Line Breeding for Better Livestock
By Matt Comerford, Comerford Farm, LaGrange, Ga.
I am often asked by people what is the best breed of cattle or sheep or pig or chicken to get started with for direct marketing. While I do have my favorites I do not think there is a definite answer for any of the species. My answer is to find a person in your area who is raising animals in a way that is similar to your end goal and start there. If you find this person they more than likely will be using a good breed of animal but more importantly will have culled and selected for animals that thrive in their area.
To simplify this article I will only discuss cattle but most of the same principles I am going to discuss with cattle can be used with other species as well. Let me define line breeding and why I believe it is a useful tool for creating environmentally adapted cattle.
Line breeding has many definitions but can be defined simply as breeding animals to common ancestors and can be practiced to varying degrees. Line breeding happens around us every day in nature. Think about deer, rabbits, trees, squirrels and raccoons, rarely do these animals or plants go to another state or visit an online dating service to find a mate. The strong, fast, most dominant males breed the females. Very often a father may breed his daughter or his sister or even his mother. We think this is a very bad idea and are grossly disgusted as humans but the raccoon doesn’t really care.
Line breeding is a tool that can be used to concentrate genetics. When implemented it brings the problems to the surface by concentrating the genetics of the animals. In cattle this is not a problem because if animals are born that are not desirable they can be slaughtered, euthanized or sold. Being from Alabama I am fairly familiar with hearing the old jokes about kissing cousins and their descendants. In cattle, bringing problems to the surface is a Good thing!
Going back to nature, if a father squirrel breeds several of his daughters and some of the animals are born with impaired vision, these animals will die….discontinuing this gene. The squirrels from the father that do not have this impaired vision will pass on the GOOD genetics of the father squirrel. If the father had never been bred to his daughters, this bad gene may have gone undetected for several generations but since it was concentrated the bad gene was eliminated.
Line breeding is how real genetic progress is made in cattle. In most herds the owner is constantly bringing in new genetics from off the farm. This constantly changes the genetics of the animals and makes them very heterozygous (remember that from high school, two different alleles for each chromosome). Heterozygous animals produce very inconsistent offspring because there is so much variation within their genetic makeup, breed heterozygous animals to other highly heterozygous animals and who knows what you will wind up with? Why does that matter?
The end goal I believe is to produce a herd where as the great Roy Beebe said, “we make the rest better”. I for one do not want a herd with an awesome upper 10%, average 75% and terrible 15%. I want a consistent herd, 100% highly profitable animals. Animals who are ALL adapted and therefore profitable in their environment and all of their offspring are carbon copies of them!
There are several herds in the U.S that have been line breeding for many years, my favorite was probably the late Roy Beebe’s herd. As people we tend to overcomplicate things, simplification is often the quickest answer to our end goal. Here is a simple guide to breeding profitable cattle by Roy Beebe.
Roy Beebe’s Six Rules to Environmentally Adapted Breeding
1. Each year, eliminate any cow that fails to calve trouble free or wean a calf.
2. Select replacement heifers from cows that breed early in the breeding season and calve unassisted.
3. Keep the bred heifers that breed early in the breeding season and calve unassisted.
4. Select herd sires with acceptable birth weights from highest-producing females in #1 & #3.
5. Breed the bulls in #4 to the females in #2 & #3 and continue to practice #1.
6. Do not engage your cattle in any activity or program that interferes or compromises rules #1 through #5.
(I would suggest if you have any type of livestock that you keep these six rules somewhere they can been seen and visited on a regular basis to remind you to cull animals that do not work in YOUR environment.)
Beebe’s six rules create a very simple summary of how to create a herd of profitable cattle, cull the ones that don’t work for YOUR environment and concentrate the genetics of the animals that do! Culling for reproduction is probably the best way to eliminate non profitable cattle. When an animal is not adapted to their environment and they need more, the first function to stop working is reproduction. Reproductive culling eliminates animals that are high maintenance, poor fertility, slow growing, late maturing, high birthweights, poor endocrine function etc, all characteristics that require adding supplements and time (money) to help the animal function. All of these poor doing characteristics cost YOU money and lower your profitability and enjoyment.
By culling we have eliminated the problem animals, now we need to concentrate the genetics of the good animals through line breeding and also by not bringing in a great deal of new genetics that are not adapted to our environment.
There are several herds in the U.S that have been closed(do not bring in new/outside animals from off the farm) for many years, the longest running closed herd that I am aware of in the U.S, and maybe the world is Jim Lents Horned Hereford herd. This herd has been closed since the mid 1800s if my mind serves me correctly. This herd is very impressive and very, very consistent. They are consistent because they have all been bred in one direction without changing course for over 100 years! These animals are adapted to their environment and more importantly, consistently produce predictable offspring that are adapted to their environment. Lents’ herd is an extreme example as most of us will never have the opportunity to manage a herd of cattle that have been line bred for 120 years but we can start our own herd today through culling and line breeding.
If you are just starting today find someone near you who has cattle that require little to no inputs and has been reproductive culling for a few generations. Buy bulls and females from this person until you are able to have cattle that are adapted to your environment and then follow Beebe’s six rules. If you already have cattle, print out Beebe’s six rules and apply them!
Line breeding is a tool and if used right can be a very powerful and beneficial tool to help you build a profitable herd of cattle that works for you instead of the other way around. Line breeding is not the answer or goal; it is a very important part of the entire equation. Have fun and make em’ profitable.