Weekly genetics review: Unlocking opportunities in fertility

Genetics editor Alastair Rayner, 22/02/2022

The importance of fertility rates on herd production and profitability was highlighted in the Australian Beef Report 2020 Vision. The report suggests that a 5pc increase in herd fertility equates to a 7pc increase in farm income.


HERD improvement is a fairly generic term used by many when discussing their reasons behind new sire purchases.

As a term, its loosely applied to cover all aspects of change across the herd, from increasing sale weights through to introduction of new traits. However the risk of using a generic term is to increase the chances of overlooking some fundamentals that are part of an efficient and profitable breeding program.

Introducing new genetics can generally be assumed to be a positive move for a breeding herd. However, the introduction of new genetics doesn’t always translate into increased production or profit.

Without clearly identifying where a herd is positioned, and its progress towards a breeding objective, it is much harder to measure the impact new genetics have had on a program. As a consequence, its often very hard to justify the investment in those genetics, if the returns can’t be easily seen or measured.

Doing the simple things right

One of the characteristics observed among successful cattle producers – those identified as in the top 25 percent of industry for production & profit – is focusing on the things that can be controlled within their systems. The other characteristic is their unrelenting focus on getting the simple things right. When the simple things are done right, the rest of the program has a solid base to build on and to expand.

There are many commonalities shared across Australian breeding herds. The largest is herd fertility.

The importance of fertility rates on herd production and profitability was highlighted in the Australian Beef Report 2020 Vision. The report suggests that a 5pc increase in herd fertility equates to a 7pc increase in farm income.

That increase is 3pc greater than the boost to farm income achieved through lifting sale weights by 5pc. In many cases fertility is also a much easier area for producers to address in order to make some significant positive changes.

Taking the time to consider the data contained in the Australian Beef Report 2020 Vision, there are some valuable messages on offer. In the case of herd fertility, it’s very apparent that there is a huge opportunity to lift fertility rates in both northern and southern Australian herds.

As a trait, fertility has lower heritability than other traits. In practice this means producers need to have more focus on managing the environmental effects on their animals in order to maximise their fertility rates.

The environmental effects fall back to the management of factors such as feed availability – particularly energy intake; body condition score at calving; and on the goals that have been set around heifer selection and growth to their first joining.

Coming back to the point that the top 25pc of producers focus on the things they can control in their business, as well as ensuring the simple things are done correctly, both of these traits require a thorough understanding of the breeding herd.

Collecting data is the first step in identifying where the sticking points are. Of equal importance it provides a place to focus on and to ensure the simple things are being done right.

The FutureBeef team developed a simple checklist of data that any breeder could use in order to check off the key areas in their breeding system.

Source Future Beef (Adapted RaynerAg)

This checklist has around 25 basic indicators for producers to check and assess in their programs.

There are more that may apply to specific locations, however, if these points were assessed in more breeding herds, the flow effect for fertility rates would be significant.

More importantly, these are the simple things to get right and rest entirely within the span of control for producers.

As a point of focus, the lift in fertility will provide direct and fairly rapid improvement to farm income. In the longer term, the investment that producers may want to make in genetics can be directed towards traits that will not only address production goals, but also assist in making the simple things a bit easier to control.


Alastair Rayner is the Principal of RaynerAg, an agricultural advisory service based in NSW.  RaynerAg is affiliated with BJA Stock & Station Agents.  He regularly lists and sell cattle for clients as well attending bull sales to support client purchases.  Alastair provides pre-sale selections and classifications for seedstock producers in NSW, Qld and Victoria.  He can be contacted here or through his website














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  1. Fred Chudleigh, 01/03/2022

    Hi Alistair
    Our analyses identified two important factors are often overlooked when identifying the value of genetically improving fertility in northern breeding herds. They are diminishing returns and the time value of money. Diminishing returns indicates that the benefit of the next improvement in fertility will not provide the same return as the previous. We found that once all empty females could be culled in a northern breeding herd, further improving the weaning rate provided minimal benefits. Depending upon the rates of mortality and the age of turnoff of steers, improving true weaning rates (calves weaned from total cows mated) past 70% slightly improved net profit if no additional costs were incurred but not by a measurable amount. The time taken to improve herd fertility via genetic selection is at least a decade and probably much longer. This has the impact of making the returns look even smaller when compared to alternative strategies that can be implemented more quickly. Selection for growth has a similar economic impact (minimal) when feed efficiency is not changed. Yes, these factors are some of the 1%’s that need to be included in a herd management strategy in the northern beef industry but they have always been “slow money”. Assessing the value of the next 1% needs an appropriate economic framework that includes the impact of diminishing returns and the time value of money.

  2. Geoffry Fordyce, 24/02/2022

    Interesting. However, in the graph ……. fertility? I am a beef reproduction specialist and I struggle to understand what this means. Our industry is plagued with use of strange language to sell a concept or product.
    Firstly, the ‘north’ and the ‘south’ are mythical places. The reference should be production potential of the situation. Across our nation, production varies from low to high. Variation also exists in ability to achieve potential. Production potential for female cattle is referenced against yearling growth in the same situation, eg, if steers grow 250 kg in that paddock over a year, then it’s 250 kg per year country, which is all any beast can extract from it.
    Production is NOT weaning rate or some other pet performance measure. It is LIVE WEIGHT. That is what we produce; just like wheat farmers produce tonnes of wheat. The best cattle farmers produce the most amount of high value live weight per unit of feed available at the lowest cost, whilst maintaining and improving the welfare of the cattle, the environment and the people.
    I cannot judge a beef business on weaning rate alone. I certainly can’t judge it on ‘fertility’. Our research clearly shows that exactly the same production (= live weight sales) can occur with vastly different reproductive rates. Any rates given mean little without knowledge of production, productivity (efficiency of production) and management practices in relation to achievable production as defined by the feed base.
    Many producers do not view female cattle as live weight producers. But they are. Annual live weight produced by a cow = weight change of the cow over the year plus the weight of the calf it weans. For example, if a cow goes from 480 to 490 over a year and weans a 198 kg calf, her production is 208 kg. If that cow happens to die during the year, her production is -480 kg, that is, more than $1,500 in the red; not good.
    If we have a situation where a mob of cows has weaner production (= average weaner weight times percentage of cows kept that wean a calf) of, say an average of 180 kg per year, but yearlings grow 200 kg in that same situation, then there is a 20 kg a year problem. That’s when I look at performance, ie, pregnancies, cow and calf survival, and cow and calf growth to weaning, to find the problems.
    This understanding highlights the critical nature of our feed base. You can’t make something out of nothing. Improving the feed base increases production potential. At the other extreme, having a mob of cows on flogged country is akin to having a tat on your forehead saying, ‘I am one completely silly dude’; you’ll be bogged in the bottom 25%.
    Back to the problem. If you reckon you know something about beef business and reproduction, you will use diagnostics that inform live weight production, value of live weight sales and cost of production.

  3. Helen Armstrong, 23/02/2022

    I wonder if the drop off in fertility in northern herds from 2012/13 onward resulting in a lower fertility now than in 2007 is in part due to a lack of corporate knowledge from the high turn over of mangers in the corporate areas?

    It seems very few stay longer than three years these days whereas in a time far ago, managers stayed for a generation.

    Three years is not long enough to really know a place, let alone a herd and certainly not long enough to correct anything from before or positively shape something going forward.

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