N.B. beef farmers focusing on genetics to build a better herd

 Nathan Murray, left, and his father Robert own and operate Tantramar Acres Farm. Their work includes plenty of planning sessions at the kitchen table. (Joan LeBlanc photo)

Nathan Murray, left, and his father Robert own and operate Tantramar Acres Farm. Their work includes plenty of planning sessions at the kitchen table. (Joan LeBlanc photo)

 Nathan Murray, left, and his father Robert take time to interact with their beef herd. (Joan LeBlanc photo)

Nathan Murray, left, and his father Robert take time to interact with their beef herd. (Joan LeBlanc photo)

by Joan LeBlanc
It’s been more than 20 years since a father and son from southeastern New Brunswick began working their vegetable and beef operation together, and increasing their herd with the best quality genetics is high on their list of priorities.
Robert and Shelley Murray and their son and daughter-in-law Nathan and Jessica Murray own and operate Tantramar Acres Farm in Point de Bute, N.B. Together they run a farm market – Murray’s Farm Fresh Vegetables – in the summer and fall, and are working year-round to build their herd of beef cattle. 
“When you have the tools to work with, you still need a plan, you need to make your operation better faster,” said Robert at his home recently. “Genetics is the fastest possible way that you get ahead.”
He said that Canada’s Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE or Mad cow disease) crisis, which began in 2003, made him change direction as a farmer.
“We were in the red for 10 years, but in the end it forced us to take what we’ve got and work with it, retool it, and do something that would make a profit,” he said. “We had to get smarter, so we started with the vegetables and then began to rebuild our beef herd.”
Nathan has been at his father’s side on the farm since he was a just a babe-in-arms, and for the past 25 years has been watching, learning, and playing an active role in the daily running of the farm. The breeding of high-quality beef cattle has always been a keen interest for him. Both he and Robert are qualified artificial insemination (AI) technicians and take care of their herd each year at breeding time.
“In winter, we spend a lot of time planning for the year ahead; reading, making long-term plans, and really looking at the genetics we want to use in our herd plan,” said Nathan. “There is a lot of information available on EPDs (expected prodigy differences) and the many traits of the bulls. And we study these closely so we can choose the best bull sire for our cows.”
Both men agreed that approach seems to be working out well for the operation.
Robert noted that all calves are born naturally. “We never have to pull calves,” he said. “And in 20 years we’ve only had to have the vet here on three occasions – twice years ago – and just last year because one of our cows hit against something and broke her leg and she needed a cast. Genetics have made our herd stronger. Because of the traits we’ve chosen, the cows have wider pelvic bones and that allows for easier births and ensures most cows can continue to reproduce for five or six years longer than other herds.”
The Murrays use Semex AI products, scrutinizing the catalogue’s information on animal characteristics.
“The catalogue really is our beef bible,” said Robert.
Herd health is also a priority, ensuring the animals are fed high-quality forage, which is grown on the family’s own land. The richness within the soil coupled with the use of nutrient-rich marshland allows father and son to reap three cuts of forage each year.
“We use a lot of manure on our land, from our own beef herd, and that keeps the soil rich and ensures that we don’t have to irrigate our crops,” said Robert.
The pair say they practise preventative medicine, keeping the barns as clean as possible, not only providing high-quality food but laying out fresh, clean bedding a couple of times each day. 
They have about 50 head of beef cattle. Two Charolais bulls are used as cleanup or terminal bulls.
“Anything born off of those bulls are sold as feeder calves,” said Nathan. “We don’t keep any stock from those bulls. We’re using AI genetics, either Angus or Hereford. That’s what we’ll be using for the 30 or so cows we’re going to breed this year.”
Robert explained that at the time of breeding they do one AI service. After three weeks, if there’s no sign of fertilization, one of the Charolais bulls will breed the cow.
“This keeps our calving concentration close,” he said. “A lot of people don’t run the numbers, but in 21 days we figure our heifer calves gain two-and-a-half pounds a day, the steer calves gain two-and-three-quarter pounds a day, from the time they’re born until we sell them. So that three weeks growth equates to between $85 and $100.”
Robert continued, “AI is not as sure as the bull insemination, so if you miss and you breed three artificial, artificial, artificial, pretty soon you’ve gone three weeks, six weeks, nine weeks past breeding. You can’t afford to be behind on that.”
This ensures top propagation of the most fertile cows, Nathan added. “We find AI is the most economical method, the price for an AI service is fair, and we don’t have to house or feed another bull,” he said.