4 Livestock Breeding Best Practices to Implement in Your Herd — or Flock!
Updated: Nov 7, 2022
When starting a livestock breeding program, the essential step is setting clear goals that you’re breeding for — and then stick to them!
Many farmers develop and maintain an on-farm herd (or flock) of animals specifically adapted to thrive on their farm with the qualities they value. That may be a herd of beef cattle that finish well on just grass, no grain needed. Hardy sheep that don’t need to be wormed. Or a flock of turkeys that thrive on pasture production.
Other farmers may be breeding specifically to produce pedigreed animals meeting breed standards, show stock or even healthy, superior-quality breeding animals that sell for a premium.
Either way, setting clear goals for your breeding program and following standard livestock breeding best practices will take you a long way to your perfect herd (or flock)!
1) Start with the Best Animals You Can Afford
Always start your herd with the best-quality animals you can afford to buy.
Many new livestock farmers make the mistake of starting with cheap (or even free) animals, thinking it is a quick way to start their breeding program. Those animals set you up for failure more often than not —poor vigor, critical conformation faults or high susceptibility to pest and disease. If nothing else, you’ll spend many years trying to breed “away” from the problems you started with.
Look for high-quality, vigorous animals and make sure to vet carefully anybody you’re buy breeding stock from. Ask to see parents (or the whole herd). If you are purchasing a pedigreed animal, make sure you see (and can take) the pedigree with you, there are many scams amongst so-called “purebred” animals.
One option for starting a herd on a tight budget is purchasing older male animals. This is a common practice in beef cattle. Ranchers will typically switch out their herd bulls after several years to keep their genetics from getting in-bred. This gives you an older — but proven — animal to add to your herd at an affordable price with several years left to contribute to your gene pool.
If you can only afford one really good quality animal to start with, make sure it is a male. Your male will have the most significant impact (to start) on your breeding program.
2) Livestock Breeding Selection — Keep the Best, Eat the Rest
Another tried and true “best practices” standard for breeding is to “cull, cull and cull again.”
This can be one of the most challenging, even emotional, concepts to enforce in a breeding program. It can be hard to choose if you have an animal you bred and like for some reasons but not others. Or, when you have better young stock than your older stock, it’s time to let the older animals go.
Another way to think about it is your herd is only as good as the worst animal in it. Rigorously culling out the animals with unwanted traits is the fastest way to reaching your breeding goals.
If your ultimate plan is to develop a program to sell your extra livestock as breeding quality, make sure to only sell as breeding stock animals that you would have kept yourself (but don’t have room for). Selling your ‘culls’ as breeding quality is a quick way to garner a poor reputation amongst livestock breeders.
3) Classic Livestock Breeding Tools – Outcrossing, Inbreeding and Line Breeding
Outcrossing is breeding together two unrelated animals. Outcrossing results in a wide variability of genetics but may not include the traits you are looking to develop.
Linebreeding and inbreeding are techniques breeders use to “lock-in” desirable traits within a herd. The difference between the two is the degree of separation between the animals. Inbreeding means mating father to daughter, mother to son or brother to sister. It can risk developing genetic diseases, but most livestock can be successfully inbred for several generations without risk.
Linebreeding is highly strategized inbreeding, breeding close relatives (like half-brother to half-sister) also to lock in desirable traits. Especially if you had good genetic diversity, to begin with, most livestock can be line bred for many generations before any specific ‘inbreeding’ genetic issues pop up.
One thing to remember with inbreeding and linebreeding is again to cull heavily. You can expect to see more distinct undesirable along with desirable traits. Most livestock breeders follow a specific plan of inbreeding and line-breeding followed by strategic outcrosses for genetic diversity.
4) Utilize High-Tech Breeding Tools (If You Can Afford Them)
Over the last few decades, high-tech breeding tools have been developed to quickly help breeders reproduce superior genetic animals. Or can identify key genetic traits even before breeding.
In-vitro fertilization (IVF) and embryo transfer (ET) are two techniques used primarily in cattle and sometimes in other livestock. IVF involves harvesting unfertilized eggs directly from the animals, fertilizing and incubating them then implanting them in donor females. ET uses hormones to stimulate the selected female to produce many more eggs than normal in their cycle. The animal is bred, then those embryos are “flushed” from the donor’s uterus and transferred to a new donor (or frozen to use later).
Another more recent tool is genomics. Scientists are rapidly “mapping” the DNA of different species (sheep was one of the most recent), and with that comes the ability to identify genetic markers for specific traits. This can be especially useful for early prediction amongst young stock for desirable (and undesirable) traits like, for instance, longevity or reproductive ability. Genetic testing has been chiefly used in cattle production.
A final ‘high-tech’ tool that breeders are starting to use is cloning. Although the jury is still out on how “exact” cloning can be when replicating a superior animal. But, there is no doubt that cloning does preserve that animal’s genetics which means they can be passed on more rapidly or in more significant numbers.
All the high-tech breeding tools can be expensive and are typically only used by breeders with an investment into reproducing genetically superior stock for sale. Farmers looking to create a healthy and reliable “farmstock” herd usually stick to the first three tried and true breeding best practices.
Georgie Smith, known in her community as “Farmer Georgie,” is a fourth-generation farmer and journalist living on her family’s historic farm on a Pacific Northwest island. She ran her own small farm for more than 20 years. These days, when she’s not herding chickens, fixing the antique tractor (again) or growing heirloom dry beans, Georgie writes about farming. Georgie is passionate about supporting healthy, equitable and sustainable food production and thriving family farms.