Why we Line-Breed
I will apologize in advance for this lengthy story of why we line-breed. I find it difficult to explain our unconventional breeding concepts in less words given that my understanding of the complex genetic factors involved is constantly evolving.
I grew up on a cattle and sheep farm in Scotland where our cattle operation was largely based on home raised cows sired by bought in bulls. We used bulls of several breeds over the years, mostly in a crossbreeding situation but sometimes bred pure. We found a lack of consistency in the offspring and each time we looked for a new bull we were seeking one to correct the faults that his predecessor had left. Some were too big, others too small, some left poor udders, some poor feet and others bred offspring with poor fertility or reduced longevity. It seemed the more we spent buying “better” (ie higher priced) bulls the worse the results. Conversely one thing I was aware of, but didn’t understand until many years later, were the few batches of outstanding commercial cows that were productive and trouble free well into their teenage years that were sired by the cheapest, ugliest looking bulls we had ever bought.
After moving to Canada and establishing a Luing herd from the very limited numbers available and with no outside source of compatible genetics I decided line-breeding the cattle we had might be the most viable way to sustain the gene pool.
I knew that line-breeding was used to create the Luing breed and indeed is the origin of all domesticated animal breeds. It is the only way to consistently imprint the characteristics into the individuals so that over time they become a recognizable type with established homozygous characteristics that justify being called a breed.
Further research into line-breeding led me to a remarkable man who helped me understand my prior cattle breeding experiences and how genetics work in cattle breeding, particularly in relation to the natural environment. That man was Larry Leonhardt of Shoshone Angus based in Wyoming. Sadly Larry passed away in the summer of 2014 but not before sharing his wisdom with the many visitors to Cowley and Red Lodge and an on-line following of his writings and discussion hosted by his friend Mike Keeney. I encourage anyone with an interest in cattle breeding to visit to read Larry’s extensive writings there as it contains a wealth of information and knowledge.
I quickly learned that the inconsistent results of my earliest breeding endeavors were largely due to human nature rather than a failure of the cattle genetics. I, along with most in the industry had fallen into the habit of visually selecting bulls with the same phenotype as the finished steer, forgetting that we need maternal genetics, rather than terminal to build a successful cow herd.
The bulls that I thought were so ugly produced the best daughters because they were more maternal cattle. The concept of a “plain” looking beef bull siring the best daughters is alien to most ranchers yet in the dairy industry the sires of the most feminine, milky females are the plainest, ugliest bulls you will ever see.
Today most purebred cattle breeders, fueled with over confidence in paper generated EPD values, try to combine the highest levels of production across the most traits in one “super” animal but in the real ranch environment these cattle usually fail to be the best at anything.
The Hybrid Solution
I also learned the method by which plant breeders develop new lines of hybrid corn and other agricultural crops. In the case of corn the plant breeder line-breeds (or inbreeds) two different corn strains to concentrate the characteristics of each and to eliminate the hybrid vigor. Once this has been achieved he cross breeds these two inbred parent lines and the resulting progeny benefits from the maximum hybrid vigor. This hybrid vigor creates a stronger, healthier and more productive plant than either of the parent lines it was derived from. This simple picture below illustrates the concept clearly. The cobs off the two parent plants are on the outside, the hybrid progeny in the middle.
Utilizing hybrid vigor is not new to the cattle world. Breeding a bull of one breed to cows of another breed has been the mainstay of many traditional crossbreeding programs. However, although common in plant breeding, purposely inbreeding or line-breeding lines of both maternal and paternal “parent stock” to create the potential to produce superior hybrid “production stock” has only rarely been done in the cattle world. Larry Leonhardt was a pioneer of this practice and realized it’s potential over 30 years ago.
Once I understood this concept our breeding objective became clear. We would concentrate the maternal characteristics within our gene pool by line-breeding to create predictable parent stock for our customers to use in their cross-breeding systems.
We based our line-breeding program around what I considered to be our most successful cow - Lochend Luing 223U. I bought this cow from Dr Bob Church when she was 15 years old amongst a package of teenage cows that were the foundation of my herd.
Among her calves were two sons pictured below that we used extensively across the herd to establish a base population of related females. Medicine River Warrior is pictured on the left with Medicine River Solomon on the right. These two bulls had different sires but the same dam. These are the two bull lines within our line-breeding program and we breed the daughters off the Warrior line to sons off the Solomon line and vice versa in each subsequent generation.
Lochend 223U also gave us four daughters and by breeding them back to their half-brothers we got what I consider the first generation of line-bred cattle. As the years have passed the population has multiplied and we are already breeding 223U great grandsons to great, great, great grand-daughters! The matings are generally of the half-brother/half-sister variety although we have on occasion bred closer.
We also purchased two further Lochend cows that were double grand-daughters of 223U and they have made a considerable contribution to populating the core of our line-bred herd.
Below left is Lochend Leccamore 24P who we performed embryo transfer on before she left the herd at age 14.
Below right is Lochend Luing 11T who consistently turns in one of the best calves at age 12.
The results so far have been very pleasing, more than we could ever have hoped for starting out with one 15 year old cow!
The females are taking on a commonality of appearance and there is starting to be more consistency of performance in terms of reduced wastage from open cows etc.
By using bulls from the middle of the pack rather than the outliers with the most or least performance we hope to be able to perpetuate the average of the gene pool which should be reflective of 223U’s own performance given that she has such a strong contributory influence.
She was by no means a wonder cow and certainly not the type that turns heads or wins shows. She was just a cow that was “good enough” in all traits over the long haul under commercial conditions. Her feet, udder, fertility, maternal skills and longevity were all good enough that she remained in the herd, producing a calf a year, trouble-free until the age of 23 years old. (Pictured right at age 19)