Designer Cows

Working Toward the Ideal Cow

John Maddux said he and his dad, Jack, are fans of crossbred cattle and hybrid vigor. They select for docility, fertility and longevity. (DTN/Progressive Farmer photo by Heidi Anderson)

John Maddux knows what he likes to see in a cow herd. He's had a lot of time to think about his ideal cow over the years. The first two words that come to mind are low input and the rest of the genetic equation follows from there.

Before he came back to Wauneta, Neb., to follow in the footsteps of his family members, Maddux spent some time on Wall Street as a bond trader at Goldman Sachs. Developing that business mindset was key in helping him work out a detailed management plan for the ranch.

"When I purchased 2S Ranch about 10 years ago, my dad, Jack, and I had a plan to develop a low-input cow, an ideal cow," Maddux said. "Dad is a third-generation Maddux family rancher at Wauneta. We're fans of crossbred cattle and hybrid vigor."

Maddux and his dad decided on Red Angus females as their breed base. They added genetics from other breeds to bring together a broad range of traits desirable in their region. Maddux said it's easier and more efficient to improve genetics by combining breeds than by selecting for traits within breeds.

MINING GENETIC DATA

As they worked toward their ideal cow, the Madduxes used research data from the Meat Animal Research Center's (MARC) Germplasm Evaluation project to select five breeds with characteristics they felt best fit the environment and complemented each other. They relied on both AI (artificial insemination) and natural service to build a composite.

"We wanted highly maternal cows," John said. "Our cattle are 3/8 Red Angus, 1/4 Tarentaise, 1/8 South Devon, 1/8 Devon and 1/8 Red Poll. Our goal is females that mature at 1,150 pounds, have a frame score of 5 or less and have fault-free udders." They also select for docility, fertility, longevity and polled cattle. Their cattle have pigment on the eye and udder, fleshing ability, calving ease and modest early growth and milk.

"We don't believe high growth and milk output is necessarily desirable in our system because that requires additional feed and maintenance for cows," Maddux explained. "Because we retain calves to run on grass as yearlings, high growth isn't necessary."

THE MANAGEMENT SIDE

After focusing on refining the genetic side of their cow herd, the Madduxes follow through with close management of breeding and calving. Only cows that conceive in the first 45-day breeding season stay in the herd. Late calvers are sold every year.

"That results in uniform calves and less labor," Maddux said. "It helps us maintain a high-fertility herd."

This is a spring-calving herd, April and May. By this time of the year, pastures are greening up and daily temperatures are more consistent. Calves not kept as replacements are carried over as yearlings and come off grass at 900 pounds.

Even in Nebraska, these cattlemen have a year-round grazing plan. "We graze 365 days a year, using grass in the summer and corn stalks in the winter," Maddux said. "Because a lot of corn is grown in our area, we have adequate access to grazing crop residue. In severe weather, we feed hay and some type of supplement. In southwest Nebraska, season-long snow cover is the exception, not the rule. The last time we fed any stored feeds to our cows was in 2007."

To keep their herd at its best, the Madduxes evaluate cows each fall and assign them to one of two herds -- the elite or the terminal. The elite herd is made up of the cows that epitomize the genetic traits the Madduxes strive to produce. This is the herd that produces all replacement heifers and bulls. Calves from the terminal herd are carried over as yearlings but are not seedstock.

"Each year, when breeding season ends, our yearling bulls are castrated and fed out," Maddux said. "That eliminates feeding and managing bulls over winter. We sell them for steer prices rather than cull prices."

Maddux pointed out the system is unique to them and he said when feed prices are high, it's not a good fit for everyone.

"This system works well for us. But the key to successful beef production is developing an operation matched to each individual environment and resources."

Editor's Note: For more about Maddux Cattle Company and its composite, visit www.madduxcattle.com.

(VM/CZ)