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It's Genetics, Not Color

Livestock Update, April 1995

Ike Eller, Animal & Poultry Sciences, Virginia Tech

I have often had this question asked "Are black cattle really better or worth more than red, gray or white cattle?" We all know the beef from cattle of varying color has the same value if it is similar in yield grade and quality grade. Yet the question in the minds of people persists. I never hear the question "Is a red tractor better than a green, or orange tractor?" The only way to answer that question is to ask other questions like, are they the same size, is the horse power rating similar, is the hydraulic system the same? This line of questioning quickly gets at the point of which tractor, regardless of color, matches the job to be done. I remember being in West Tennessee a number of years ago in the company of a bunch of mule producers and marketers. They allowed that red mules were worth considerably more money than black or bay mules. I doubt that their argument could be substantiated based on the work capability of the red mule versus mules of other colors. Virginia is a feeder cattle producing state and the reason the color question comes up so much is because there seems to be a real difference in many instances based on what cattle of different colors will bring at the market place. The things that are really important to the cattle feeder who purchases feeder cattle is what breed or cross the cattle are, what is their weight or grade, and what is their growth potential in the feedlot, which will be closely associated with feed efficiency. Other questions are, what will the finished weight be and thus, the carcass weight? Therefore, frame size may be important. Finally, yield grade, determined to some degree by muscling, and quality grade, determined largely by marbling, are extremely important. It has been established in the minds of many people that black hided cattle are Angus or Angus influenced and thus, will have a higher quality grade in the meat. At least this is the conventional wisdom. Therefore, in the absence of knowing what breed a certain lot of feeder cattle are, or what breed mix is involved, color is used as a proxy for breed. We have noted that in loads of feeder cattle sold on the field teloauction, color is of much lesser importance than it seems to be when cattle are sold at auctions either in a graded feeder cattle sale or in a weekly sale. It is extremely frustrating to breed cattle that will do the job, utilizing crossbreeding, because there are more breeds that are red than breeds that are black. Also, using black as a proxy can certainly be misleading because we have black hided cattle not only in Angus, but in many other European Continental breeds and in Holstein.

All any feeder cattle producer can expect is to get the best the market offers for his cattle at the time he wishes to market them. At the same time, he does not want unjustifiable discounts.

We have an excellent feeder cattle marketing system in Virginia, but in today's world with many different kinds of breeds and crosses of cattle and thus, many different colors, how do we do a better job merchandising them? A preponderance of cattle feeders would like to have cattle for their feedlots that are at least 50% British breeds, and up to 50% continental breeds. Rather than selling all weights, all sexes, and all breeds in a single graded sale, perhaps we should consider doing some of the following. (1) Market Feeder Cattle in sales either as calves or as yearlings and not mix the two. (2) Market feeder cattle, where possible, in sales by sex, selling only steers or only heifers. (3) Market cattle in sales by genotype as to breed or cross. This would mean selling a whole sale of Continental x British feeder cattle or a whole sale of British straightbreds and British crosses. There is a bit of this kind of merchandising going on in Virginia, but in my estimation, not nearly enough.

Appropriate market channels to allow for a producer to put his calves of a specific genotype with other producers calves like them will pay dividends. In doing so, all cattle will not necessarily be the same color, but indeed, genetics will be highlighted as opposed to color. Food for thought!

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