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·  DNA Is Their Way

·  The Shifting Sands of Time Bring Braunvieh to the Sandhills






    Angus Beef Bulletin


    High Plains Journal     http://www.hpj.com/archives/2006/oct06/oct30/Commercialcattlemenchalleng.cfm

"DNA Is Their Way"

by Joe Roybal, Editor - BEEF, February 2003

This reporter has savored a lot of great steaks in my years covering the beef industry. But the one Art and Merry Brownlee served up in the kitchen of their Ashby, NE, ranch house last summer was among the best - tender, juicy and, oh, so flavorful.

I complimented the couple on the quality of their beef. Art's response was: "Well, that's good to hear because that's what we're after here."

The Brownlees are working toward that goal in a non-traditional way for commercial cow-calf producers. Their herd consists of an Angus base and Braunvieh, on which they retain ownership of most of the calves. They use a combination of AI and pasture breeding on a total of about 1,400 of their own females annually - both heifers and cows - and they collect blood from the calves at processing.

Those smears, identified by the calves' tag numbers, will later be used to determine the parentage of selected animals that perform well or poorly in a number of quality and production traits. These traits include birthweight, replacement performance and carcass acceptability.

That data is used to determine future mating and culling decisions in their quest to maximize their herd's performance - on the range, in the feedlot and in the cooler.

Meanwhile, northeast of the Brownlees in Ainsworth, NE, Bob and Diana Sears are just beginning to use a new DNA-based test called the GeneSTAR® Tenderness test to determine which of their breeding stock carry genetic markers for tenderness. The couple plans to use results of that test, in conjunction with another GeneSTAR test for marbling, to build a purebred Angus herd maximized for its potential to marble and produce tender carcasses.

The Brownlees and Sears are among producers on the forefront of utilizing DNA tools to help produce a higher percentage of better-eating carcasses, while minimizing "outs." Both couples say that while it's tough to quantify a payback in exact dollars, the accelerated level of genetic progress in their herds made possible by improved end-product predictability is certainly a positive factor.

Art And Merry Brownlee

The Brownlees are relative newcomers to the production side of agriculture, though Merry's family - the Shadbolts - has roots sunk deep in Nebraska's Sandhills. In fact, her family leased for 30 years the very acreage on which she, Art and their sons - Edwin (18) and Ethan (10) - now make their cattle living.

After residing in Omaha for 20 years, where Art worked with computers and financial cost analysis for what is now Qwest Communications, the couple moved to Ashby eight years ago. Before moving to the ranch, the Brownlees had backgrounded cattle and retained ownership through family members. Yet, Merry quips: "Moving here seemed like taking over a 747 in mid-air."

Art says the sum of their previous experiences has provided them with a non-traditional, analytical approach to the cattle business. Part of that approach is a heavy concentration on gathering and analyzing performance data.

The result, Art says, is they've found themselves "doing very much what purebred breeders do, even though we have a commercial herd."

For the past six years, the Brownlees have relied heavily on linear measurements of bulls and replacement heifers, and ultrasounds of their bulls for ribeye, marbling and backfat. For three years, they've used ultrasound to determine the optimal feeding endpoint for the roughly 1,100 calves on which they annually retain ownership. Four years ago, they began collecting DNA samples on calves.

"I think the days of the gate cut are basically gone," Art says. "The margin is whittled down so much in this business today that we'll all be forced to use these tools to build back the margin on the producer end."

The Brownlees AI about 1,000 females each year, not all of them theirs, before pasturing them in groups with four or five Angus and Braunvieh cleanup bulls each in a series of about 40 paddocks. They draw blood samples on all calves at processing, staining it on small blotter cards identified with each calf's ID number.

Art estimates that probably only 5% of those DNA samples will ever be used. But when the parentage of particularly good - or poor - performing females or carcasses is needed, they'll submit the cards of those individuals to MMI Genomics in Davis, CA. (MMI Genomics is a subsidiary of MetaMorphix, Inc., an ag biotech company that holds the rights to Celera Genomics cattle genome. Last June, MetaMorphix announced a $10-million agreement with Excel Corporation and Caprock Cattle Feeders to develop and implement economic selection tools that will allow cattle breeders and feedlot operators to meet consumer demands for consistency and tenderness.)

Art reports that 50% of the time one test will determine parentage. Otherwise, two tests are needed to reasonably assure parentage. Each test costs $15, which Art characterizes as an "investment" cost.

"At this point, I can't say it pays for itself, but as far as shaping your herd for the future, I don't find it outrageous," he says.

Art says his goal is to "find someone further down the line, either a harvester or retailer, who recognizes that outs cost them time and money and desire supplies that are beyond average."

Upon determining the parentage of a particular calf, Art says both the dam and sire of that calf are considered in their final decision.

"You have to ask yourself how much is due to the cow and how much is due to the bull? So we look at the cow's history. The analysis aspect of this is continuous because if you don't attempt to take everything into account, it's worthless," Art says.

He adds that through DNA typing and other management strategies, his cattle have performed better on quality-based marketing grids. Four years ago, he points out, they recorded 5% USDA Standards. In 2002, Standards were considerably less than 1%.

"We've certainly seen fewer discounts, but I can't say it's due solely to DNA typing because there are so many variables in this business," Art says. "But it does allow us to close another variable. The more you can close, the more accurate you can be in what you're trying to accomplish. Certainly, however, you have to consider other year-to-year factors environment, feed quality, etc."

The Brownlees' carcass target is a USDA Choice. They strive to produce "a complete package that will give us the option of a Select or Choice grid," he says.

Art says one downside of DNA typing is the time interval between collecting samples and actual use in selection decisions.

"If you've got good - or poor - carcasses hanging in the cooler, it's generally been 2½ years since that animal was bred," Art says. "Still, if it's a bull we decide we don't want to keep, it allows us to cut at least one and maybe two years out of its production in our herd.

"And if it's a bull that works well with our herd, we can collect him. Even if he's dead, it gives us some insight into the bloodlines that work for us," he adds.

For more on the Brownlee operation, check out the Web site at www.jhlbeef.com.

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"The Shifting Sands of Time Bring Braunvieh to the Sandhills"

by Marilyn Brink, Editor BRUANVIEH WORLD, Summer 1999

She's a third-generation Sandhills ranch girl whose grandfather homesteaded in the area in 1885. He's a city boy from Omaha who left 20 years in the corporate world to take on the role of rubber-tired cowboy. Together, Art and Merry Brownlee form a unique team of hands-on owner/manager of The JHL Ranch at Ashby, deep in the Sandhills of northwestern Nebraska.

Merry confesses, "I have sand in my boots and between my ears." Her grandfather homesteaded near Merriman, which is northeast of their current home. He was a rancher as was her father, who held the lease on the JHL ranch for 30 years before the family was able to purchase it five years ago. It's an area rich with cattle history as the land is ideally suited for grazing livestock, but not farming. The blowing and shifting hills of sand may resemble a desert to the casual observer, but it's a beautiful country that supports a strong grass seemingly custom designed for cows. And in the valleys below, the Ogallala Aquifer brings ground water to within 12-20 feet of the surface, ready to be tapped by windmills and pipelines.

Art and Merry met in college at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. They married six years later and lived in Omaha for the next 20 years, focused around Art's corporate job with U.S. West. Merry, Art and the family, which grew to include Eddie, now 14, and Ethan, 6, continued to travel back and forth the nearly 400 miles to the ranch for spring calving and fall work. But after purchasing the JHL and becoming more directly involved, they made the move to pull up roots in Omaha and make the Sandhills their primary home.

"I grew up with the phrase hammered in my head over and over," Merry says, "'If you weren't raised on a ranch, you'll never learn how to ranch.' And so when I married Art, a city boy, I went to the city with him. Well nowadays, a rancher has to be so much more than a stockman. He's got to be the businessman, the accountant, he's got to be the mechanic. We learn what we can and deal with the rest. So Art's a rubber-tired cowboy." They use their differing backgrounds to their advantage with Merry being the one who prefers to jump on a horse to work cattle, while Art's expertise with the business end complements her strengths. Merry, her sister and her brother all now ranch on land that her father had owned or leased. In an area where black cows are the norm as you top hill after hill, Merry says, "I'm the outcross in the family! About 9 years ago, my sister had gone to the Denver Stock Show. She saw Harlan Doeschot's Golden Link Simmentals, and they were beautiful Simmentals. She went over to look at them and saw these little brown teddy bear Braunviehs. She called me up and said 'we've got to go to this bull sale.' So I met her down by Lincoln and went to the sale. We sat down and I was smitten. I don't know if Art would say 'smitten' was his term, but he was tolerant and that was when we got "Brownie," and another bull, our first Braunviehs."

"I wanted to get some more depth to our cows," Merry says. "That was one of the first things that appealed to us about the Braunvieh was the heart girth they had. They looked like they could carry some meat. So "Brownie" came home and has been doing his job ever since." For the next few years, they used percentage Braunvieh bulls cautiously, buying a couple bulls every year while collecting carcass data on the calves and watching the Braunvieh-sired replacements in the pasture. The Braunvieh pulled their own weight, plus some, and last year a third of their bulls were Braunviehs, a third were Angus and a third Gelbvieh. This year, half the JHL bulls were Braunvieh and half were Angus.

"We don't have the extra groceries available," Art says. "Everything but prairie hay has to be shipped in. It's one reason we like the Braunvieh breed - they are very efficient animals. The Braunvieh bulls come off the range and into summer a condition score or 2 better than our Angus or our Gelbvieh bulls. We think that will translate into the cows as far as feed conversion and efficiency. Ideally, that's what we'd like to be is a more muscled Angus that is like a terminal cross as far as muscling and putting on weight, but at the same time has efficiency and fertility for the female line. We'd just as soon work toward more efficient stock, have more cows, less size on the calves and put the weight on in the feedlot."

The Brownlees have been selling their finished cattle on a grid through alliance programs for seven years. "We just felt there was an opportunity there," Art says. "Why should we hand the money to somebody else to feed our cattle - just take it on through. We started small; we didn't know what we had. I think now for us, it's accountability."

Most of their cattle are fed for a "select" program, with the biggest premiums paid for ribeye size and ribeye area per hundredweight. But Art and Mary stay focused on keeping plenty of marbling in their cattle to be able to move into choice programs.

"To me, it's distancing yourself from a commodity," Art says. "As long as you're in a commodity, the commodity dictates the price. If you can somehow differentiate yourself from the commodity because your quality is better, then the market's huge. If indeed we do want to switch to a choice program, we're trying to be in a place where our cattle can go to choice." The Brownlees have had Braunvieh cattle go prime that were fed in a program for select; one hit prime after only 80 days on feed.

Last summer, a group of JHL Braunvieh feeder cattle had a quality grade 25% higher than their Angus counterparts and a larger ribeye area. They're shooting for Select+, Yield Grade 1s and 2s with a 14 in. ribeye area and less than .4 backfat on calves averaging 1,150 lb. They're already averaging a better than 13-in. ribeye and both a quality grade and yield grade less than a 3.0.

"One of our major concerns in the beef business is we'd like to be able to see that every one of our carcasses is a good carcass - good tasting meat, tender," says Art. "We collect carcass data on everything and use DNA checks on the top percentage and the bottom percentage of our carcasses to track them back to the bulls. But when you think about it, by the time you collect carcass data, that bull's already got his third calf crop coming. What we might be able to do is cut two years off that bull's useful life, or stay away from a whole line of bulls, but it just takes so long to know whether that end product is there.

Merry says one thing they appreciate about Braunvieh is their versatility. "BEEF magazine just came out with a series of studies that MARC at Clay Center, Neb., had done. They compared a variety of breeds and Braunvieh, as a continental breed, was a moderate. It's in the top five for marbling, muscling and on down the list. It's such a versatile continental breed that we can cross it on our Angus and improve the muscling, improve the cutability and not give away too much of some of the other traits we lose with the extreme continentals."

"I can't see that they have hurt us at all anywhere," Art says. "I don't know if it's a good marketing ploy to say that, but really, it's a big statement to make. It's always harder to show positives, but to me, one of the biggest benefits you can really see is that the Braunvieh haven't hurt us. They give us an outcross. We don't think we have any special problems, so we don't have to go out and fix any problems. And we've improved the ribeyes more than half an inch."

The Brownlees have been taking linear measurements to help them in their selection and to evaluate the progress of their herd. They give a lot of credit to Jon Immink of Golden Link, who got them started with linear measurements, and to Dr. Mike McDonnell, one of the experts in the linear field. The two men have worked with them to formulate their thoughts on where they want to be, to prioritize trait selection and to help them focus on what they want to accomplish through the measurements. "We linear-measured our replacement heifers the last two years," Merry says. "It's a fascinating way of looking at your cattle. Over the years a lot of people have developed an eye so they can see a lot of it. When you stop to think what a real feminine cow looks like, she's going to have that kind of wedge shape. She's going to have the deeper flank and be wider across the hip. Well, we can measure that and use that as a measurement for femininity." Art adds, "Linear measurement is kind of a way of putting a actual measure to something that common-sense wise, people know."

"One of the things that we've been looking for is that bigger heart girth," Merry says. "Because we don't pamper cattle out here, they've got to get out and rustle on their own and it appears to be the deeper the heart girth in comparison to their body length, the more storage they have and the better they get along. And I think we really see it between our yearling Braunvieh bulls and our yearling Angus bulls. The Angus can be so long that they have proportionally smaller heart girths, less volume. When an Angus yearling comes out of the cows after 60 days, he's just a wreck. Then our little Braunvieh bulls come out and look so good we kind of wonder if they've been doing any work." That hardiness carries on through the older bulls, too. "Last fall when we pulled the bulls, I realized "Brownie" was getting older and his days were numbered," Merry says, "so I looked for signs of him being whipped out. We gathered up this herd of bulls and "Brownie" didn't care where he was in the pack. He just took up his position in the middle of the herd and we walked back for the 7-mile hike, and it got hot before we got here. We had Angus bulls that were dropping back huffing and puffing, but "Brownie" just kept hiking. Eight years old and he was going back home. By the time we got down here, he was one of the first bulls through the gate."

"We'd like to see more Braunvieh - more opportunities in every aspect of the business - more Braunvieh available for purchasing heifers, purchasing bulls," Art says. "I think the people who might look at Braunvieh are the people headed down the road that have a vision in mind."

The Brownlees are receptive to modern technology but are careful not to push mother nature too far in this fragile environment. They A.I. their heifers, check the cattle with 4-wheelers and use their computer to analyze the data they collect. But they also work cattle on horseback, rely on a steady wind and windmills for water and let the cattle take care of natural pasture fertilization rather than apply chemical fertilizers to their meadows. "Some people are fertilizing the meadows, but we don't," Art says. "It should be safe to do it, because research has shown exactly how much a plant should capture before fertilizer gets past the grass roots so it won't get to the aquifer just a few feet below. But we don't want to chance that and leave a legacy that you can't drink the water because it's got nitrates." And there's reason to be cautious - the Sandhills still show the scars where homesteaders broke the ground and tried to raise crops in the early part of the century.

"Any article about this place is not a story about us. We're just a small link in the chain," Merry says. "We're in it because we like the lifestyle, the livestock. How many other "businesses" can you work in side-by-side with your family? Out here most of these kids are too tired to get into trouble. Do we think we're going to go out there and make any major changes? Probably not. If we can improve the ranch and improve the cattle, that would be an accomplishment. It's a good way to live. It's an honest living. When you're dealing day-to-day with the forces of nature and the intricacies of genes, it keeps you humble."

Soli Deo Gloria


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