by Brad Wright, Ranch Hand Analytics
Jim and Lynda Fenton, founders of Fenco Farms, have an extensive history in agriculture. Located in central Florida they are in the citrus and strawberry business, as well as run a small cattle operation.
As markets in Florida began to change, the couple saw a coming need to turn that farmland into pastureland to grow the cattle operation. As the citrus industry took a hit, an opportunity developed to acquire more land to allow for a more rapid increase in cattle production. A founding principle of the cattle operation brought over from the strawberry operation is to collect and use data at every opportunity and to turn generations quickly in order to accelerate genetic improvement. With that driving principle came the discipline and determination to collect every data point possible, explore every technology available and then use the tools and data to make management and selection decisions that directly impact profitability.
When it came time to start stocking the ranch, the cattle had to be able to adapt to the sub-tropical environment. To best adapt to the heat, humidity and parasite load of the environment, a Bos indicus-influenced cow was a requirement. But with the desire to retain traits were also of high importance. The decision was made to stock the ranch with Brangus and Brangus cross females. They found Brangus highly adaptable and hardy cattle that thrive in sub-tropical environments, but also retain the carcass quality needed to be successful when selling calves on the rail.
Fenco began stocking the ranch with high quality Brangus cross heifers in 2011. In 2015, they began running a DNA profile on the females in the herd and all herd sires. At that time, there was not a lot of information to be gained from that DNA data, but they had the foresight to know that the bank of DNA information would be needed in the future. By having the ability to accurately assign pedigree, the data collected on the ranch today is much more useful for selection and culling decisions of sires and dams. That DNA data also ties directly into the current Igenity Enhanced® genomic data that will be used this year for the first time to aid in the selection of replacement heifers.
One of the first technologies that was implemented at Fenco was the use of electronic identification (EID) and scales at every working facility. With that technology in place, it turned a tedious task into an automatic process to collect weights at every working as well as verify inventory. As with every profitable business, inventory control and tracking of assets should be of the utmost importance. The use of EIDs enhanced the ability to quickly and efficiently account for pasture inventories, log cattle getting on trucks for movement or shipping, and, by process of elimination, identify missing animals. With a growing herd that included many purchased animals, having a unique ID in the form of an EID prevented duplicate IDs and confusion between animals. With large numbers of cows, EID technology allowed for the extensive data collection plan.
To use all of this data, it is important to have a good way to store, manage, and report the data. Fenco uses the CattleMax online software to manage the data. With the software being web-based, the data is accessible from anywhere. Whether driving through the pasture or chute-side, all records are just a click away. Having genomic data, pedigree, performance data, and calf production history all stored in one place has been a major reason that Fenco has been able to collect and use the large amounts of data.
Today, every calf born has a DNA sample taken and an EID assigned at first calf working. Fenco is utilizing Igenity Enhanced®, a DNA testing option offered from Neogen that combines the commercially available genomic tests with actual in-herd data. This allows Fenco Farms to have a highly accurate selection tool to improve genetic selection. A full genomic panel is run on every heifer born on the ranch. This panel provides parentage and genomic scores for calving ease, birth weight, weaning weight, yearling weight, average daily gain, heifer pregnancy, milk, stayability, carcass weight, ribeye area, marbling, and fat thickness. The panel also provides an Envigor score to measure retained hybrid vigor. Since the heifers are a product of mating Brangus cross females to Brangus bulls, keeping heifers with higher retained hybrid vigor will directly impact the bottom line with greater efficiency and higher pregnancy rates. All steers are run for parentage only, so that their carcass data is attributed to the correct parents for calculation in the Enhanced genomic scores.
At weaning, the first sort is made using both phenotype and genomic data to select replacement heifers. Steers and feeder heifers are sent to several feedlots, and ownership is retained so that carcass data can be collected. The replacement heifers are closely monitored for post weaning gain, body condition, and weight at breeding. At palpation, heifers are weighed again to check gain since breeding. The gains from weaning to breeding and the gains from breeding to palpation are used to evaluate any correlations to pregnancy rates that can be used to make adjustments in selection or management the following year. All open heifers are sent to the feed yard. As selection for fertility traits has become more intense, breeding seasons have shortened which creates tighter calving windows and a calf crop that is similar in age.
To enhance genetic gain, the use of artificial insemination has been used across the ranch. In the heifer groups, weight at the time of breeding has become a deciding point of which heifers get AI’d and which are turned out with bulls only. Because of the records kept in previous years, pregnancy rate by weight group has allowed for the development of a threshold weight for heifers to be in the AI group. Heifers below that threshold in the past did not have a high enough pregnancy rate to warrant the added cost of synchronization and AI.
Cows are also weighed at every working. The most important of these weights has been the weight at weaning. Having the cow weights at this time has allowed for calculation of percent body weight weaned that compares the weight of the calf to the weight of the cow at weaning. This ratio has proven to be a very good indicator of cow efficiency. Given the knowledge that bigger cows have higher maintenance energy costs, percent body weight weaned assists in culling cows that are not raising big enough calves relative to their own body weight.
With the data collection protocols that have been implemented at the ranch, Fenco Farms has been able to run their own internal comparison studies of management protocols and procedures and also participate in formal programs and research studies from local universities. The ability to assess different DNA test results, feeding programs, synchronization protocols, or anything else needed will greatly assist in profitability in the future. Research has been a big part of the program at Fenco Farms to identify the processes that make the biggest impact on profitability and are the most efficient in their production environment.
Fenco Farms has also been very willing to share this data with partners, cattle buyers, and with producers that they have purchased genetics from. This allows for improvement of not just the Fenco herd but all the herds with genetics represented in the Fenco program. As part of this data sharing plan, last year, Fenco teamed up with Brangus breeders around the country to get semen on several up-and-coming AI sires. These bulls were used in the AI program and calves will be measured and data shared with the owners of the bulls. Testing these bulls is a great service to the entire Brangus breed. This will identify bulls that consistently hit production goals, allowing other breeders to more accurately select the genetics that they wish to use in their program.
As data started coming in, it became obvious that to better control the consistency of the genetics being produced, Fenco needed to raise their own bulls. With that, Fenco started their own registered Brangus by sourcing elite cows and herd sires from across the country. With the data collection principles in place and an investment in artificial insemination and embryo transfer to multiply elite genetics, Fenco Farms is able to make the bulls needed to hit marketing end goals in the commercial herd. This has also allowed for a form of vertical integration that gives control of the entire production system from seedstock genetics to the rail.
LeRoy Rooks, manager of Fenco Farms, when asked what the driving principle behind the operation is, said “You have to use the data.” That has been the driving force behind the entire plan. Not just collect the data, but actually use the data. By improving the efficiency of selection decisions and culling decisions, Fenco Farms is able to produce a consistent product that meets market demand. Even as markets change, the data and genetic information is available to change directions quickly and efficiently. As the operation progresses, there will be new data to collect, there will be current data that is found to not impact the operation, there will be new technology available, and Fenco Farms will continue to have the progressive outlook to use the data available to increase consistency, mitigate risk, and increase profitability.