Beef Quality Assurance
Fact Sheet No. 209
Breeding Programs for Small Beef Herds
About 75 percent of the cattle operations in improved by crossbreeding. The relative
Georgia have fewer than 50 head. The average economic value, heritability, and response to
producer maintains about 25 cows. Most crossbreeding for various types of traits are
classic crossbreeding systems require more summarized in Table 1.
than one bull and more than one group of Production traits, such as weaning weight
cows. Most small operations have only one and average daily gain, are also important.
bull and one breeding pasture available each These traits can be improved by selecting
year. The structured breeding programs that superior breeding stock. Production traits also
work well in large herds will not work under show a moderate response to crossbreeding.
these conditions. However, there are effective, While carcass traits are important, they
practical approaches that may be used for the have less economic value for commercial
small herd. cattle operations than reproduction or growth
rate. Carcass traits can be changed rapidly by
BREEDING PROGRAMS selection. Crossbreeding has little effect on
A breeding programs is a complete system carcass merit.
of management designed to bring about Crossbreeding works to improve
genetic improvement. Genetic improvement reproduction and production traits. Selection
can be accomplished by the use of both works to improve production and carcass
crossbreeding and selection. The purpose of traits. A good total breeding program for a
crossbreeding is to produce heterosis (or commercial herd will involve both planned
hybrid vigor). Selection of superior breeding crossbreeding and selection of superior
stock is effective only if traits are heritable. A breeding animals.
trait is heritable if a portion of a parent's
superiority in the trait is passed on to its
The most important measure of production
for a commercial cattle operation is pounds of
calf weaned per cow exposed. Good Written by Ronnie Silcox, UGA
reproduction is extremely important. In Extension Animal Scientist
general, reproductive traits such as percent
calf crop and calf livability have a low
heritability. Reproductive traits show little
response to selection, but they can be
Table 1. Economic Value, Heritability & Increase from Crossbreeding
Three Classes of Beef Cattle Traits
Traits Relative Economic Avg. Heritability Increase from
Values (%) Crossing (%)
Reproduction High 10 10
Production Moderate 40 5
Carcass Low 50 0
Adapted from Willham, 1975.
Crossbreeding is the planned mating of Artificial Insemination
different breeds of cattle. Crossbreeding can Artificial insemination (A.I.) allows a
provide two benefits: (1) it can combine the producer to use more than one breed of bull
desirable characteristics of two or more breeds each year in a small herd. With a good record
and (2) crossbred animals usually exhibit keeping system, individual cows can be
heterosis. matched to individual bulls of a different
Heterosis (or hybrid vigor) is the increase breed. Using A.I., a small herd owner can
in performance of crossbred animals over the follow the same types of crossbreeding
average of their purebred parents. Based on programs that work well in larger herds.
research, crossbred cows produce about 5 The immediate costs of starting an A.I.
percent larger calf crops with 5 to 10 percent program may be high. Additional facilities and
heavier weaning weights than the average of equipment may be necessary. (A notebook
their purebred parents. When crossbred cows entitled "Extension Engineering Plans"
are mated to bulls of a different breed, the outlines information about this kind of
total effect of heterosis is an up to 20 percent equipment. It is available at your county
increase in pounds of calf weaned per cow Extension office).
exposed. The long term cost of an A.I. program,
From a strictly genetic standpoint, an however, can be comparable to the cost of
excellent crossbreeding system is easy to buying and maintaining bulls. In addition, the
describe. Cows should be crossbreeds small herd owner can usually buy semen from
(showing maximum heterosis) that are bulls that are genetically superior to those that
comprised of breeds that are known for he or she can afford to own.
superior maternal characteristics. Mate these A successful A.I. program requires good
cows to bulls of a totally different breed. management and additional labor. Since many
Select bulls for carcass and production traits. small herd owners work at other jobs that may
While this is the ideal situation, certain conflict with these requirements, A.I. is not
compromises have to be made in a small the solution for everybody.
operation between what is practical and what
is ideal. Following are some options that can Buying Replacement Heifers
work for the 20 to 30 cow herd.
For some producers, the most practical on the farm, small herd owners may find
approach to crossbreeding is to buy crossbred buying needed heifers more convenient and as
replacement heifers. In situations where land economical as developing their own
and labor are limited and feed is not produced replacements. Buying heifers can allow a
producer to get the greatest benefit from their first calf at two years of age.
crossbreeding. Determine the major breeds in the cow
First cross (F1) heifers exhibit maximum herd. Choose a bull of a different breed. This
heterosis. In looking for crossbred females, bull can be used for three years. Since you
select breeds with a reputation for good don't want to breed the bull to his daughters,
maternal performance. Breed these heifers to a don't keep heifers from his first calf crop.
bull of a third breed. Since all the offspring of (These heifers would be old enough to breed
these heifers will be sold, the bull can be before the bull is sold). You can keep
selected without regard to maternal traits. replacements from the second and third calf
More emphasis can be placed on buying a bull crop. You should have no problems
with superior growth and carcass maintaining your herd size by saving heifers
characteristics. Since all heifers are purchased, only two out of three years. For some small
there are no problems with inbreeding and a herds, this is more convenient than trying to
good bull can be used for several years. save a small number of heifers every year.
The main drawback to this approach is This also allows a producer to use a bull
finding a steady source of good quality longer, thus reducing costs.
heifers. Buy heifers from farms that are known After three years of breeding, sell the first
to have sound health and breeding programs. bull and buy a bull of a second breed. Use the
second bull for three years, saving heifers
Bull Rotation from his second and third calf crop.
After selling the second bull, buy a bull of
Rotating bull breeds is a practical a third breed and use him for three years.
approach to crossbreeding that works well in Again, save heifers from the second and third
most small herds. This allows replacement calf crops. After the third bull is sold, buy a
heifers to be raised on the farm, requires only fourth breed of bull and use him the same way
one bull each year and produces as much for three years.
heterosis as some rotational breeding By the time the fourth bull is sold,
programs that are practical only in large herds. daughters of the first bull will be ten years old.
In a commercial operation never breed a Most of these will have already been culled;
bull to his daughters. If replacement heifers the remainder will be good candidates for
are saved in the small herd, there is a limit on culling due to age. The producer can now start
the number of years a bull should be used. again with the first breed of bull and follow
Following is a description of a bull rotation the same steps. These steps are outlined in
program that will work when heifers produce Table 2.
Table 2. Rotating Bull Breeds in the Small Herd
Calf Crop Sire Breed Treatment of Heifers
01 A Sell
02 A Save replacements
03 B Save replacements
04 B Sell
05 B Save replacements
06 C Save replacements
07 C Sell
08 C Save replacements
09 D Save replacements
10 D Sell
11 D Save replacements
12 A Save replacements
13 A Sell
This system prevents inbreeding and 2. calving ease
maintains a high level of heterosis in both the 3. moderate size to reduce feed cost
cows and calves. There is little advantage to 4. good fertility
using more than four breeds of bulls in this 5. good milking ability
type of program. If a producer cannot find four 6. reasonable growth rate
desirable breeds, two or three breeds can be
rotated in the same way, but the amount of When all calves are sold, select bull
heterosis is reduced. breeds used on crossbred females for:
SELECTING BREEDS 1. calving ease
Selecting suitable breeds is very important 2. growth rate
in the small herd. If natural service is used, 3. carcass merit
only one bull is available each year. This means
that all of the calves marketed each year In a bull rotation program, bulls are
receive half of their genes from a single bull. used to produce both replacement females and
Both mature cows and first-calf heifers are bred market animals. Bull breeds selected for
to the same bull. rotation programs need to possess a
Since bulls are bred to first-calf heifers, combination of maternal and performance
calving ease is a very important consideration. traits. Important traits to consider are:
Avoid crossing breeds with large differences in
mature size. 1. disposition
Consider local market demands. In general, 2. calving ease
the small producer should avoid extremes in 3. growth rate
size or muscle patterns. Use breed 4. fertility
combinations that give some marketing 5. milk production
uniformity. 6. carcass merit
If crossbred heifers are purchased, choose
breed combinations that meet the following No breed or combination of breeds is
criteria: best for every producer. Consider
management, marketing and personal
1. good disposition preferences when selecting breeds.
Selection of Breeding Stock performance, it is only part of the total
breeding program. The quality of individual
While crossbreeding can improve animals is also very important. Many
economically important traits are heritable. structural soundness, breeding soundness,
This means that superior bulls and cows pass health and disposition. Remember that as
part of this superiority to their calves. The most more traits are added to a selection program,
important measure of production to a progress made in each trait decreases. Place
commercial producer is pounds of calf weaned major emphasis on economically important
per cow exposed. Cows should produce live traits (such as calving ease and weight gain)
calves that gain rapidly. These characteristics that can be changed by selection. Above all,
can be improved through proper selection of buy disease free bulls from breeders who have
breeding stock. a good reputation and a good performance
The bull is the most important animal in Female Selection
the herd. Each calf receives 50 percent of his or
her genetic material from the bull. If heifers are Doing a good job of culling cows and
saved, some of the bull's genetic contributions selecting replacements requires a good record
will remain in the herd for years after the bull is keeping system. Keeping records and making
sold. selections are much easier if cows are in a
Many traits may be included in a controlled breeding program. A short breeding
selection program, but a few traits should be season of 90 days or less is recommended.
considered by all small herd owners. Identify and record all animals in the herd.
Individual weights, ratios, and expected Most female selection decisions have
progeny differences (EPDs) can be used in bull more effect economically than genetically. A
selection. EPDs are more accurate than good female selection program saves money.
individual weights or ratios because EPDs take Female selection takes two forms: selecting
into account information on relatives and they replacement heifers and culling mature cows.
are adjusted for contemporary group Select replacement heifers at or following
differences. EPDs can be directly compared weaning. Select heavier heifers from cows
across herds within a breed. While direct with good production records. From a
comparison of weights and ratios can be practical standpoint, heifers need to be at least
misleading. 14 to 15 months old and weigh at least 65
Most purebred producers should have percent of their mature weight at breeding
EPDs for young bulls. EPDs are expressed in time. Since some heifers will not gain enough
pounds. For example, if Bull A has a weaning or will not get bred, select about 50 percent
weight EPD of +15 pounds and Bull B has a more heifers at weaning than are actually
weaning weight EPD of +5 pounds, you can needed for replacements.
expect Bull A's calves to weigh on the average The most important trait to consider in
10 pounds more at weaning. culling cows is reproductive performance.
Select a bull with a yearling scrotal Pregnancy check cows about sixty days after
circumference of at least 30 cm. This is the bull is removed from the herd, and remove
especially important if replacement heifers are cows that are not bred. In most cases this will
produced. Scrotal circumference of a bull is do more to improve reproductive efficiency
related to fertility of his daughters. than any other management practice.
Other practical factors to consider are
A second factor to consider in culling a consistently produce poor gaining calves from
cow is her productivity based on the weaning the herd.
weight ratios of her calves. Remove cows that
Crossbreeding and selection of superior
SUMMARY breeding stock are two useful tools. Your
A good breeding program for a small herd county Extension office can provide further
needs to be simple and practical. information and help.
The University of Georgia and Ft. Valley State College, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and counties of the state cooperating. The Cooperative
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