Attend enough seminars and you’ll hear the message that genetics aren’t that important. The philosophy is that as the industry improves genetically, everyone gets swept along eventually, and other management factors are easier to measure and provide more immediate results. Thus, those should be the focus.
I know the importance of marketing and proper management, and understand the complexity of issues that managers must deal with; so much so, that I can understand how genetics can slip down a manager’s priority list. However, selecting the “right” genetics isn’t a big time commitment, since most of the metrics are collected for other purposes as well.
That’s why I love attending the Beef Improvement Federation (BIF) conference each year. It has a way of validating the importance of genetics to the cattle industry’s future. I see no value in debating the value of grass management over genetics, as they both are important. One thing for certain is that the field of genetics is advancing at a remarkable rate and offers great opportunities. Meanwhile, the labor, time commitment and investment are far lower in implementing an improved genetic program than virtually any other significant management area.
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The advancement and rate of improvement at the elite end of the seedstock pyramid is staggering, but the exciting thing is that the evidence of such gains is showing at the commercial level as well.
• We used to talk about a $100/head improvement in pens of good cattle over similar pens of poorer cattle on average; that figure is now easily over $300/head.
• Within a pen of cattle, we used to talk about the difference between the most profitable animal and the least being around $300. I saw a closeout that showed several hundred of the most profitable steers made just shy of $900, while the least profitable in that pen lost $38/head!
• Remember a few years back when we were talking about 80/80 cattle which would go 80% Choice with 80% Yield Grade 1 and 2? At that time, we were talking about cattle that would gain 4 lbs./day and convert at 6:1 or better. Today, we’re striving for 80% or higher qualifying for Certified Angus Beef (CAB), and are already seeing individuals accomplish that.
• We are now talking about 5 by 5 cattle – animals that gain 5 lbs./day and convert at 5:1 or better. It isn’t the average yet, but it is not uncommon either to have cattle that shatter these barriers.
I used to think that, with our variance in environment, the beef industry would never see the improvement that pork and poultry have made in the economically relevant traits of production. But we are now approaching levels that took them a while to reach, and it appears we have the diversity of genes and heritabilities in these traits to perhaps surpass our competitors.
Feed efficiency was just one of the many traits discussed during the recent BIF conference, but it is increasingly obvious we will have a far more productive cowherd and more efficient feedlot animals – the result of advances in measuring, identifying and selecting for improved efficiency.
The industry continues to make progress in moving away from indicator traits and selecting for economically relevant traits. EPDs like calving ease (an economically relevant trait) are far more valuable than birth weight EPDs (an indicator trait), and producers would make more progress by not using birthweight EPDs in conjunction with calving ease EPDs. However, we will probably continue to see birthweight EPDs published in sale catalogs.
But it is exciting to know that soon we won’t need to use feed efficiency, mature size, milk production levels and other traits to predict maintenance requirements because we will actually measure the true cost of maintenance. We’re continuing to add more economics to genetic measures, and while it has been discussed for a long time, there seems to be some effort to create/model individual selection indexes that will allow producers to refine their selection decisions based on their environment, resources, management and marketing plans. Meanwhile, DNA and molecular-assisted selection are still making tremendous strides and can improve the accuracy of young sire EPDs. The promise of this technology is immense.
One important note – while many indicator traits may not be directly used in selection indexes or printed in commercial catalogs in the future, it remains important that the seedstock industry continue to take these measurements as they are necessary to create the more dynamic selection tools.
The information from this year’s BIF conference was relevant, interesting and exciting. While the debates and discussions in the hallways and restaurants were sometimes impassioned, it was clear that everyone there is committed to moving the genetic improvement of beef cattle forward. And everyone benefits when that happens.
The opinions of Troy Marshall are not necessarily those of beefmagazine.com or the Penton Farm Progress Group.
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