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One of Erika's breathtaking photos from our Kentucky trip. This stallion, named Hard Spun, was 2nd in the Kentucky Derby in his racing career!

Outside of the cattle business, perhaps my biggest interest since I was a little boy is the sport of horse racing. As an adult, the breeding and sales side of the industry moreso garners my attention. When Erika and I traveled to Kentucky in October, we experienced both the racing and breeding pieces. We spent a day at the races at Keeneland Racecourse and toured two of the leading breeding operations in the country. We got to meet two Kentucky Derby winners and several other leading stallions. For this post, I’m going to highlight some of the major differences we learned in breeding Thoroughbreds compared to breeding beef cattle.

- No advanced reproductive technology. To register a foal with The Jockey Club (the governing body for Thoroughbred racing), the mare must have been naturally bred by the stallion. With the need for natural mating, mares are closely monitored for when they are in season to be bred, being ultrasounded often to determine when the peak time for conception will be (and scheduling a breeding appointment at the stallion facility). These matings are not an “open the gate” type deal, either. Both stallion and mare are closely monitored and prepped for biosecurity and horse safety before entering specially designed breeding barns. With million-dollar creatures involved, no detail is left unattended.

- To get to the breeding barn is a different process as well, more like applying to college than planning cattle matings! Farms with a roster of stallions set the “stud fees” for the roster in the fall prior to spring breeding season. These fees range from $5,000 to $200,000 on the farms we toured. Mare owners submit their mares to consideration for stallions they feel would fit their mare and their budget. Then, the team at the stallion farm reviews applications to select which mares are accepted to visit each of their studs that spring, as most stallions have a set number of mares they will breed in a season. Mare owners do not have to pay the stud fee until the mare delivers a live foal that stands up and nurses the following year.

- Sales season is quite different. The pace and atmosphere at a Thoroughbred auction are more subdued, but the dollars being bid are serious money! You will see more coats and ties on the sales staff than cowboy hats. Catalog styling is different as well (no pictures, only production records printed). When sales results are reported, the Thoroughbred industry is more transparent with their “no sales”. The major sales report a percentage of horses that “RNA”, meaning Reserve Not Attained, and you can find individual animal results after the sale (including the horses who were RNA and what their reserve price was).

With those major differences, there are plenty of similarities. Marketing is very important to get the best mares bred to your stallion, and results at the yearling sales can make or break a stallion’s career, much like a new AI bull. There’s no guarantee that the hot young prospect will be the breed’s next great sire, either. While the criteria and information available may be different between our cow herd and a Thoroughbred operation, the goal remains the same: to breed the best animals possible with available resources. It would be cool if we as cattlemen got to delay the payment on semen until the live calves were on the ground, though!

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In the professional baseball world, the war room is where team executives, coaches, and scouts gather for the annual draft to decide which amateur players will join their organizations. Why the war room? Maybe it’s the pressure of the situation to pick the right players to build a future winning team, or maybe it’s because disagreements and hostility when not everyone believes in the same prospect to add to the team.

Last month, we stepped into our own war room for the cattle operation. Erika and I have discussed the desire to add more Hereford genetics to our herd, both to build a commercial baldy female program and to have a registered set of cows to keep me sane and occupied. When Stacie Buzanowski called me to let me know their entire bred heifer group would be for sale due to drought, I saw the opportunity to add a couple nice pieces to build on. My wife saw it differently. In her words, “If we’re going to do this and you’re going out to look at them, we might as well load a trailer, not just buy a couple.” I knew already, but this confirmed that I found the right woman.

The chance to pick a set of bred heifers from a breeding program you’ve long admired is exciting, yet also a bit nerve wracking. I hope I don’t get this opportunity again (because I hope it rains in Arthur, NE next summer), so I really wanted to get it right. Let me take you inside our war room on what led to the selection of eight heifers to join the Hereford herd at MRW.

- Pre-trip scouting: Once I had the registration numbers of all the heifers, I tore the AHA database apart studying. Pedigrees, dam’s production records, her dam’s production records, and EPDs were all added to a spreadsheet that looked like it should be in some Wall Street bank instead of a farm office in southwest Iowa. I wanted to add females that had phenotypic quality, with strong production records behind them from their dam and granddams. Through that study, I had several heifers marked to pay extra attention to when I got to Snowshoe.

- The drive out: While traveling I-80 across Nebraska, I talked to several friends and trusted cattlemen, getting their thoughts and wisdom on what they valued most when they bought sets of females in the past. To trim 25 head down to 8 was a little daunting, so learning from others’ past experiences was certainly beneficial.

- In-person scouting: On the ranch, the first stop was the bred heifer pen to see the offering. I studied and took notes, mainly marking females at this point that I didn’t think were fits for us. Then we toured all the cow-calf pairs, this time noting which cows really stood out as the kind of cows we want to have in our herd. This drive through all the pairs cemented some of their daughters in the heifer pen as high priorities. Another trip to the heifer pasture to mark down some favorites and enjoy the sunset ended the scouting mission.

- Draft day: When I got home, my list was still longer than we have room for in the heifer pasture. So, I sat down with my spreadsheet, my pasture notes, my phone (for pictures), and my wife to whittle this shortlist of 13 down to the 8 we wanted to bring to Adair. I left the ranch confident of four selections, leaving four spots to fill and more than four heifers on the list! Then, we took the mindset of “who to cut out” instead of “who to pick”. After erasing a couple later calvers, one that didn’t pass photo inspection, and then two more that didn’t have as strong of production in the females behind them, we found ourselves with a list of eight. When that list was done, I was really pleased with which heifers were still there from a phenotypic standpoint, added the daughters of some of my favorite cows in their herd, and had granddams behind these heifers that produced to an average age of 11. Needless to say, I was pleased!

- Now, we wait: Thankfully, the girls passed visual inspection and Erika did not put them back on the truck when they got to Adair. Much like drafting a first round pitcher, the impact of the heifer selections won’t be known until a couple years down the road. We will get a glimpse next February and March when they calve for the first time, but it will be a few years before we really know which ones will pan out as herd building females. Even with all the studying done, it’s still a bit of a crapshoot on these girls. We’re looking forward to seeing which of these girls help turn our herd into a winner down the road!

Some of the new draftees on a beautiful night in Nebraska

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  • Writer's pictureMatt Woolfolk

This month, I decided to recycle an article that I penned for the July 22 issue of the "Shorthorn Country" magazine. The ASA is celebrating their 150th anniversary, and the July issue is a great issue that will be referenced to celebrate the breed for years to come. While you may not be a Shorthorn diehard, my thoughts in this article can easily apply to any breed of cattle you wish to support. Enjoy the read, albeit longer than usual!

"Looking Back, Moving Forward"

It's amazing to think how Shorthorn cattle have been on our continent even long before the formation of what became ASA in 1872. The master breeders and families who dedicated their lives to developing and improving the Shorthorn in the United Kingdom before the cattle arrived in colonial America would be amazed at what they could see now.

As with everything else, genetic selection has changed within the Shorthorn breed over those years since the cattle landed on our shores. Tri-purpose cattle of the early days helped build colonial America with meat, milk, and power. As the country moved west, survival was an important selection criterion of passing on your genetics. As our commercial cattle industry was born in the western United States, bulls of all kinds were turned loose on the range to improve the Longhorn cattle of the region. Shorthorns were the leaders in this movement, arriving and dominating the western terrain long before the Hereford and Angus cattle. With harsh conditions and a lack of modern animal well-being technology, only the strong survived to pass on their lineage.

As time marches on and cattle breeders became more studious of their craft, confirmation and pedigree became the means for choosing the next generation of breeding stock. Linebreeding and the adage of “breed the best to the best” dominated the era. Using the best tools they had at their disposal (pedigrees, their eye, stockmanship and intuition), the early American Shorthorn enthusiasts kept the breed thriving.

Over time, more tools were incorporated into breeding cattle to fit the needs of the commercial industry. Weights and measures became a means to quantify the performance of Shorthorn cattle. The evolution of performance testing into bull test stations and cattle improvement organizations brought a scientific and competitive avenue to beef improvement. In a visit I had with legendary cattle breeder Dave Nichols, he told me a story of his youth when he read a Shorthorn pamphlet titled “Best in Every Weigh”. Dave recalled using the information in that pamphlet to craft his FFA public speaking presentation that went on to achieve national recognition. He’s built a cattle breeding legacy around performance-tested selection in his breeding program. Weights, heights, gains, and conversions all became a part of many breeders’ philosophies to make Shorthorns better.

We’ve seen many type changes in the cattle industry over the prior century and a half. From big to small, belt buckle to framey, extreme to extreme and back to the middle, cattle producers have tried it all! I hope today we are closer to “correct” than ever before, and that in 50 years, my grandkids don’t look back and wonder what I was thinking when they see pictures of my cattle today.

The performance data collected by breeders became used in the tabulation of early breeding value statistics, which turned into what we now know as EPDs. The ability to compare genetics from across the land, backed by data and pedigree relationship, changed the game once again. We started with the essential basic traits of weights and milk, and since then, have developed a plethora of EPDs to aid in selection for longevity, carcass merit, calving ease, and across our industry, traits such as feet quality, feed efficiency, udder quality, and heifer pregnancy rate are now backed by these tools as well.

The genesis of genetic testing added another amazing layer to what we do as cattle breeders. The ability to identify a genetic condition carrier seems elementary now, but at the time it was a huge development. Parentage testing to help us maintain correct pedigrees in the herd book is often overlooked for its impact. And now, the incorporation of genetic markers to determine an animal’s merits for traits of importance (via genomically enhanced EPDs) takes our capabilities to another level.

While much has changed in our quest to make genetic progress over time, it will be interesting to see what tool is at our disposal next. Whole-genome sequence technology is on the horizon. Gene editing has become a popular topic among industry leaders. Or the next breakthrough that is most helpful to cattle breeders may not even be discussed yet. It will be fun to look back and see the continued growth of cattle breeding as we continue forward.

Even with all the tools we have available today, there are lessons to be learned from every great breeder and era that came before us. It’s still important to remember that the key to passing on genetics is surviving to pass them on, as a reminder to be good stewards and managers of these creatures. Breeding the best bulls you have access to (regardless of your goals) to the best cows you can assemble is still a great way of making a better calf crop. We just have more tools at our disposal to develop the opinion of what is “best”. Weights and measures on the cattle we raise are still paramount, as they are the fuel that makes the engine that is our EPD calculations run better. And as technology emerges, we need to listen with an open mind and determine if it can be beneficial to our goal of efficiently and profitably producing better Shorthorn cattle.

While some may argue “our predecessors didn’t have weights and EPDs and DNA to breed great cattle”, I’d wager that if those leading cattle breeders of years ago were in the Shorthorn business today, they would be selling cattle with full slates of performance data and genomic tests, while also combining their astute evaluation and stockmanship to breed cattle that would lead this breed in 2022, just like they did in 1872, 1902, or 1952. Leaders in their era would likely be leaders in any era, due to their forward thinking and desire for greatness.

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