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Spangler looks at maximizing profitability by using complementarity, crossbreeding

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Passing on a viable ranch for the next generation to operate should be the goal for most ranchers. However, passing on the ranch with a love for cows is not the same thing, according to University of Nebraska Animal Scientist Matt Spangler. 

Spangler encourages producers to work toward making the ranch viable by making it into something the next generation can take over and continue to have profit potential, he explains.

One way to create profit is by focusing on breed complementarity by crossbreeding. 

“True breed complementarity is a combination or merger of a breed that is strong in terminal strengths, like growth and carcass merit, with a breed or combination of breeds that are strong in maternal characteristics. The goal is to combine the terminal and maternal breeding systems,” Spangler says. 

Capturing profits

The majority of cow/calf producers sell some calves at weaning and keep some back for replacement heifers. 

“The problem with that is we are leaving money on the table,” he stresses. “The one pervasive thought is one breed can do it all, and that is simply not true. There is not one breed out there that excels in all areas of profitability.”

“It is also false to say that one bull can do it all,” Spangler continues. “What if I said, forget about maternal strengths and focus on terminal strengths or vice versa?”

“The more traits we focus on, the less progress we make,” he says.

If a producer sells terminal calves at weaning, and those calves excel in the same traits as the producer’s bull battery, then that producer is not maximizing profit, Spangler suggests. 

He adds, “Some would counter that is the way we have always done it, but that is not a valid argument.”

Terminal aspects

Terminal traits of importance are calf survival, male fertility, disease susceptibility, calving ease direct, growth rate, feed efficiency, carcass quality and composition. 

“If a producer selects for bulls with a lower birth weight EPD for calving ease, or selects bulls that have higher calving ease direct EPDs, and they keep replacement heifers out of these bulls, there is a slight antagonism between calving ease direct and calving ease maternal. If they select for maternal calving ease over and over and over, there is a chance those daughters they keep back will have a harder time giving birth as a first-calf heifer,” he explained.

On the other hand, if all the calves are terminal, meaning they were selected for terminal traits like hot carcass weight, yield grade and marbling, it is another case of shooting yourself in the foot, Spangler says. 

“If we use that index, and keep back replacement heifers, we have just said we are choosing bulls to breed females based on hot carcass weight, marbling and yield grade. Carcass characteristics are probably not on the list we want to use to select females from,” he stated.

Genetic trends

Genetic trends in Angus, which means the average of the Angus breed, have made tremendous strides in yearling weight, hot carcass weight and carcass marbling, which are terminal characteristics. 

“The way we think about breeds now has to be reflective of the breed averages we see today,” Spangler says. “A great example is mature cow weight. We used to think British breeds were conservative in size and continental breeds were large in mature size, but now a lot of our British breeds have gotten a lot larger than the Continental breeds.”


Ideally, Spangler says small ranches should keep their replacement heifers separate from the rest of the herd, like larger ranches do. 

“The challenge is, does it make sense to sort 10 to 20 heifers out of the herd and manage them as a group, then have to calve at night for that small of a number? We should ask ourselves if our time could be better spent elsewhere,” he tells producers. 

“I would argue that completely eliminating calving heifers could make the ranch more profitable, and certainly more enjoyable,” Spangler says. “However, these smaller herds represent a larger fraction of sale herds in the U.S. But, there is room for improvement.”

New systems

For some producers, it is as simple as implementing a system where one producer produces maternal replacements, and another produces terminal calves and outsources their maternal replacements from the first producer.

Spangler sees breed means coming together, which hurts complementarity. 

“However, if we are seedstock producers, there is nothing wrong with differentiating our cattle as maternal or terminal breeds,” he says. “Smaller cows may or may not be more efficient, but they can be more profitable bred to terminal sires.”

“Trying to be all-purpose reduces efficiency and profitability. We can’t be all-purpose and maximize profitability. Selection for fewer traits leads to faster progress in those we are selecting for,” he explains.

Endless possibilities  

He referred to a quote from Burke Teichert, who is a cattle management consultant. 

“Let your imagination wander. What if smaller ranchers were to buy all their replacement heifers from a large ranch?” he asks. “The smaller ranch would never have to breed or calve a heifer, only cows.”

Spangler continues, “It would ensure cow size is small and allow breeding to a terminal sire to allow growth and carcass. All calves would then be sold with no replacements retained. The larger ranch is already breeding replacements and calving heifers, so why not breed a few more and sell some to the smaller ranch?”

Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to 

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