By Nikki Work
When Susan and Curtis Russell were deciding which breed of cattle they wanted to raise together more than 25 years ago, they left the decision up to science. The Simmental breed won the day, with its already-large base of genetics research, which Susan said was ahead of its time.
Even now, when genomics, EPDs and other research rule the seedstock industry, the Russells are confident in Simmentals, the breed which has not only made their living but earned them recognition from cattle organizations around the state and nation.
In January 2016, the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association named the Russells’ Reflected R Ranch Seedstock Producer of the Year. Both Susan and Curtis were chosen to serve six-year terms as national trustees on the Board for the American Simmental Association. Along with other awards, this year the family was recognized as the Honorary Lifetime Member of the Colorado Simmental Association for their involvement and promotion of the breed.
After more than two decades, countless bulls and raising two children on the ranch in Sugar City, CO, Susan said it’s the strength of the Simmental breed and the ability to rely on sound science and breed leadership that has made them successful. The Russell’s also own and operate a feed store in nearby La Junta that offers AI service to customers.
“Simmental is a very science-based breed, which is one of the things that we really wanted to look at when we were searching for what we wanted to do 25-30 years ago,” Susan said. “I think that that’s important, that the industry is moving that way.”
So what is that science that the Russell’s wanted to fall back on?
In fall 2004, the cattle industry’s first set of genomically-enhanced EPDs came from the American Simmental Association. These reported Warner-Bratzler Shear Force, a measure of meat tenderness. Eight years later the Association leveraged SNP technology to create GE-EPDs for all other traits. The number of genotypes in the evaluation database jumped from 2,300 in 2011 to more than 50,000 in 2015, allowing producers to see the results of their breeding programs—and make adjustments—much more quickly, according to the ASA Annual Report for 2015.
The Association’s innovation goes further back, though. Since Simmentals are a breed known for not only beef but also milking quality and–once upon a time—potential as draft animals, they are one of the oldest and most widespread breeds in the world. The American Simmental Association was founded in the ’60s and has been leading the beef industry on many fronts, like publishing beef’s first breed sire summary, creating a cow recognition program, developing a heat-tolerant and insect-resistant crossbreed, establishing a standard for proving carcass merit and developing the first EPD system for multiple breeds.
That multi-breed evaluation system is still the largest in existence and allows producers to predict breeding performance and genetic makeup in calves no matter what breeds are crossed. In 2014, the Association revamped this system by incorporating new technologies that allowed them to better analyze genetic data. According to the ASA’s 2015 annual report, the system synthesized genetic information from more than 16 million records from 12 different breed associations. The ASA predicts the database will continue to grow by more than 340,000 entries per year.
In addition to keeping indexes for each of the traits the Association keeps EPDs on, the American Simmental Association also keeps a $All Purpose Index ($API), which helps producers evaluate their bottom-line in dollars-per-cow based on using a bull as a sire for the whole herd. Susan Russell said this is a very useful tool for producers and breeders.
One of the herd sires at Reflected R Ranch, Nightforce, is in the top 1 percent of the ASA’s $API, as well as in the top 1 percent of the calving ease and marbling EPD indexes. The Russell’s will be selling semen from him this year.
He’s the star of their show right now, and Susan said he’s proof that the Simmental breed’s genetics work.
“We’ve been very pleased with him,” she said. “He’s something that we’re very proud of at the moment.”
For the Russell’s, raising a breed like the Simmental means not only finding cattle that fit their needs but those of their customers.
Every year, the Russell’s sell their bulls near La Garita, Colo., at the High Altitude Bull Sale along with T-Heart Ranch and Campbell Simmentals. Many of the Russells’ customers are high-country buyers, so they need to know their cattle can withstand the pressures of altitude.
That’s why they develop their bulls at 8,000 feet for months before they are sold, and PAP test multiple times to make sure they aren’t having heart trouble and aren’t at risk for brisket disease, all while genomic testing and measuring the EPD indexes like they typically would.
“The mountain customers, if they’re going to turn out a bull at that higher elevation, they want one that’s going to maintain his condition,” Susan said. “You’ve got to have a live bull doing his job. One that can’t breathe isn’t going to do any good.”
The strong science and genetics behind the Simmental breed allows for this, she said. Without that, Susan and Curtis wouldn’t be able to raise cattle that fare as well in the mountains as they do at home in the drought situations of southeastern Colorado.
Some years, when Sugar City and the surrounding areas, where the Russell’s graze their herd, have gotten little to no moisture, it’s that strong genetic research that has allowed them to thin their herd to manageable levels. They’ve been able to retain just the top production and disposition qualities in their herd.
Even when they aren’t culling cattle, the research the American Simmental Association has already done with genomically-enhanced EPDs has made it easier for breeders to be accurate with breeding goals much more quickly and save several generations of effort. That makes both the Russell’s and their customers happy, Susan said.
That’s not to say the Simmental breed has never followed the industry path of chasing traits. In the ’80s, every breed was getting bigger at the expense of the quality of the animal, Susan said. But now, she encourages those in the seedstock industry to steer away from what she calls the “show ring trends” and focus on what matters most for the animal and for the industry. In the Simmental breed, she says that’s moderate frame, heavy muscle, calving ease, fertility and disposition.
“Sometimes we get carried away,” she said. ”Does it really matter if there’s more white feather going down the back of that Hereford than usual? It doesn’t change the animal.”
One of Susan’s favorite things about the about 150 head of mother cows she and her husband run is that they are more mellow than many cattle breeds, and since the environmental limitations have prompted them too often cull deeply, the herd has gotten calmer and easier to work with over the years.
When Susan and Curtis were raising their two sons, Jason and Chad, that was ideal, she said. Now that both boys are grown and live off the ranch, the empty nesters like some peace and quiet. Recently, a hired hand told her he had never seen cattle so quiet.
That’s by design.