By Bill Pendergrass, Executive Vice President
Genetic improvement in the beef industry is moving at warp speed. The recent Beef Improvement Federation (BIF) meetings at Athens, Ga., were truly eye opening. BIF is composed of United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Meat Animal Research Center researchers, breed associations, animal scientists from every major animal science university in North America, beef extension specialists, bull studs and individual progressive commercial cattlemen. The mission of BIF is to share research among these various groups and establish guidelines for collecting and evaluating performance data for the purpose of making genetic improvement and improving profitability for the beef industry.
The slow process of genetic improvement has been amped up thanks to technology. For decades, the only tool cattlemen had to gauge genetic progress was simply scoring or evaluating the visual or phenotypic traits. In the 1960-1970 era, the first significant technology was implemented to help cattlemen improve performance…scales. Since cattle are still sold by the pound, tracking weights was and still is the most basic measurement anyone can collect. With the advent of scales, ranchers could see a clear difference between animals because heavier and faster growing calves make more money.
The second piece of technology employed to great effect in the 1960-1970 era was Artificial Insemination (AI). After identifying the heavier and faster growing genetics, the bull studs successfully marketed semen of these sires and a literal genetic explosion occurred. AI has been and will be forever linked to genetic improvement in all species of livestock. Through AI, any breeder has access to the greatest sires in any given breed. Bulls that you would never be able to afford outright can be used for a fraction of the cost of owning them. Now AI has morphed into its own reproductive technologies such as, ET and IVF, and this basic premise is what drives the seedstock industry. Identify the genetics that grow the fastest and mass produce them.
In the same time frame as affordable scales and reproductive technologies were becoming more common, BIF provided guidance to the beef industry in formulating and standardizing basic performance measurements like weaning weight adjustments, contemporary grouping and many other performance guidelines. This unifying factor of creating a common language for the beef industry set the stage for a steady stream of powerful genetic selection tools that are in effect “stackable”.
Estimated Breeding Values (EBVs) were the first attempt at applying population genetics on the beef industry. These were the forerunner to Expected Progeny Differences (EPDs) and were based on ratios to predict the genetic performance of animals for a few basic traits such as birth weights and weaning weights. While better than nothing, EBVs were calculated on a relatively small database without sufficient computing power to run the complex formulas required by Best Linear Unbiased Prediction (BLUP).
In the late 1980s, EPDs burst onto the scene. Powered by supercomputers and BLUP, for the first time geneticists were able to harness enough computing power to make accurate genetic predictions. The era of computer power was finally unleashed upon the beef industry.
With the addition of EPDs, genetic progress literally skyrocketed. The “stackable” technologies of scales (individual animal weights), reproductive technologies (AI, ET, Cloning, IVF and sexed semen), ultrasound carcass data and EPDs allowed ranchers to make huge improvements in every trait that EPDs are computed for. Ranchers had figured out that if they collect enough data, they could select for specific traits and make rapid genetic progress using EPDs.
The beef industry is heavily invested in EPDs. Since the late 1980s, EPDs have evolved into the universal language of the beef industry. Our tax dollars (in the form of the Agricultural Extension Service) have been used for decades to help educate cattlemen about EPDs and how to use them. If you have ever attended a cattlemen’s meeting, I guarantee you that have sat in an educational workshop about EPDs. What began as basic EPDs for birth weight and weaning weight has evolved into milk, carcass and ultrasound carcass EPDs. Simply put, EPDs are the most effective selection tool to be developed so far.
In the early 2010s, the next piece of stackable technology came along…genomics. Harnessing the power of DNA and including it in genetic evaluations has allowed explosive genetic improvement for all species, including humans. Genomics began with and is still dominated by human applications. If doctors understand the genetics of a disease they can build more effective treatments. For livestock, the end point is food production, so the way we use genomics is slightly different. We use it to identify genetics that have better performance, carcass quality and are more profitable from an economic standpoint.
When DNA was added to EPDs, for the first time ever, geneticists were able to greatly increase the accuracies of EPDs on young animals. This allows breeders to “turn generations” faster by using high accuracy young animals. Breeders are now able to mate young, non-parent animals whose accuracy values are improved by DNA technology. This is in effect an insurance policy that the progeny of these young animals will perform at the levels their EPDs indicate. The power of genomics upon the beef industry cannot be understated. Genomics is the most powerful tool Beefmasters have ever had. Our challenge lies in adapting the DNA technology into how to more effectively promote crossbreeding.
The latest block of “stackable technology” (trust me there will be more to come) are selection indices such as $T and $M. An index is a formula that balances relevant EPDs and includes real world economic values, such as annual cow maintenance costs or the Choice/Select spread to arrive at a $ prediction. Perhaps the most important aspect of an index is that is helps breeders avoid the unintended consequences of single trait selection.
Indices are easily the most effective selection tool because they factor real world costs/premiums into one simple, accurate and easy to use/understand number. Simply put, you don’t have to know the breed average for five separate EPDs to compare animals. You can look at the appropriate index, knowing that it balances the correct EPDs and includes realistic economic values. Some have said that the economic values used in indices are incorrect. While at BIF, I attended a workshop about this very topic. They provided a research project example in the workshop to show how immensely accurate indices are in the beef industry.
In the example, the project’s purpose was to assess the accuracy of a particular index developed by the Angus breed. A group of Angus breeders and the genomics company Zoetis conducted a very thorough real world trial on $B. They purchased purebred embryos that would be in the top 25% and bottom 25% respectively for their terminal index. The embryos were transferred, calved out (yielding 43 calves) and the calves managed identically on pasture, backgrounded on wheat, finished in a commercial feedyard and harvested in four separate groups. The index said there was an average of $185/head difference in the final value of the cattle. The actual value was $215/head. This proves conclusively that selection indices are highly accurate and that they work. It is obvious that buyers recognize how accurate indices are because they are becoming the most used selection tool in the industry.
I am in no way suggesting that Beefmasters bail off into single trait carcass selection. Instead we must position ourselves as the leaders of the cow efficiency movement in the beef industry. Under the guidance of Dr. Matt Spangler, Beefmaster Breeders United has developed one of the best maternal selection indices available in the beef industry, $M. Your breed improvement committee is evaluating additional data collection points that will make $M even more powerful for our customers. At the end of the day, if Beefmasters can position $M the way our competition has positioned their terminal index, the demand and value of Beefmaster genetics will be assured.
Having said this, I can’t stress enough that our cattle must still be eye appealing and sound. Numbers will never replace the eye of the experienced stockman. However, an experienced stockman armed with the stackable technologies described above will produce more valuable, profitable genetics for his customers.