by Taylor Shackelford

Starting a cattle herd can be a daunting task. For someone just getting into the Brangus breed, there are hundreds of genetic options to navigate. Most understand expected progeny differences (EPDs) typically fall into one of three categories: reproductive, growth-driven or carcass-oriented. Yet, there are highly-sought genetics, which encompass multiple EPD traits, as well as phenotypical ideals. Cow families are the best-kept secret of the Brangus breed.

Perhaps cow families are not so much a secret – you can hear about them in discussions at almost every purebred sale in the nation – but, they’re not exactly documented either. Part of the success of the Brangus breed is the respect that certain bloodlines have earned over the years. According to Ken Hughes, Brangus producer for more than 30 years in Franklin, Texas, cow families are an unspoken filing system.

It all started with Glen Brinkman, circa 1968. He realized early on, Brangus cow selection lacked consistency and predictability. Brinkman traced the breed back to foundation Angus genetics and sifted calves by genetics. This brought phenotypical heritability into the light and inspired him to track it in the Brinks herd.

With nothing more than a spiral notebook and a pen, Brinkman started recording his own herd EPDs. Instead of focusing on the topside of genetics, he kept a close watch on the production of the dams.

“Do your homework and reach into the bottom side of those cows’ pedigrees,” Hughes said. “If you evaluate your cows, make notes on them, and notice the trends, there will be things you can pick out.”

Essentially, pioneers of the cow family movement just picked a number and added a letter for each year of production. Truly remarkable was the respect and cooperation of Brangus breeders across the nation to honor the designation of a number to one ranch, one cow.

The singularity in the movement allows breeders to track genetics with ease. Many cow families have tendencies of their own, especially taking into consideration traits like disposition, mothering instinct, and sexual maturity. Naturally, if the cow family ranks in the top percentiles for muscle and carcass quality, expect antagonistic traits, like fertility, to decline. However, any longtime cattle raiser would say the same no matter the lineage.

“Each cow family will have a trait or traits they excel in and traits you also have to watch,” Hughes said, “like sheath score or white markings.”

The program is such a success, that hundreds of known cow families allow breeders the ability to select as much variation as they wish while putting together a balanced herd. Many seasoned Brangus breeders still use cow families in their selection and mating strategies. These are genetics that are time-tested; they don’t miss.

“It used to be that bigger was better,” Hughes said. “Now, we are making cows more moderate with more to them. They’ve got more guts, flesh and belly. But underlines, as a whole, have gotten much better too.”

Herdsmen can benefit from an understanding that focusing, on these proven genetic lines, leads to faster progression of the breed. Every operation needs a goal to reach toward and maintain consistency. The objective can be genomic, physical, or even economical. Those with a clear vision are enhancing the Brangus breed.

Hughes said, “There is no substitute for consistent selection. The customer dictates a lot of what you really concentrate on. But in my opinion, cattle are getting better.”

In February, the International Brangus Breeders Association will host the 2017 Annual Convention in San Antonio, Texas, where the new office space will hold a ribbon cutting and unveil the cow family hall of fame. You won’t want to miss this exciting opportunity to learn about the history of Brangus and fill in the gaps for us on photographs and stories we currently hold in the archives.