Words from Management
Gelbvieh Country Interview, January 1984
Featuring Steve Radakovich
A candid conversation with a successful Iowa seedstock producer that's become well known for his direction and purpose speeches
Steve Radakovich is the outspoken and philosophical Polled and Horned Hereford and Angus breeder who was the 1982 Beef Improvement Federation president. This Earlham, Iowa native has gained national acclaim as a judge and spokesman for the seedstock industry. He frequently addresses breed association groups and more often than not theorizes about industry direction, purpose, and the future.
For example, last fall he addressed a Brahman group in California and a Red Angus group in Iowa. Next year Radakovich will be one of the featured speakers at the World Hereford Conference in New Zealand.
Radakovich Cattle Company, Steve and his father George’s breeding herd, has ranked among the best herd programs during its 20 years of existence. They’ve staged 12 bull auctions and recently dispersed their mature Horned Hereford cow herd – a move made possible by an ET program.
This firm was named Seedstock Producer of the Year in Iowa in 1983. And this month he will place the Gelbvieh pen of three bulls at the National Western.
Steve was a member of Iowa State University’s general livestock judging team and graduated from that institution in 1967. He then attended Colorado State University for one year and studied under nationally acclaimed geneticist Dr. Jim Brinks.
Radakovich and his wife returned to the Iowa Horned Hereford farm and continued to develop the cow herd. Steve’s quick to point out that their breeding goals and multi-trait oriented.
He’s a great believer and promoter of performance testing.
In fact, the statement “Maximum may not be optimum” denotes the breeding goals at Radakovich Cattle Company.
They’ve been Horned Hereford breeders since starting in the seedstock business. The Pooled Hereford and Angus herds have been added in the past five years.
In this interview, he reveals many of his seedstock industry beliefs.
Steve and his wife Penny have four children – Wendy, Tracy, Bobby and JD.
Gelbvieh Country (GC): What is your main business?
Radakovich: Merchandising germ plasm is our number one priority. This year our bull sale will be in March. About 80 bulls of all three breeds will sell. It will be our 12th sale. We sold bulls privately a number of years before launching an annual sale. But we still sell privately.
GC: Have you served any of these breed associations?
Radakovich: I’ve not been a leader from the political viewpoint. Never have I been a national director – a lot by my own choosing. I’m more of an antagonist from the outside. It’s easier to criticize if you’re not making the policies. I guess I’m too independent to be an effective committee person. However, I do judge shows in all breeds. And I’ve been asked to give speeches at many breed association seminars.
GC: Do you speak mostly about performance testing?
Radakovich: Yes, I do pretty much. But I think we use that term too loosely. Performance is raw growth to most. I think the term performance should encompass all the traits relative to the economic efficiency of the operation. Minimizing net loss or maximizing net profit is performance. Direction is another topic my speeches typically focus upon. Where are our breeding programs taking us? What’s the purpose of this breed and that breed? And are the breeders fulfilling these purposes? For example, are we trying to make Angus look like Chianinas? Are we trying to make Shorthorns look like Maine-Anjous? Are we trying to make Herefords look like Simmentals? I believe there’s a real need for breeders in each breed to identify their purpose. The commercial cattleman has never been in a better position. He can do about anything with the cow herd – breed them taller, shorter, thicker or deeper. He can add more milk or take milk away. That’s right. The commercial man – of this time – has all the flexibility in the world. But I believe seedstock producers are trying to take this advantage away. We’re trying to make all the breeds the same. And show-ring judges make decisions for all breeds about the same. Angus shows are being placed similar to Simmental shows and so forth.
GC: Do you feel this is a disservice?
Radakovich: Yes. This industry needs diversity. Cross breeding is the answer and we need differences in our purebreds. I’m not so sure we’re maintaining these differences distinctly enough. For example, the Angus breed was once known as a first calf heifer breed. This is not necessarily true anymore. Some Angus bulls now sire calves as heavy Simmentals. As a result, maintenance costs in this breed have been boosted. I believe we’re ignoring genetic and environmental interactions. We’re not fitting cattle to given environments. Rather, we’re trying to fit environment to the cattle. The seedstock industry places a higher priority on cattle than forage. The environment is typically changed if the cattle fail to perform adequately. For example, those with extra problems at calving time often build a $20,000 calving barn and hire an extra man to correct the problem. I think the answer is to fit the cattle to the environment. Beef industry economics are forcing us to minimize these management practices. We’re being forced to produce cattle cheaper than in times past. Production costs are going to be the key to survival in this business. Those producing beef the cheapest will stand a better chance of prospering.
GC: Is the show-ring part of the solution or part of the problem?
Radakovich: Cattle winning most major shows now require the highest management. We started selecting these larger framed winners to encourage producers to breed faster gaining seedstock – cattle that would sire steers with more marketing flexibility. Mow most of our show cattle are large enough – a few are still too small and few are too large. Sizing show cattle was the best way to encourage breeders to select for fast growth. But most judges are still sizing cattle. For these reasons modification of our current method needs to be adopted for shows. An 1,800 pound Hereford cow is going to require a higher management level for maintenance and rebreeding than a 1,200 pound cow. It appears we’re still trying to breed more 1,800 pound cows. The business is the main occupation for those west of the Missouri River. And income tax forms suggest problems for these full-time producers.
They realize the importance of reproduction, longevity, low maintenance and labor requirements. These are important but un-seeable traits. The show-ring – like so many other things in life – has strengths and weaknesses. Few would argue with the view that showing is almost a necessity to expose and promote a new breed like Gelbvieh. However, it has one disadvantage for all breeds. Single trait selection is overemphasized. Less extreme champions would help. But it will be difficult to evaluate the reproductive traits accurately in the show-ring. This weakness will remain.
GC: What factors should commercial producers be most concerned with these days – from a genetic viewpoint?
Radakovich: The concept of optimum versus maximum is a big topic. Is maximum growth optimum? Is maximum milk optimum? I don’t believe so. Corn production would be an excellent comparison. The greatest net profit is not highly correlated with maximum yield. The law of diminishing marginal returns for fertilizer, moisture supply and plant population affect profits. All these have to be in balance for maximum profit – which is optimum. Maximums are obtainable. But producers who only wean 70 percent calf crop are not operating profitably – even if growth is maximum. We should try to avoid these extremes. And by doing this we won’t be breeding for the tallest, largest or leanest.
GC: How should promotion fit into production schedules?
Radakovich: We’ve made many technological advances in the past few decades but a profit is still hard to obtain. Something must be missing. For example, the European breeds have helped increase the growth rate of our cattle significantly. But the net profit of the entire industry has changed little.
I think beef cattle and agriculture in general are still grossly underpromoted – in this country and around the world. Advertising is typically the lowest priority. This budget should be cut last rather than first during trying times. A product – regardless of how beneficial – is still a product until sold.
GC: What intangibles do you think commercial buyers find important?
Radakovich: I find many commercial cattlemen buy by confidence. They don’t just show up and buy a bull. Reputation, integrity and your breeding program are important. The more confidence a potential buyer has in your program the more likely he’s going to invest. Commercial producers are not experts in all the technical areas. Ratios, pedigree information and other technical information must be explained. And you need to make them feel comfortable while doing this. I like to visit with potential customers and find out about their program and their needs. What size are your cows? How are you getting along calving? These are typical questions and the information helps me suggest for them two or three bulls that might work best. Turning a potential buyer loose in a pen of 30 bulls often confuses them, I believe. Furthermore, many lack buying confidence. They attend sales with a good friend, neighbor or wife. It’s important to make each feel comfortable.
GC: Is there anything unique about your sale?
Radakovich: We have a program the morning of the sale. There are usually speakers. We’ve had a vet talk about calf scours. Birth weights and performance programs are also topics that have been discussed. We select speakers that can relate to our program or the needs of a commercial producer. I believe we draw a larger crowd because of these speakers.
GC: Do you have any other marking comments?
Radakovich: We try to involve many people – and make them feel a part of our team. This includes vets and extension personnel. Next comes personal contact. We attempt to visit our customers. And if we can’t make it to se them, a phone call is the next alternative.
GC: Do you have any unique management practices?
Radakovich: We try to avoid anything associated with extra labor. For example, feet are never trimmed. Function is the key. We cull against problems and try to select bulls that are problem-free.
We’re also extra concerned about a bull’s scrotal size. This is one of the biggest services we can provide for buyers. It’s correlated to so many reproductive traits. Reproduction is where we plated the greatest selection pressure. Our breeding season consists of only three heat cycles.
GC: What do you look for in a herd sire?
Radakovich: We never do anything blind such as use unproven bulls even if they have estimated breeding values. Proven bulls are always used because we select for many traits. However, we won’t use a proven bull that’s more than plus two pounds for birth weight, less than plus 50 pounds for yearling weight or less than 105 maternally in a National Sire Summary. And there are only about ten bulls out of 700 in our National Sire Summaries that fit these criteria. We believe the odds are more favorable gambling in Las Vegas than hoping a young unproven bull will be as great as a proven sire with outstanding figures. But the bulls that qualify are screened further. We want to know, are they dead or alive? Have their feet ever been trimmed? What about semen quality? What does the bull look like? These answers are important to us.
GC: Who should sample these young bulls?
Radakovich: I think they should be sampled in commercial herds that are contracted by the registered breeder. That’s the way we go. About two or three herd sire prospects are tested each year on a randomized cow herd. These bulls are then put on hold for about three years. We’ll sell ¾ interest and full possession and retain a semen interest. Bulls need to be tested this thoroughly because the maternal breeding value jumps around until the accuracy is about .95. We don’t believe in exposing this cow herd to the wind when it’s been in the developing stages for 25 years.
GC: Is cow size in commercial herds still too small?
Radakovich: The commercial breeder is trying to match cattle to their environment and still breed steers that weigh 1,050 to 1,300 pounds within a four to six frame score range. I don’t think our commercial females are all that small. Many breeds are trying to add size to save all these small cows. But the nation’s calf crop is still only 70 percent. Are these cows all too small or do we have a reproduction problem first? I think the latter is correct. Sixty percent of the energy required to produce every pound of red meat goes for maintenance. Reproduction is the critical factor because 30 percent of our cows don’t reproduce each year.
GC: You’ve mentioned false creditability. Can you give an example?
Radakovich: An outstanding percent calf crop weaned figure can be obtained when only the cows that calved are included. Reproduction figures calculated without a complete inventory are misleading. This is one example of false creditability. The extremes necessary to obtain recognition also give some programs false creditability – such as a gain test winners with extra large birth weights.
GC: What will the commercial cow of the future be like?
Radakovich: She will be a moderate sized cow – one that will probably milk enough not to stunt her calf. It may be cheaper to add weight in the feedlot than on the pasture. She will be easy fleshing, live a long time and be highly fertile. She could well be the cow that’s placed on the bottom of the class now.