Vol. 3, #5 Longevity: The Forgotten Genetic Trait

Farm Update:   Sept. 2018

The summer has been both dry and hot.  We have broken our record for the most 90 degree or hotter days in a year.  Needless to say our pasture has turned to straw.  We started to feed hay to our cows August 6th because of the drought conditions.  I visited 9 different Shorthorn breeders in the Midwest this summer.  It was interesting to see the wide variety of management styles and Shorthorn types.  It speaks well to the versatility of Shorthorns that they adapt to so many different farm environments while maintaining their productivity.

Bi-Monthly Topic:  Longevity- The Forgotten Genetic Trait


Most readers will agree we have become a throw away society with little concern about the impact.  Advertisers constantly promote the newest, improved, and beneficial product with the hope we will toss what we have and buy the new product.  Many of us who grew up in the 50’s and 60’s can remember businesses, such as small appliance repair shops, that were predicated on fixing and maintaining the viability of a product rather than replacing it.  Economics were the driving force but most consumers did not buy into the hype we are all confronted with today through the internet and cable television.  Cows have become the throw away commodity of  the cattle business.  Today both dairy and beef producers don’t even give “lip service” to the fact that the productive life of a cow is an important consideration in the profitability of their operations.  The average dairy cow barely gets through her second lactation and the average beef cow, depending on who’s statistics you trust, does not stay in a beef herd past her 6th birthday.  Unfortunately most cattle breeders today, both dairy and beef, buy into the constant promotion by Artificial Insemination companies and Seedstock producers that there is an urgency to “upgrade” their cow herd through the latest greatest bull.  The continual promotion of show ring cattle also has a negative impact because longevity is never a consideration in judging.

Profitable Longevity

TLC Erica X002 shown at 16 years of in the Australian Outback. She is the dam of Kamilaroi Meat Packer

TLC Erica X002 shown at 16 years of in the Australian Outback. She is the dam of Kamilaroi Meat Packer

The Guinness Book of World Records lists an Irish Friesian cow, Big Bertha, as the oldest cow to have ever lived.  She lived to be 48 producing 39 calves during her lifetime.  I would not call this profitable longevity.  Profitable longevity can be defined as when the cost of maintaining a cow in the herd is less than the cost of replacing her.  This metric includes her ability to wean a calf every year and breed back within herd parameters, while maintaining her health and feed efficiency.  The lifetime value of a cow actually increases as she gets older if she continues to exceed herd culling criteria.  A productive cow at 10 years of age has put more dollars in a farmers pocket than any “fancy” 4 year old because she has a proven track record.  In addition, the 10 year old’s daughters have more value because their dam met the “show me” standard.  Prolonging the date a cow needs to be replaced allows a breeder to sell more heifers and increases net profit.  A healthy, mature cow that calves every year is a known quantity. while a first calf heifer carries risks that are uncommon in mature cows which have successfully and consistently produced good calves.

What Has Caused Longevity To Decrease

Cattle longevity can be attributed to many factors but the overriding factor is they have the right genes.  Certainly environment, health status (proper vaccinations), nutrition, structural soundness, disease resistance, and owner management all play an important role in a cow’s ability to have a long productive life.  Shorthorns have always had a reputation for being long lived cattle but that has been reduced by neglecting to actively select for this trait, and by the introduction of certain other cattle breeds into the Shorthorn gene pool.

There are innumerable reasons as why a beef or dairy cow may be culled.  The most common issues would include reproductive problems, udder breakdown, disease (particularly Johne’s and Bovine Leukemia Virus), lameness, unthriftiness from dental disease, poor milk production, and bad temperament.  Each of these reasons have their own permutations but a cow who is in a herd at 10 years of age has undoubtedly surmounted them all.  Her genetics have great value because she has met the challenge of her environment, be it the winters of North Dakota or endotoxic affected fescue fields in Missouri.  A breeder can spend all day looking at EPDs but no statistical analysis can match the real world productivity of that 10 year old cow.  I would take her daughter for a replacement heifer over any spiffed up EPD selected heifer put forth by “breed fashionistas”.  Many would call this approach old fashioned but just ask anyone who has seen the disastrous results from selecting offspring based only on EPDs whether they are having second thoughts about selection methodology.

Longevity has been “left at the barn door” because most breeders do not have a real breeding program that takes it into account.  They are more concerned with the latest trends in cattle production and are wedded to the constant churning of EPD data from Enhance EPDs to the new Bolt technology.  Certainly there has been some awakening to the longevity issue but I do not believe proper consideration is being given to how important profitable longevity really is.  When culling is based on the belief that the heifer being born today is automatically better than the 10 year old cow in the field, average herd lifespan is being shortened and genetic selection for longevity disappears.  It is more likely that the 10 year old in the field will have an enhanced genetic influence on the herd than a purchased 2 year old heifer who has no track record.  

How To Improve Profitable Longevity

Selection.  Selection.  Selection.  Using bulls that have longevity in their pedigree when producing replacement heifers is the quickest way to instill longevity in the herd.  Utilizing replacement heifers from cows that have been long-lived productive members of the herd enhances the rapidity with which a breeder can increase herd profitable longevity.  I am not saying to ignore other selection criteria, but if everything is fairly equal, the older cow’s heifer calf has more value for replacement.  There is no short term fix for the longevity problem but with sensible selection criteria and patience it’s a realistic economically rewarding trait to have in a breeder’s cattle herd.

The “Other Shoe”:  Animal Rights

I have always thought that the Animal Rights Movement in the European Union is the trendsetter for Animal Rights in the United States.   Cattle breeders in general, dairyman specifically, should take heed from the warning that is being projected from the EU regarding the short lifespans of cattle raised in EU countries.  The belief is that high intensity production methods, i.e. confinement operations, are the prime reason for the reduced lifespans in cattle.    The goal of the Animal Rights Movement goes well beyond concern for cattle lifespans but it is being used to further drive a wedge between cattle producers and consumers.  Being cognizant of the future implications should cause producers to re-think their de-emphasis of longevity and return to placing more importance on it in their selection process.

Realistic Goals For Longevity

Whisper Rose at 12 1/2 years of age. She has raised 11 calves (one set of twins). Totally grass fed.

Whisper Rose at 12 1/2 years of age. She has raised 11 calves (one set of twins). Totally grass fed.

Personally my goal has always been for my cows to have average productive lives of 12 years.  I realize that, given the harsh environments of many producers, it is probably not realistic for them though I still believe that selective steps can be taken to lengthen the productive longevity of their herds.  For many beef herds a goal of 8-10 years and for dairy herds 6-8 years would be a drastic improvement.  By ignoring this issue breeders are short changing themselves economically, doing a disservice to their cows, and opening up the burgeoning Animal Rights issue of shortened lifespans in cattle.  Being proactive today will help mute criticism and produce happier cows and wealthier owners.



Shorthorn Bulletin Topic for Volume 3 Issue 6:  Shorthorns in England and Scotland

Joseph Schallberger, DVM, PhD
Whispering Hills Farm
Member Academy of Veterinary Consultants