Breeding Show Cattle for Traits and Balance
Soundness, volume, muscle and balance are the key cattle traits Dave Allan first looks for when he’s judging a show. But those cattle traits are determined far in advance of the point when an animal enters the showring. Specific traits and qualities were carefully selected when mating decisions were made to hopefully provide the winning combination.
Allan, a Purina® Honor® Show Chow® Ambassador from Schulenburg, Texas, understands the importance genetics have on success both in and out of the showring. He and wife Becky operate Bar A Cattle Co. and Genesource, a semen distribution company, where they’re always striving to make better cattle. They have three sons who are active cattle showmen as well.
“Breeding and developing better cattle has been my passion since I was very young,” says Allan. In addition to breeding national champions, he has had the honor of selecting champions in the showring and knows what it takes to compete at the highest level. Earlier this year, Allan judged the Angus show at the National Western Stock Show.
“Most judges, including myself, are not looking for ‘the most’ of any one trait, we are looking for the animal that is most complete and offers the best combination of traits,” says Allan. “I’ve learned that it takes great genetics in combination with the correct health and feeding program – and a lot of hard work – to create a champion.”
Study strengths, weaknesses
Studying the cows and the bulls from which your calf was produced can provide a glimpse into your showring future, as will studying the results of previous matings by the same cow or bull. Doing your homework will help you determine what traits you desire in your next calf, and which matings might get you there. But, while it seems like a simple philosophy, a good mating on paper might not always end with the anticipated result.
Allan points out that the first basic rule of genetics is “like begets like,” meaning there’s often a strong similarity between the offspring and their parents, and that of their distant ancestors.
However, he cautions that there is no guarantee of similarity due to the laws of inheritance. He explains, “Full siblings contain 50 percent of the same DNA but can vary from 25 to 75 percent because of chromosome inheritance and recombination. That means full siblings can have very different phenotypes.”
Whether you plan on breeding your own cow or heifer, or have plans to purchase your next calf, Allan maintains that doing your homework and being honest about the cattle you’re evaluating are good principles to follow.
“Before I decide which bulls to use, I like to really study the cows,” says Allan. “You also have to be honest with yourself on the strengths and weaknesses that are in your cattle.” Understanding strengths and weaknesses when breeding or buying can help you improve your selection process.
Allan says don’t be afraid of trying new matings to help get you to your desired end result. “I’ve never been afraid of breeding two animals together that are very different in their kind and genetics. Sometimes to fix problems or make a change, you can mate cattle with opposite phenotypes to achieve the desired look.”
Focus on fundamentals
Functional traits like soundness and capacity are important to Allan in both the showring and in mating decisions in breeding show cattle.
“The first things I consider are if the cattle will be sound in their structure, have some rib and capacity, and in the case of the steers, have enough muscle,” Allan says.
Frame size is another key factor he considers. Allan shares that he’s looking for the optimum size, not maximum, to fit the environment.
Once those functional traits have been addressed, Allan then looks at the finer traits:
- Are they long and clean through their front end?
- Can they maintain a relatively level top and hip on the move?
- Do they have a sound and attractive set to their hind leg?
Allan also evaluates bone structure, but cautions to breed for it in moderation. “Bone is nice to look at and you need an adequate amount, but it has a negative correlation with birth weight and calving ease, so I would breed for it in moderation.”
From there, differences in trait selection exists between steers and heifers.
“Muscle is obviously important when it comes to show steers, but like bone, maximums can lead to structural issues and other problems,” Allan warns. “In breeding show steers, the industry has selected for big square hips and heavy muscled stifles, but I think in some cases it has overlooked muscle down the top. That’s an important trait given there is a lot more value in the cuts from the loin.”
For heifers, Allan emphasizes to evaluate and select for fertility, udders and feet – all key components for success and longevity outside of the showring.
Don’t overlook nutrition when breeding show cattle
The work doesn’t end with genetic selection – once the cow is bred or when the calf is on the ground, management andnutrition play a huge role in success. “Without proper care and feeding you can’t get very far,” Allan says. “Timely feeding and consistent amounts of feed are important along with clean, fresh water and free-choice hay.”
He adds that offering a high-quality feed with the right amounts of protein, energy and fiber, along with the right vitamins andminerals, is a must. Supplements can also be considered, but Allan reminds exhibitors to think “optimum, not maximum” when it comes to refining an animal’s look.
“Champions are a combination of good genetics, quality management and great showmanship,” says Allan. “Keeping an open mind, being willing to learn and putting in hard work are the keys to success.”
Source: Purina Animal Nutrition Expert