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The Genetic Nuts and Bolts of Building a Productive and Consistent Herd/flock
By Dr. Robert Wilson

So, I want to build a herd of docile cattle that maximize my profit and minimizes my inputs.  How do I go about it?  Suppose I have an existing herd that has been managed for years, using the conventional breeding techniques generally recommended by university systems for the past 30 years, and I want to create a consistent herd that has consistency in its output.  How do I go about it?  These are valid questions that we will attempt to answer.

How to choose what breeding program is right for you.

Establishing a breeding program can be a daunting task, and there is no shortage of opinions out there to “guide” you along.  The problem is, that without a clear and well thought out plan of breeding and genetic forethought to further the end result of the cattle, we lose time, money and precious genetic resources with little improvement in the end.  

To help avoid making that all to often repeated mistake, we have come up with a guide to help you the producer, see the results you desire in a timeframe that is acceptable to both your lifetime and your pocketbook.

First, we must begin with formulating the final objective.
What are the features of the cattle that you are desiring?  Every cattle producer must educate himself to proper animal husbandry.  Gearld Fry spent the last 30-40 years of his life educating the public, literally around the world, as to the proper, practical ways to select and view animals.  Start by reading his cattle measurement and selection articles, guidelines and pictures available on bovineengineering.com  If you have not done so, order Gearld’s books on Reproduction and Animal Health, and Reproduction - Low Maintenance -Linear Measuring.  Based on all the wealth of information Gearld has given to us, write down the phenotype of the animal that you are trying to obtain and maintain.  That is the end goal!  Of course, we can re-evaluate that goal as we go along but we must have that ideal in mind as we try to move along our genetic herd building program.  Go back to it frequently to make sure that we do not lose sight of where we are going.  It will help with decisions we will need to make later on.

Separate out the cows.

According to research, most herds of Cattle have at least 10% of good foundational females.  Go through the herd and select those females according to all that you have learned from the education phase of your process.  Divide them along their distinctive phenotypical characteristics.  When you are finished you should have 3-4 different “lines” of cattle that are very similar phenotypically and are from your best females.  These will be your foundational female lines.  This is exactly how most all of the famous purebred herds of cattle were formed.  For example:

The Aberdeen Angus herd was first started by Hugo Watson when he selected the best polled native black cattle from his herd.  He then worked to create a superior bull.  Eventually, he had created several female lines that were paternally dominant genetically.  He started with some great foundational cows.  “Old Granny”,  born in 1824,  lived to be 35 years old and had close to 29 offspring.  She did not die of natural causes.  She was struck by lightning.  That is the kind of cow we need in our herds.
Gearld had this to say about setting up the cow lines based on phenotype:

“The ideal method of success in putting a program together of this nature is to recognize the 3-4 top female bloodlines in your herd or flock, including their daughters. You would A I breed each of them to the same recommended bull. When the progeny heifers are ready for service they would be breed to another recommended bull of the same bloodline, never outcross. The cows and daughters would continue to be bred in the same way. You will be surprised at the quality of a few of the bull calves from these early mating. Use all you possibly can to begin the concentrated gene pools. You will use them. In time, the entire herd of females that exist revolves around these 3-4 female lines. They are the blessing with genetics that was given to us in the creation.  The production, the reproduction, the level of maintenance, the body condition, and the calving difficulties – all the issues that used to destroy us are no longer an issue. The cows become your servant instead of you serving them. I haven't said much about longevity which is the highest economic indicator of a top female line.
At some point, you have to segregate the females, especially at breeding time, for proper genetic mating. Let us name the female blood lines A, B, C and D. If a usable bull calf is born in group A he would be used in B C D never back to his direct kin. If born in D he would be used in A B C, again never on his direct kin (etc.). This way you would most likely not back yourself in a corner.

Maybe you and your neighbor or neighbors would want to work together in an undertaking such as this. Each of you takes the best females bloodlines for the elite mating (including daughters). You may want to make a common herd with these females. You would start the herd with small numbers. What will be surprising is how big a percent of daughters from the beginning females will stay in the elite herd. What also will be surprising is how many sons are born from those elite females that will be usable herd sires. It also reveals to you how many bulls you may have castrated before you knew how to evaluate a bull – those are bulls you did not pay somebody hard-earned or borrowed money for. You have no more than the cost of keeping a cow for a year against the bull. You must remember, I recommend leaving the calves with mom for 10 months given the grass supply is adequate. Also, the type of cow I am describing will get fat and refuse to maintain a pregnancy if she isn't kept busy giving milk and a baby in the incubator 10 out of each 12 months.”  Gearld Fry Genetics and Gene Pools

Obtain the semen you are going to use from a Superior Bull.

Obtain semen from a bull that is a superb bull and that is free from defects.  There are several bulls like this, in a couple of different breeds, still available.  In fact, there are a couple that have never been released before as Gearld was saving them for his own program with the Old World Black cattle that he and I developed.  For a bull to be genetic defect free, he would have to have been genetically tested by DNA probes for each of the defects that are currently known or (like they did before the advent of the DNA probe) he would be bred back to 35 of his own daughters, and if there were no defects then he would be 99.7 percent defect free.  We did it the old-fashioned way.
On this point, I must caution you.  Superb bulls are rare these days.  Follow all of the guidelines for selecting the bulls or obtain semen from someone that you trust to have done that.  Again, refer to the educational books, articles, and videos that Gearld has put together.  Just like Hugo Watson, the founder of the Angus, only registered about 30 or so animals in 35 years, the same is true today as we begin to select those outstanding genetics.  Our advantage over Hugo is that there are some people like Gearld and others who have been doing this for many years ahead of you and laid down the foundation that you can build upon.

What is the difference in how the cattle are bred and why does it matter?

There are three terms that are generally used when referring to most genetic breeding programs.  Those terms are: Inbreeding, Line-breeding, and out-crossing.  It must be admitted that there is a vigorous debate as to the fully accepted definition of each of these terms, but for the sake of this article we will limit it to the accepted Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition, as it stands today, and discuss these three systems and their interrelation to what is recommended to build and maintain a successful, healthy and productive herd or flock.
First the definitions:

Inbreeding: the interbreeding of closely related individuals especially to preserve and fix desirable characters of and to eliminate unfavorable characters from a stock.

Linebreeding: the interbreeding of individuals within a particular line of descent usually to perpetuate desirable characters.

Outcrossing: the interbreeding of individuals or stocks that are relatively unrelated

Let me just say that the goal of the breeding program is to get to the point in which you are Linebreeding and carefully monitoring the lines so that they are constantly improving or maintaining the ideal that you set in the beginning.  Never lose sight of that ideal!

To get there is another story all-together.  Because you are selecting the best cow lines that you have and it is presumed that you do not have a superior bull, it is necessary to buy the semen from a superior bull and introduce him into the herd.  This becomes an outcross.  If you have semen from 3 superior bulls that are closely related then you are very fortunate!!  If not then you can still do it with one but it will require closer inbreeding and quicker expressions of those unfavorable traits that will have to be eaten or sold.

Breed all the cow lines to the Superior bull you have chosen.  Let’s use two paths to take.  First is the Ideal:

You have 2 or 3 superior bulls.  Father, Brother, Son.

  1. Breed the father to all of the original cows in the Female lines. (Continue to do so with those females until a superior bull is developed from one of the lines)
  2. Breed the Son to all of the heifers that are selectable for phenotype and selection guidelines.  This is a half-sibling mating and is one of the most powerful matings that there is for bringing out the most desirable phenotype qualities. Well planned and thought out inbreeding promotes an increase in prepotency, which is the ability of an individual to consistently pass on its characteristics. This prepotency results from the increase in homozygosity. Since an inbred individual will have more homozygous gene pairs than a non-inbred individual, there are fewer possible gene combinations for the sperm or egg cells. As a result, the offspring should be more similar to each other.
  3. If you would like to increase the ability to develop a paternally sound bull quickly then you can breed some of the heifers to the uncle.  The breeding coefficient is the same for half-siblings and is a very powerful breeding.
  4. Continue this cycle using the three bulls.  Take notice of how they each express their genetics with the cattle they are put with. 
  5.  Remember that your goal is to develop your own Superior bulls and keep developing them in each of the selected lines.
  6. In this scenario, your inbreeding coefficient is about 1/8th.   When you get a high inbreeding coefficient you will strongly effect prepotency (ability of an individual or strain to transmit its characters to offspring because of homozygosity for numerous dominant genes) which will fix the phenotype (good or bad) but will adversely affect the reproductive efficiency as there is a reproductive depressive effect with a very high inbreeding coefficient.  Note the inbreeding coefficient chart.
  7. Now you are ready for a true linebreeding program as Gearld recommends.  “At any point, you have segregated the females, especially at breeding time for proper genetic mating. Let us name the female blood lines A, B, C and D. If a usable bull calf is born in group A he would be used in B C D never back to his direct kin. If born in D he would be used in A B C again never on his direct kin (etc.). This way you would most likely not back yourself in a corner.” Gearld Fry

Inbreeding coefficient by Sewall Wright

Scenario 2:

You only have 1 superior bull available in the breed that you desire.

  1. Breed all the cows in the cow lines to the superior bull and continue to do so until you have a superior bull of your own.
  2. If he is known to be genetic defect free then breed him to his daughters as well, if not then save the best bull and breed him to the daughters that have made the phenotype and selection guidelines.
  3. From the second generation save the best bull and breed him to all of his siblings that have made the phenotype and selection guidelines.  
  4. By this time you should be close to developing a superior bull.  Many bulls will look good but won’t be superior at this point.
  5. Follow the linebreeding guidelines described above in point 7.
It must be stressed that you can’t have a soft heart when it comes to selecting the best cattle.  Be objective, measure, look, feel and know the animals well, then make the decision that will best advance your program to the goals you set in the beginning.

With these things in mind, we can get back to producing consistent products that are healthy and that please our creator as we love our neighbors.

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