Update: January 19, 2020. A belated Happy New Year! Being the start of a new decade makes me think about the genetic progress that has been achieved in my herd in the past 10 years. Below is a figure called a cumulative relative frequency polygon. In my graduate Statistics course, I teach my students how to prepare such frequency figures to examin the distribution or spread of values for economic traits. This polygon involves the brith weight (BW) EPDs for all Star calves born in 2009 and 2019. Here are a few points to describe the figure:
December 24, 2019. As the year closes, the following economic results for 2019 can be shared. First, the USDA – Livestock Marketing Information Center projected for 2019 that total costs per cow would exceed $850 with a loss in average calf returns of $14. At Lukefahr Ranch for 2019, the total direct and overhead costs was $313 per cow. Average feed costs per cow broke an all-time low at $1.64 (only to call cows with cubes) while depreciation costs per cow was only $18.47. Lease costs was the greatest expense at $116 per cow. Input costs were kept down by avoiding unnecessary expenses. Based on local market prices for good 5-weight steers, profits per cow and per acre were calculated at $282 and $39 (although the majority of calves were actually sold at higher prices as breeding stock). In addition, 58 pounds of beef per acre was yielded based on total weights in weaned calves and total acreage. This beef yield per acre figure reflected an overall stocking rate of 7.31 acres per cow, cow pregnancy and calf survival rates of 97.7 and 100%, and an average weaning weight of 512 pounds (205-day and age of dam adjusted, and adjusted to a steer basis for purposes of comparisons across years). Interestingly, in recent years the average weaning weights have been declining, which is due in part to the selection emphasis on lighter birth weights. However, this trend should correlate to even lighter mature cow weights, which should improve cow efficiency and profits and beef yield per acre.
October 26, 2019. South Texas is well into the fall now. At 6:10 this morning the temperature was 45 degrees. Fortunately, nearly 3 inches of rain was received three weeks ago while temperatures were still in the 90’s. (It had been very dry some time prior to these rains.) This was an opportunity to grow and stockpile forage in the majority of pastures where there was no grazing activity. The cattle’s body condition responded to the flush of green forage (see photo below). In fact, despite a minor bout of army worms, there should be forage available for grazing through the winter season without the need of feeding hay or energy or protein supplements. The winter plan also includes wintering replacement calves on their pregnant dams. In addition, and unless a hard freeze occurs, it is possible in south Texas to develop 1-1/2 year-old bred heifers on only forage without fed feeds. I believe this is possible because fetuses were programmed via switching on genes for improved digestion of low quality forage. The second photo taken last winter shows one such heifer developed on only milk and grass. Last year, the heifer pregnancy rate was 100%. (Conception occurred during July and August.) After several generations of breeding Star cattle, it is evident that they have become well adapted to the south Texas environment.
August 16, 2019. The following is a Genetics lesson of the day. Below are photo pedigrees of two bull calves. They are both but fully crossbred and closely related. How is that possible? First, they have the same sire (Tarzan-Mashona), MGS (PCC R2R Simon-Red Angus), and GMGS (Honey Bear-Tuli). Also, their great-grand dams (LR Roane and LR Sherry) were full-siblings, being from the same Red Angus sire and Senepol dam. They have the same breed composition of 50% Mashona, 31.25% Red Angus, 6.25% Senepol, and 12.5% Tuli and their level of combined tropical genetics is 68.75%. In terms of simply-inherited traits, while both calves are dark red and polled, bull calf #10 tends to be more hairy like his dam while bull calf #15 is more smooth-coated like his sire. These bull calves are amazingly uniform. Their computed coefficient of relationship is 33.6% while their coefficient of inbreeding is 0%. On average one out of every three genes are the same between these two calves. The relationship level is between that of half- (25%) and full-siblings (50%). In addition to the uniformity, if used as sires in the same herd, both sets of calves should as well be much more uniform than two bulls of the same breed-type but of different ancestry.
June 26, 2019. By mid-July it will be the beginning of the 45-day breeding season so that calves will be born mostly in May. This year, several daughters sired by my Mashona bull (Tarzan – a dark red and smooth-coated bull) and out of Star cows will be exposed to a young Star bull. The bull and heifers will be between 14 and 15 months of age. Below is a photo of Tarzan, his son (LR Korak), and some of his F1 daughters.
May 31, 2019. It’s calving time! As mentioned throughout this website, cows are bred between mid-July through August to produce calves that should be born mostly in May in order to work closely with Nature and further develop adaptable cattle. Today, being the last day of May, I wish to report the following results. The overall pregnancy rate was 97.7%. In addition, for cows and heifers combined the figure for conception during the first heat cycle (estrus) was 71.4%. This figure is estimated as the percentage of cows that calved within 35 days from when the first calf was born (April 23). This calculation is done separately for heifers since they calve sooner. Also, the heifers all calved without assistance. It is emphasized here that these results were obtained from summer breeding and without pampering the cattle in terms of supplemental nutrition. In 2018, the total fed feed cost per cow averaged about $10. In addition, the average birth weight is 69.5 lbs. This figure is consistent with the averages recorded for 2016 and 2017 so this genetic trait has basically stabilized.
February 10, 2019. It is an early spring here in south Texas. There is spring grass, the acacia brush is blooming (a natural sign of spring), and the local weatherman forecasts no more freezing temps for the rest of winter. I could see the signs even in later winter when I observed my cattle to begin gaining some flesh in late January on green winter forbs and early spring grass. In this update I wish to discuss my breeding heifer development program in reference to my latest set of heifers that have only consumed milk and forage and that will calving in May.
First, when they were only fetuses in winter of 2017 their dams were grazing mostly on stockpiled Kleberg bluestem (aka King Ranch bluestem; KRB) without receiving any hay, energy or protein supplements. (KRB is cursed by local ranchers for its poor palatability and digestibility when mature.) I contend that at this time the dams communicated signs to their fetuses. Through this process of fetal programming, genes were switched on for consuming and digesting low quality forage. (A growing body of scientific research confirms this belief.) Actually, the Star herd has been managed this way for several generations now (nearly 15 year) so breeding cattle should already be directly transmitting these genes. Notwithstanding this, Star cattle already possess many critical genes of African origin for thriving in harsh environments for about 5,000 years.
Later, these heifers were wintered on their dams. During this prolonged preweaning period, dams continued to teach their calves critical grazing behaviors. For example, being broad rather than selective grazers, reaching gut-fill on lower quality, less palatable species (it helps that Star cattle are deep-gutted), and grazing medic species when lightly infested with worms. This is in addition to learning other important behaviors such as respecting fences, participating in herd aggressive responses to predators (along with a guard donkey), and being called and gently rotated to other pastures. Of relevance, last November a young bull and five heifers were sold to a rancher in Oklahoma. He was amazed that shortly after their arrival he observed: “When I turned them out the heifers started eating the tops and seed heads of little bluestem, which most cattle don’t eat much”.
At 10 months of age the heifers were separated from their dam in early March when there was spring grass. They were by now trained and developed. Four months later from mid-July through August they were exposed to a young Star bull with the objective of calving at 24 months of age. In most years after the breeding season is over, heifers then rejoin the cow herd.
After a brief freeze in October, some green grass and winter clover and forbs was available as forage for the winter. Both the range condition of pastures and body condition of heifers were closely monitored. The heifers maintained good body condition while grazing mostly stockpiled forage throughout late fall and early winter, and without energy or protein supplements. Now they are programming their own fetuses to thrive on a lifetime of a low quality forage diet.
The feed cost has been zero in developing these heifers who have consumed only milk and grass. A source of minerals is always provided to my cattle. Again, it is an early spring this year. These heifers still have three more months to go before calving. It would be easy to worry about that – because of their genes for getting fat on only grass – they might be too fat by calving time in May! Here are a few recent photos.
December 31, 2018. As the year closes the following is a summary of performance and profitability results of the Star cattle herd. Pregnancy and weaning rates were 95.1 and 97.2%. Total costs per cow averaged $331 with land lease costs being the largest expenditure at $100 per cow. Total feed costs averaged only $10 per cow (excluding minerals). Average 205-day adjusted weaning weight was 556 pounds. Ultimately, these figures relate to a yield of 64 pounds of beef per acre. Profit per cow was $449 and profit per acre was $58. These profit figures are conservatively based on local market prices at an average of $780 per calf (most calves were actually sold for higher prices as breeding animals). In addition, these performance and profitability results were achieved by the use of genetically-adapted, moderately-sized (approx. average weight of 1,100 pounds), and highly fertile cows on healthy pastures. In 2018, the stocking rate was 7.75 acres per animal unit. This stocking rate was also pivotal in improving land efficiency in terms of pounds of beef produced per acre. Below is a figure that shows how stocking rate (number of acres per cow) has improved since 2014 at a rate of about 2 fewer acres per animal unit per year (through improved carrying capacity of pastures and likely smaller cows). Pounds of beef produced per acre has also improved at a rate of an increase of 6.7 pounds per year.
December 9, 2018. Nearly all of the calves presold a few months ago have been picked up. Half of the breeding calves purchased were from repeat clients who continue to upgrade their herds to a purebred Star base. Some of these repeat clients purchased bull calves that were Mashona-sired – to boost the performance level in their herds due to African genetics for fertility and adaptability and added heterosis. The photo below shows a trailer that was loaded with 2 bulls and 5 heifers destined for Oklahoma. Two ranchers: Kim Barker and Evan Rowland, previously total strangers, made the long trip together. Overall, it was good to see old friends again and to make new ones. Some brought their spouses and children along to see Star cattle in south Texas. Cattle ranchers are indeed the salt of the earth!
However, this schedule requires that bulls and cows breed in late summer. This is a challenge for cattle producers in south Texas. This challenge is overcome by use of heat tolerant breeds: Senepol and Tuli. Semen evaluation tests in late June and early July have confirmed high fertility levels in bulls (most bulls tested to date have had over 90% live sperm counts in collections of semen that is highly sperm concentrated). Below is a chart that depicts well the tropical-like conditions during a rather typical breeding season (mid-July through August) in 2014. On most days, temperatures were above 100 F and humidity levels were mostly between 90 and 100%, while wind speed tended to be steady over the breeding season in terms of maximum 10 second wind gusts.
In the above photo, a 4 year-old bull (1/2 Senepol, 1/4 Tuli, and 1/4 Red Angus) serviced four cows in the afternoon on 28 July, 2011, when it was 100 degrees F. Notice too the early interest or libido of seven bull calves! Also notice the good cow body condition of the two cows. Although it was a severe drought year, cows were not being supplemented but were consuming only stockpiled forage.
The above model was developed by Steven Lukefahr after nearly 20 years of experience in aligning cattle genetics with natural cycles through drought management. The model displays the focus on drought management and appropriate genetics in working with natural cycles in south Texas. While the model is self-explanatory, it emphasizes that drought management and genetics is critical for production success in the region. The unique model has been described in detail in articles and in presentations delivered by Lukefahr to beef cattle producers at clinics and other educational events. It is highly ironic that the same model is strikingly similar to one reflected by Nature over the millennia involving wildlife species such as bison and deer. To quote Mr. Tom Lasater: ” Nature is smarter than all of us”! To illustrate, the photo below is of my neighbor’s bison herd which is never supplemented or pampered or given dewormers or vaccines. They winter their calves and later wean them in the early spring about 2 months before they calve again, which they typically do annually for some 20 or more years. Calves only weigh between about 40 and 50 pounds at birth. In addition, cows are very protective of their calves.This is the epitome of easy-care livestock. However, one negative is that they are difficult and dangerous to work in pens. The photo was taken by horseback by Steven Lukefahr, prior to being run out of the pasture by the old cow who is the matriarchal leader!
The figure below presents an overview of my basic ranch management program and below this figure is a table that compares traditional to alternative management practices with the latter being adopted at Lukefahr Ranch.
Guard donkeys – Below is a photo of the spring guardian of young calves in the herd. “Jenny” is shown below with her new foal born on March 12, 2010. Allowing a donkey to foal every few years further stimulates strong maternal behaviors. Jenny often stands guard over cows as they calve, serves as babysitter while cows go off to graze, but especially becomes very active in chasing coyotes and dogs out of pastures! Jenny is not treated as a pet but is managed as any cow in the herd. In 2013 and 2014, her daughter, Jezebel, following two years of training by her dam, is now the guardian of a separate cow herd (middle photo). In April 2017 another jenny was purchased as shown in the right photo. “Molly” is the guardian of another cow herd. Here is a link of an article that appeared in The Cattleman magazine: Guard donkeys.