February 08, 2018

Bill E. Kunkle Interdisciplinary Beef Symposium Recap!

A great Bill E. Kunkle Interdisciplinary Beef Symposium contributes to a fantastic program at the 2018 Southern Section Meeting.

Matt Poore and Dan Poole, North Carolina State University

The 2018 Southern  Section ASAS annual meeting just concluded in Ft. Worth, Texas.  The Southern Section is clearly on the rise, and we saw a record turnout this year.  The Southern Section program is diverse but has an emphasis on pasture-based livestock production.   There are many aspects to the meeting, and this year one exciting new feature was the opening  graduate and undergraduate student competition.  The sessions featured 41 students that presented a "three minute thesis" summarizing the abstracts that they would present later in the meeting.   

One highlight of Southern Section is always the Bill E. Kunkle interdisciplinary beef symposium.  The symposium was started by the Southern Extension Committee in 2009, and it was named for Bill Kunkle in 2015.  Bill was on the faculty at University of Florida, and he gave a lot of his energy to mentor many young Extension specialists across the South.  Bill was truly an interdisciplinary critical thinker, and he showed so many of us how you could be both a great extension specialist, and a productive researcher before his untimely death in 2002.  This named symposium helps keep Bill's memory alive and attracts a large and enthusiastic audience each year.

This year's program focused on Recent Advances in Replacement Heifer Development.   Dr. David Lalman from Oklahoma State University led off the program with a look at the progress that has been made in the genetics of beef cattle over the last several decades, and the implications of this progress on how the industry should proceed in the future.  His key message was that we have made amazing progress in "the easy traits" including post-weaning growth and carcass traits, but that we have a long way to go with the more difficult traits including production efficiency, cow fertility, "stayability" (productive lifespan)  and profitability.  Some of the progress we have made with traits such as milk production, cow size and feed intake has led to increased cow costs, and in many cases the industry would benefit from moderation of these traits.  The good news is that we have great new tools that will help us make progress with the difficult to change traits without giving up our progress in growth and carcass traits.

Second on the program was Dr. Gary Williams from Texas A&M AgriLife Research.   He started by describing our current understanding of how the Hypothalamic/Pituitary/Gonadal axis controls the onset of puberty.  It has long been understood that early attainment of puberty through good nutrition is key to getting heifers bred early, which is critical to optimizing their lifetime productivity.  It is clear that precocious puberty is real, and while it is not necessarily desirable when a heifer cycles at a very young age it demonstrates that reducing the age at puberty dramatically is biologically possible.  Recent work has demonstrated that a high plane of nutrition at a very early age can dramatically reduce age of puberty.  Stair-step development programs need additional research, but they have great potential to get a high percentage of heifers bred at an early age without the negative effects associated with overly fat heifers and precocious puberty.  Nutritional implications on reproduction may also be important when the heifers are in utero, so nutritional status of the dam in late pregnancy, especially as impacted by poor nutrition as a result of drought, may have long-term impacts on heifer reproductive performance.

Third was Dr. Ryon Walker with the Noble Research Institute.  He presented recent heifer breeding performance data that he obtained from several research programs across the country including University of Florida, Oregon State University, Louisiana State University, North Carolina State University, and the Noble Research Institute.  The focus of his analysis was the concept of target weight for breeding heifers, and how the traditional 60-65% of mature body weight target may have changed with recent advances in heifer genetics.  At all locations there was very little impact of % of mature body weight at breeding on overall pregnancy rate.  Heifers with as little as 51 to 55% of mature body weight showed high pregnancy rates, although many of these heifers were not low in weight, but rather were out of (and thereby destined to be) very large cows.  His overall conclusion was that heifers developed to smaller than the traditional target weights can have very high breeding rates.  A limitation of some of the data he analyzed was that in some cases he had to use predicted rather than actual mature body weights in his analysis.  One clear limitation of the target weight concept is that many producers don't weigh their cows, and he showed data collected at producer field days which showed that most producers could not accurately guess cow weights, even within 200 lbs!  Weighing cows using a scale and recording a body condition score is a key recommendation he made to improve our heifer development programs.

Finally, Justin Rhinehart, from the University of Tennessee, talked about the status and impact of University Heifer Development Programs in the South.  The goals of these programs varies some, but most include; showing the value of custom heifer development, demonstrating our recommended heifer development practices, and providing well developed heifers to their home farms or to purchasers.  He presented an overview of five heifer development programs including the University of Missouri, University of Kentucky, University of Georgia, McNeese State University, and the University of Tennessee.  These programs include both centralized and decentralized models.  Each of the programs have had a significant impact in their states, and have stimulated interest in private custom heifer development programs.  The ultimate goal of Justin's program in Tennessee is to stimulate improved on-farm and custom development of heifers to the extent that the University can turn those efforts over to the private sector.  However, he stressed that running one of these programs is a great way for university faculty to stay in touch with industry and to get experience with large-scale heifer development enterprises.

The Bill E. Kunkle Interdisciplinary Beef Symposium organizing committee has already started work on another great opportunity to gather and exchange ideas at the 2019 Southern Section ASAS meeting, January 26-29 in Oklahoma City.  The focus will likely be how the beef industry in the South can better coordinate cow/calf and feedlot sectors to enhance animal health and welfare, improve production efficiency, and improve profits for all sectors.  Join us and take advantage of the many benefits of being part of the action at Southern Section.