Breeding for Survivability with Genetic Selection and Measurement


Nestled smack dab in the Florida panhandle, northwest of Marianna, ‘The City of Southern Charm’, lies the Southern Cattle Company, established in 1992 by Mr. John Downs. The ranch was originally born with the simple yet eloquent goal of producing genetically exceptional cattle through genetic selection.

Mr. Downs still aspires to this objective today, focusing on increasing commercial cattlemen’s profitability throughout the industry.

Beginning primarily with Angus and Charolais, followed by Brangus, the ranch diversified and expanded into 13 different breeds. While the operation’s footprint and the breeds changed over the years, technology modernized many of the traditional ways.

“We became overly diverse with the 13 breeds,” says general manager, Chris Heptinstall. “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.”

For Heptinstall, those breeds fitting the bill are Angus, Brangus and Charolais.

Southern Cattle Company currently consists of approximately 7,000 head of commercial and registered animals. From this platform, they sell top quality semen and embryos throughout the country. They also feature an annual bull and commercial female sale and are generating an expansion into registered female sales.

The cattle operation is matched by a quarter horse business featuring performance and cutting horses. On the farming side of the ledger, they raise perennial peanut hay, plus grow Bermuda and Bahia grass forage along with seed production.

Contracted operations raise many of their embryo calves providing Southern Cattle Company with valuable data helping to improve their genetics. By finishing their calves in this way, strengths and weaknesses are determined by collecting needed data and removing much of the guesswork.

“Our main focus is selling commercial bulls in volume,” Heptinstall explains. “With our seedstock 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/calf guys, we’ll get behind the eight ball.”

Breeding for Survivability Through Measurement

Florida and the deep south regions boast their own specific type of climate with unique forage quality issues. Combined with the fact many ranches introduce breeding stock from other areas of the country, imported bulls struggle to excel in this new to them environment. Average useful lifespans are cut short, while profitability suffers.

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

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

When asked how they use genetic selection to breed heat tolerant animals, he proclaims, “Man must Measure!” quoting Jan Bonsma’s livestock production book of the same name which has become an inspiration to Heptinstall.

Using genetic manipulation while maintaining acceptable EPDs and other traits such as feed efficiency and carcass quality is a balancing act says Heptinstall.

“It’s all part of a toolbox,” he said. “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.”

He believes it’s easy to move the needle on certain traits, but with others, it’s not so simple. The well-worn statement ‘single trait selection will get you in trouble every time’ fits the approach.

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

Southern Cattle Company uses ultrasound data and yearling weights to find the next breeding pieces for what they hope 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 older cows with existing issues using conventional flushing can have oocytes collected where they’d normally produce only one calf per year.

Heptinstall attributes Vytelle’s hormone-free IVF with providing 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 3 and 4 times are gone.”

Reinforcing the Recipients

Arranging the donors and matching genetics is only part of the equation to Heptinstall. The other main part of the puzzle is recipients.

He says recipient management includes trusted herd health protocols provided by competent veterinarians. Vaccinations and nutrition top the list of requirements.

Their ranch is blessed to be in silage country, so they’re able to supplement their animals with top quality hay and silage. Furst-McNess Company nutritionists help with feed ration formulation and the operation employs a computer software program able to change and adapt rations in the office and relay information to the feed delivery crews in live time.  

“Keeping good grass under their feet is crucial,” he stressed. “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 says Vytelle has been excellent from the hormone-free IVF side and also with offering their Vytelle SENSE feed efficiency technology. He’s hopeful Southern Cattle Company will be adding some of these systems to their operation 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.”

“Southern Cattle Company is in the process of turning production around right now,” he said. “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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