Breeding for Survivability with Genetic Selection and Measurement

Established in 1992 by Mr. John Downs, the Southern Cattle Company is nestled right in the middle of the Florida panhandle, northwest of Marianna—also known as “The City of Southern Charm.” The ranch itself was originally founded with one simple yet eloquent goal: to produce genetically exceptional cattle through genetic selection.

Today, Mr. Downs is still aspiring to this objective by focusing on increasing the profitability of commercial cattlemen throughout the industry.

The ranch primarily began with Angus and Charolais, followed by Brangus, before diversifying and expanding into 13 other breeds. While both the footprint of the operation and the breeds changed over the years, technology has continued to modernize many of the traditional ways of genetic selection in cattle.

“We became overly diverse with the 13 breeds,” says Chris Heptinstall, General Manager of the operation. “In reference to genetics, for the future of Southern Cattle Company, we’re narrowing our focus to those breeds more relevant to our environment instead of trying to be a one-stop-shop for everything.”

In Heptinstall’s opinion, the breeds most fit for this process are Angus, Charolais, and Brangus.

Approximately 7,000 head of commercial and registered animals are currently at the Southern Cattle Company. The company sells top-quality embryos and semen across the country from this platform. They also feature a bull and commercial female sale annually, generating an expansion into the sales of registered females.

The cattle operation at Southern Cattle Company is also matched by a quarter horse business that features cutting and performance horses. On the farming side of the operation, the company raises perennial peanut hay, Bermuda and Bahia grass forage, and seed production.

Many contracted operations raise their embryo calves to provide Southern Cattle Company with valuable information and data to help improve their genetics. Strengths and weaknesses can be determined by finishing their calves in this method, since they can collect the needed data and remove some of the guesswork involved in the process.

“Our main focus is selling commercial bulls in volume,” explains Heptinstall. “With our seed stock portion, we get lucky every now and then and make a top AI herd sire, but if we’re not dependent on our commercial cow and calf guys, we’ll get behind the eight ball.”

Breeding for Survivability Through Measurement

Florida, as well as many other deep south areas, have their own specific climate type with unique forage quality issues that can impact genetic selection in cattle. Imported bulls can struggle to excel in an environment like this, these ranches are introducing breeding stock from other parts of country that aren’t used to the climate differences. This can cut their average useful lifespan short, meaning profitability will suffer.

“With our climate challenges, we like to say we breed for survivability or stay-ability,” Heptinstall says. “Most of our genetics are going into and staying in the deep south, from Florida to Tennessee and across Texas. Our genetics can’t just survive; they must thrive.”

Heptinstall also explains that the Angus, Brangus, and Charolais animals at Southern Cattle Company are bred and adapted to the region’s humidity and heat.

When asked how genetic selection in cattle is used for breeding heat-tolerant animals, Heptinstall proclaims, “Man must Measure!”—a quote from Jan Bonsma’s book on livestock production. This book has been an inspiration for Heptinstall.

Heptinstall states that using genetic manipulation and maintaining acceptable EPDs, as well as other traits like carcass quality and feed efficiency, is all a balancing act.

“It’s all part of a toolbox,” he says. “There’s no magic bullet. But, by measurement and data collection, and studying your homework, we can add those things. It all goes hand in hand. How do we get there? We find the genetics and turn generations faster. That’s where IVF with Vytelle comes into the picture.”

Heptinstall believes that it’s much easier to move the needle on certain traits but not on others, so it’s not so simple. The well-known statement, “Single trait selection will get you in trouble every time,” fits this approach well.

Using Hormone-Free In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) with Genotypes and Phenotypes in Mind

Yearling weights and ultrasound data are used by Southern Cattle Company to find the next breeding pieces for what they are hoping to accomplish through IVF.

“We aspirate young heifers a time or two with Vytelle’s technology before they get artificially inseminated. Then we can complete an aspiration after they’re pregnant. With this method, we have a large sample of her calves on the ground, before she’s a proven donor.”

Even cows that are older with existing issues that are using conventional flushing can have oocytes collected where they would normally only produce one calf a year.

Heptinstall attributes hormone-free IVF from Vytelle to be a large assist in completing the process.

“It’s easy on labor and cattle, when they only have to come to the chute one time to get aspirated and go right back out to their respective pastures. The days of coming to the chute three and four times are gone.”

Reinforcing the Recipients

Heptinstall claims that matching genetics and arranging the donors is only part of the genetic selection in cattle equation. The other main part is the recipients.

He states that management of recipients includes trusted herd health protocols that are provided by competent veterinarians. Other requirements that top the list include vaccinations and nutrition.

Because the ranch at Southern Cattle Company is in silage country, they can effectively supplement their animals with high-quality silage and hay. Nutritionists from Furst-McNess Company help with the formulation of feed rations by employing a computer software program that can change and adapt rations in the office and relay the correct information to feed delivery crews in live time.

“Keeping good grass under their feed is crucial,” Heptinstall stresses. “We must take care of the recipient cow for the calf to thrive. For us, it means from in-utero to by her side.”

Heptinstall also states that Vytelle has been an excellent source for the hormone-free IVF side, as well as offering their Vytelle SENSE feed efficiency technology. He’s very hopeful that some of these systems will be added to the operations at Southern Cattle Company soon.

“The outcome-based pricing is another excellent feature,” he said. “With large producers, it certainly helps to pay only for quality embryos. Sometimes we gather a hundred oocytes and make 20 to 40 embryos. It’s very worthwhile.”

Heptinstall also credits Kara Schmidt, who is Vytelle’s customer service representative for the area. She plays a large role in organization and helping them stay ahead of the game with the logistics of moving embryos and semen to the correct places.

“Southern Cattle Company is in the process of turning production around right now,” he says. “What I’m really proud of is we’re getting key employees in the right positions, making life a lot easier. Plus, it makes the whole ranching philosophy of focusing on efficiencies simpler while making profits.”

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