental, with the focus on sires that would complement each other, match the environment and hit our marketing endpoints. We really don't stress any particular trait, but we try to use bulls that are balanced and maternally oriented."

A producer's marketing endpoint should always be a factor in decisions about where a herd is headed genetically, added Anderson. As a general rule he bases genetic decisions on environmental factors (feed and labor) and marketing endpoint, more than calving ease.

"Are you marketing at weaning or after a backgrounding phase? Are you selling replacement heifers? Are you maintaining ownership and marketing on the rail? Each endpoint dictates traits that work best. Here in Kentucky, about 95% of our cattlemen sell post weaning or after a short backgrounding phase. Some market replacement heifers. So we tend to emphasize maternal traits and the ability to wean effectively."

Anderson added that reproductive traits, probably the most important as far as revenue, are also lowly heritable.

"There are not many EPDs to help us select for reproductive efficiency," he explained. "We use indexes like Weaned Calf Value [$W] from the American Angus Association, Baldy Maternal Index [BMI$] from the American Hereford Association and All-Purpose Index [API] from the American Simmental Association to guide us.

"These indexes are designed to help select for maternal performance, so you can choose an index that emphasizes weaned calf value or feedlot value. That allows you to base trait selection on your individual marketing plan."


Producers in Kentucky are increasing use of AI, partly due to opportunity created from a program built with tobacco settlement funds. The fund is managed by the Kentucky Governor's Office of Agricultural Policy and has pumped more than $425 million into county, regional and state projects designed to increase net farm income and create sustainable new farm-based business enterprises in the past 15 years.

"That program has been a real godsend for Kentucky. It is what really first started us advancing our cattle herd," said Yankey. He said there are 10 programs available to qualified farmers, each of whom can receive up to $5,000 for purchase of bulls, semen, corral panels, handling facilities, scales and a host of other things. In addition, the funds help the state provide educational programs for cattle operators including: Cow College, Master Cattleman, Applied Master Cattleman, Master Grazer, Advanced Stocker and Master Marketer.


Wilson has taken advantage of almost all of the cattle improvement programs in his state, some more than once. He's added scales to his operation to be able to record accurate weaning and sales weights. And with the big improvements in his herd, he is planning to start marketing replacement heifers.

In addition to larger calves and replacement-quality heifers, Wilson said he has reduced the amount of hay he feeds. He can't give an exact savings, but points out that estimating 3% intake based on body weight per day, a 1,825-pound cow would eat 54.75 pounds of hay; whereas a 1,200-pound cow would eat 36 pounds of hay.

One more savings fell into place for Wilson, thanks to his AI program. He took a leap and got rid of the clean-up bull. He is going 100% AI and has committed to as many as three trips through the chute if that's what it takes for the cows and heifers to conceive. The producer does all the estrus synchronization work for the timed inseminations, and Anderson AIs the herd. Conception rates have hit as high as 82%, and as low as 69%. Typically they average around 75%.


Victoria Myers