Selection: A Force for Change

April 27, 2009


769: a two year old heifer with her first calf; nursing, just twenty minutes after being born unassisted.  Observe her maternal instinct as she licks her calf.  She is undisturbed by my taking of her picture a few yards away.  Anyone who has raised cattle knows that it isn’t always this easy.  The following post will explain how we select for these traits.


Selection:  “A natural or artificial process that results or tends to result in the survival and propagation of some individuals or organisms but not of others with the result that the inherited traits of the survivors are perpetuated.”  Webster’s

A geneticist has a powerful tool with which to change a population:  Selection.  A herd is a moving population of genetics.  The selection decisions each farmer makes will determine the future of his/her herd.

I just had a revelation.  Selection is also what changes our personal lives.  The choices we make determine to a large extent the content and quality of our life.  Do I put as much thought and effort into personal life decisions as I do in selection decisions for my herd?  How about you?  Do you map out your life, or does it just happen to you?

“The best way to predict the future is to create it.”  Peter Drucker


My parents went on a bull-buying trip to Leland Red Angus Ranch in North Dakota. They purchased three bulls for $7,650.  Most farmers don’t spend over $1,500 on a bull.  Why are we willing to spend more?

In many respects we are frugal farmers.  We don’t own any one piece of machinery worth $7,650.  Why would we spend that much on bulls?  Simple, we understand and value the tremendous genetic contribution a bull, (herdsire), makes in a herd.

Our cowherd consists of 135 cows and 5 bulls.  A bull has 27 times the genetic impact of a cow in our herd, (135 divided by 5).  Some may argue that we should spend more on our bulls.  The cost is ancillary.  Finding the right bull for our herd is the main thing.  How do we know which bull is “right” for our herd?

I will explain which selection factors are important to us and how we choose a herdsire.  We have simplified our selection criteria into four main factors and in this order of importance:

1.  Disposition/Appearance

2.  Calving ease

3.  Fertility

4.  Maternal Soundness

If these four criteria are successfully met, we will start to look at other factors such as growth and carcass traits to choose between two similar bulls.  This is probably opposite of most in the cattle industry.  Growth and carcass traits usually receive top merit and our four criteria receive much less selection weight. 

Why is this so?  Have you heard the golf saying, “drive for show and putt for dough?”  What this refers to is most golfers want to impress their buddies with a super-long drive and will spend much of their time practicing that aspect of their game.  Analytical golfers know that the club that takes the most strokes is the putter, and any improvement there will have the greatest effect on reducing their scores.  But putting isn’t sexy.

In the cattle industry, most people want to wean big calves and brag to their buddies about the awesome growth of their cattle.  Unfortunately, growth is negatively correlated with percent calf crop.  Percent calf crop, (the number of calves weaned compared to the number of cows in a herd), is the number one production parameter by far when predicting profitability.  But percent calf crop isn’t sexy.

Selection criteria that will affect percent calf crop are: calving ease, fertility, and maternal soundness.  A cow needs to have a live calf, successfully raise the calf until weaning, breed and have a calf next year.  That is why we select for these three traits.

Why is disposition/appearance on the top of our selection criteria?  It is a convenience trait.  A convenience trait is something that makes life easier. 

We like to have a calm setting when we work with our cattle.  It’s better for the people and better for the animals.  Much of that can be accomplished with excellent animal handling and we always strive to approach our animals with patience.

But disposition is also highly heritable.  We make our life easier by maintaining a genetically calm herd. 

Appearance is also subjectively evaluated at the same time as disposition.  We want to raise animals we enjoy observing.  This may seem silly and unscientific, but I suspect years of observing cattle causes us to favor functional cattle over unbalanced cattle.

Now you know what we select for in our cattle.  How do we select?

The first selection is the selection of a breed.  Choose a breed based on its strengths, what it’s known for.  Red Angus is known for calving ease, fertility, good mothers, marbling.

The next selection is the selection of a herd.  We want to buy bulls from a breeder that has similar philosophies and management as us.  Like most people, we also prefer to buy from someone we like and trust.  It’s important to visit the farm and meet the producers and see the cattle before the sale to alleviate time crunch.  We make farm and ranch visits a part of our vacations.  Producers are always happy to take a couple of hours to show you around their place.  My parents and I have each visited Leland Red Angus on separate occasions.

Now we come to bull selection.  Disposition, our most important trait, has to be evaluated in person.  We approach a bull and observe his behavior.  Disposition is a pass/fail trait.  The bull should quietly walk away from you as you come closer.  This would be a pass.  He fails if he runs away with his head up in the air; too flighty.  He also fails if he holds his ground or approaches while shaking his head.  This is aggressive and dangerous behavior which will only get worse as he gets older.

We have experienced one other type of behavior in the Red Angus breed which is worth noting.  The ultra-quiet bull will not exhibit any aggressive behavior; but will not walk away when approached.  We thought this was a positive and selected two bulls in the past like this.  We now classify this behavior as a fail.  The reason?  Each of these bulls turned aggressive after a few years.  We think it’s because they failed to respect us.  Disposition can be taken too far.  Animals can be too quiet.  What about our other traits?

Fortunately, calving ease, fertility, and maternal soundness cannot be selected to an unhealthy extreme, unlike most traits.  We are striving for 100% success in each of these traits.  How do we select for these traits?

Maternal soundness is the ability of a cow to take care of her calf.  She has mothering instinct.  She has enough milk for her calf to grow well.  Yet she doesn’t give so much milk that her udder begins to lose form and her calf has a difficult time nursing on a too-large teat for the first time.

Selection for this trait can be done two ways.  Make sure the herd you are selecting from doesn’t make excuses for a cow that fails to wean a calf.  They should have a philosophy of culling problem cows.  And observe the cows and specifically the mothers of the bulls you are thinking of buying.

Calving ease and fertility are best selected by using modern genetic evaluation programs.  The Red Angus breed has a genetic evaluation tool called EPDs, Expected Progeny Differences.  EPDs show the relative genetic merit of an individual within a breed.  The easiest way to use EPDs is to look up the breed percentile rankings for the EPD for each trait you are selecting for, and then determine how well you want your herdsires to rank.

Fertility is expressed with an EPD called Stayability.  Stayability predicts the odds that a cow will have a calf every year until at least the age of six.  The Red Angus breed used the age of six because economic research shows that this is the age when a cow begins to show a profit.

Calving ease is expressed in two ways:  calving ease direct and calving ease maternal.  Calving ease direct predicts the odds that a bull’s progeny will be born unassisted.  Calving ease maternal predicts the odds that a bull’s daughter will have her first calf unassisted.

Based on experience and availability, I wanted bulls that ranked in the top 40% of the breed for these three traits.  Leland Red Angus sends out a sale catalog before their sale with all of this information and more.  I went through the catalog and found 45 bulls that met my criteria out of 153 bulls available. 

My parents drove to Leland’s and evaluated the 45 bulls before the sale.  They eliminated some based on appearance and disposition.  The bulls that would work for us they assigned a relative value in dollars to guide our purchase during the sale.

They ended up purchasing bulls 41, 118, and 145.  I calculated the average EPD’s for the three bulls they purchased and congratulated them on a job well-done.  The three bulls averaged in the top 15% of the breed for calving ease direct, top 10% for calving ease maternal, and top 20% for stayability.  Because of selection, our future looks bright!

Genetics or Environment?

April 5, 2009

I sold showpigs to 4-H and FFA students this past week.  Showing swine is near and dear to me as I probably wouldn’t be farming today if it weren’t for showing swine.  Striving to improve on my placing at the Lafayette County Fair caused me to begin my life-long study of genetics and improvement of livestock through selection.  Check out “How I Became a Swine Seedstock Supplier.”

Our swine show is an excellent learning opportunity.  Showpigs are weighed and identified in April.  The maximum weight was 88 lbs. on Saturday. 

The students then have the responsibility of caring for the swine until the show in July.  After the show, each student is allowed to sell one showpig in the livestock auction.  Local businesses support the students by purchasing a pig or other species of livestock.  Prices are usually above market price so the students are almost guaranteed to make money on their livestock project.  Students are also required to keep production and financial records on their livestock project.  Students learn responsibility, accounting, and marketing skills all in one fun project.

Not everyone is successful, however.  There is a minimum weight, (220 lbs.), to sell in the livestock auction.  This requires an average daily gain of about 1.5 lbs per day, (170 lbs. of gain in 113 days).  This is not difficult to accomplish with today’s swine.  However, to achieve this average daily gain, a pig needs clean feed and water, shelter, shade, and a way to cool off, (sprinkler or wallow), when it gets hot.  If a student fails to provide these ingredients every day, he/she may find his/her pig is too light to sell at the auction.  Another great learning experience.

One family had never purchased from me before.  I helped them deliberate whether a smaller pig, (46 lbs.), would be big enough by fair-time.  They asked me how well my pigs gain weight.  I told them average because I was more interested in what their pigs have weighed at the fair in the past.  I asked this because it’s been my experience that families tend to have similar experiences from year to year even though the pigs are different.  Some families always bring 300 lb. pigs to the fair.  Other families always struggle to make the minimum weight.

This is easily explained because average daily gain is only moderately heritable.  Heritability is expressed from 0 to 1 with 0 being not heritable and 1 being completely heritable.  Average daily gain in swine is about .3.  This means that 30% of the variation in average daily gain is due to genetics. 

What causes the other 70%?  Environment!  That explains why the people managing the pigs are a much greater factor than the genetics of the pigs.

The family decided to take the smaller showpig.  I will let you know how they did after the fair in July.

What are you blaming genetics for?  Could your environment be a greater factor?

How I Became a Swine Seedstock Supplier

January 26, 2009

In Brief

Numerous, monumental failures followed by modest success.

In Detail

I was exposed to hog shows at an early age. I remember hearing people talk about the “barrel” show and wondering why people would show “barrels”. It took me a few years to realize “barrow” was what they were actually saying. Barrow is a castrated male hog in case you don’t know.

Before I was old enough to show hogs, (10 years), my cousin and I would pretend to show hogs. One of us would get on his hands and knees and the other one would walk him around the living room floor. Its no wonder then that the first year I was able to actually show a hog I won showmanship.

I was also interested in the genetic aspect of swine. My Dad would give his old purebred journals to me. My cousin and I would go through the magazines such as “The Spotted News” and alternately divvy up the boars and gilts pictured in the breeder’s ads. We would cut out the picture of the hog we wanted and add it to our “herd” in a cigar box.

My favorite breed was the black and white belted Hampshire. I would wait anxiously for the breed’s magazine, “The Hampshire Herdsman”, to arrive. Then I would read and reread, getting a sense of who had the prominent boars in the breed and what direction, genetically speaking, the breed was going. The biggest issue every year was the July Herdsire edition. I remember taking that to school on a day when we had all-day standardized testing. I would rush through my tests and then pull it out and start reading. My teachers questioned this practice, but didn’t stop me. It was probably too weird for them to object.

It wasn’t long after starting to show my Dad’s crossbred hogs that I realized I wanted hogs of my own. And I wanted a purebred Hampshire. My parents and I went to an auction held by a prominent Wisconsin breeder. This was about 1983 and I was 13 years old. I did my own bidding and bought a purebred Hampshire gilt for $300. That was a lot of money back then and most of my savings. The auctioneer stopped the sale and said when he was my age he bought a motorcycle and he wished he would have bought a Hampshire gilt. Well I wished I would have bought a motorcycle. We took that gilt home and turned her in with our Hampshire boar and she wouldn’t breed. We even tried other boars. All she did was get fat. Well the gilt was sold as a breeding gilt so I could have gotten a refund or a replacement but I was too shy to ask for it and I guess my Dad was too. We took the gilt to market and I took a huge loss.

In a couple of years I had saved up enough money to try again. This time I decided to try my second favorite breed, the Duroc. And I was also determined to buy two. It seems like bad luck to buy one animal on our farm. So I went to a prominent Wisconsin Duroc breeder and bought two purebred Duroc bred gilts and a purebred Duroc boar. I wasn’t going to mess around with trying to get them bred this time. Well they came along pretty nice but about a week before they were supposed to farrow, one had several dead piglets and the other had 4 weak, live piglets and some more dead piglets. The one gilt managed to save her 4 piglets. But they were never very good. When I tried to breed the gilts to the Duroc boar I realized the boar was a non-breeder. Again, my attempt to establish a purebred herd of swine was thwarted.

All this time I continued to show my Dad’s hogs. These hogs were good, profitable, hogs. But they were not blue ribbon winners. So I decided to try to improve the genetics of this large herd.

I scoured the breed magazines looking for a herd with genetics that stood out. At this time in the 80’s most purebred breeders had decided to select hogs that were more stout made. This resulted in short, fat, light-muscled hogs. I found a Hampshire breeder in Iowa, though, that had not gone with this fad. He continued to raise lean, muscular hogs. I asked Dad if we could get a couple of boars from this herd and he agreed. We did, and they were everything we hoped they would be. We started improving our swine herd. Every other year we would go back and buy more boars. I never won our county swine show. But by the 90’s, when I was too old to show, my sisters were getting blue ribbons and winning the show regularly.

In the 90’s, corporate hog buyers decided that the majority of hogs were too fat and they were going to give an incentive for farmers to raise leaner hogs. They devised a system, (grade and yield), whereby hogs were individually measured for quality and paid accordingly. Farmers could see they needed to improve their hogs rapidly if they were to remain competitive. So, many of them decided to buy improved boars and improved gilts rather than wait for the slower genetic change if they had just used improved boars.

Local farmers could see for themselves that we had improved hogs and began to ask to buy our gilts. So, in the early 90’s we sold over 200 gilts per year at a $50 premium over market price. I could see monetary benefit from having improved genetics.

But I still wanted my own purebred herd. So, when I was in college at Iowa State I contacted a prominent Hampshire breeder from Nebraska. He sold me 4 purebred gilts for $400 each. I bred them to one of our boars and was surprised when one of the litters produced a genetic anomaly.

In many mammals, including people and swine, the males of the species undergo a peculiar process in embryonic development. The testes, which begin in the abdominal cavity, descend through the inguinal canal if all goes normally. If the opening is too big, the intestines will also come through the hole and you will have a hernia, which we call a rupture in swine. If the opening is too small, the teste will not be able to descend through the canal and it will appear to be absent. We call this a cryptorchid in swine.

Now I always thought these two conditions were on opposite ends of the genetic spectrum. So, imagine my surprise when each of these conditions was present in two different boars in the same litter. I had purchased a genetic mine field. Evaluation of their offspring also determined they weren’t nearly as good as my Dad’s herd. So, after a couple of years I terminated this herd.

In my last year of college I knew I wanted to come home to the farm and raise and sell boars. One of my college buddies had the inside scoop on an excellent purebred herd in Indiana. They raised Yorkshires and Landrace which were white breeds I hadn’t tried yet. Through my friend’s help I purchased two Yorkshire boars and four Landrace gilts. The white breeds are known for being more maternally productive and these proved true to form.

This was August, 1994. I had also seen enough in the industry to know that Artifical Insemination, (AI), was the future. I informed my father that we would no longer be buying boars but would instead introduce new genetics through purchased boar semen. He was skeptical, but it worked. We have stuck with this program and it has helped us keep our swine herd health very stable. We have never had any of the major hog diseases such as Psuedorabies, PRRS, or Circcovirus.

I had assembled some excellent hogs and had access to excellent genetics through AI. I wanted to use the four major breeds because I felt each offered something. The white breeds, Yorkshire and Landrace were superior maternally. The colored breeds, Duroc and Hampshire were superior for meat and gain and added durability for outdoor production. But how could I use these genetics to produce boars that Wisconsin producers needed?

I asked my dad for advice. He said to cross a colored breed with a white breed and sell the resulting offspring. Like all great ideas it had to go through a process. First, I ridiculed the idea. This is just not done in the industry. Second, I thought others would ridicule us. Third, I realized it was a great idea and would work beautifully.

My seedstock business is called Oak Grove Swine. I began to sell Oak Grove Red boars, (Duroc-Landrace), and Oak Grove Blue boars, (Hampshire-Yorkshire). Farmers would buy a Red boar one year, then buy a Blue boar the next year to breed to the Red boar’s offspring. This program could go on forever. It was very simple, yet utilized the hybrid vigor from four breeds. Plus, the durability of the colored breeds was balanced with the maternal abilities of the white breeds.

I began to sell 40 – 50 boars a year from 1995 on. If each boar sired 250 hogs, Oak Grove genetics were a part of maybe 150,000 hogs in the last 14 years. I achieved my boyhood dream of becoming a swine seedstock supplier.

What’s next for Oak Grove Swine? I will detail my vision for the future in a post to come soon.