Lane Giess, Brady Jensen, Jennifer Bormann, Ph.D. and Bob Weaber, Ph.D., Department of Animal Science and Industry, Kansas State University
If you ask a feedlot owner or manager what traits make them the most money the answer will never be good feet and legs. So why should cow-calf producers select for qualities that aren't a high priority further along the value chain? With the national cow herd inventory at a critical low point and unstable cattle prices, it is in the cow-calf producer's best interest to maximize profitability and enhance operational sustainability. There is no doubt, profit in the cow-calf sector depends on selecting for more than the usual performance traits (such as weaning weight and yearling weight or even end product value). The simple answer is pounds of gain and carcass merit are only part of the overall suite of traits that should be included in a breeding objective. Traits such as fertility, calving ease, docility and soundness all contribute to the economic outcomes of a herd.
Selecting for soundness may improve longevity of an animal thereby reducing culling and costs associated with developing replacements. Traits that indicate soundness, including feet and leg conformation, play an important role in determining the longevity of young breeding bulls and females in the herd. Research suggests that breeders may select for improved feet and leg conformation and achieve measurable results form this effort.
The dairy industry figured out early that the structural integrity of their cows played a key role in the profitability of their cowherd. most of the research done on soundness can be found in dairy literature, and they now have a global genetic evaluation that include a feet and leg score trait. The U.S. Holstein Association even claims that from a recent survey, their Feet and Leg Composite score is one of the five most important traits used in selection by Holstein producers.
Why is soundness being brought to the table in the beef industry? With the recent welfare concerns of feet and leg issues regarding animals fed a beta-agonist, soundness has become of interest (Thomson et al., 2015). However, researchers (Loneragan et al., 2014; Thomson et al., 2015) have suggested that the feed additives are not the sole cause of lameness or mortality issues. Although the spotlight has only been in feedlot cattle, many commercial cattlemen have expressed concern over the hoof and foot soundness in young seedstock bulls. with record high bull prices, heightened expectations of soundness and longevity have become relevant.
So what can seedstock producers do to ensure structural integrity of their herd and maximize the productive life of an animal? By selecting for feet and leg conformation producers may actively improve the overall productivity of the herd. Research suggests that many feet and leg traits are moderately heritable (Table 1).
Ultimately, beef producers will make the decision about which feet and leg traits are relevant and which are included in selection criteria. Dairy research suggests "straight-leggedness" significantly decreases the mobility and comfort of an animal, while contributing to a 59% greater probability of being replaced as compared to cows with a moderate angle to the hock (Forabosco et al., 2009).
Cows that remain sound avoid culling and should experience improved longevity. Work is underway at Kansas State University to gather phenotypic data on hoof, foot and leg conformation in Red Angus and Simmental cattle. The project aims to develop an EPD for a range of foot and leg conformation traits that may aid producers in selecting sires that produce sounder progeny. Research activities are planned to help understand the association between feet and leg conformation, culling and longevity data. Over the next several months, K-State team members will collect hoof, foot and leg phenotypes on more than 4,000 animals for use in the analysis. Work to date has included the development of a comprehensive scoring and data collection system. Traits of the front and rear foot and leg evaluated include hoof angle (at toe), heal depth, hoof or claw shape, and knee or hock angulation from two dimensions. The work is supported through the K-State Global Food Systems initiative, the Red Angus Association of America and the American Simmental Association.