I’ve never received as many phone calls or emails as I have over the recent events concerning the American Angus Association (AAA). I know it’s certainly been the number-one topic of discussion among purebred breeders regardless of breed. It’s from that perspective that I know everyone is expecting coverage.
Recently, AAA went through some internal turmoil regarding some aspects of the association’s direction, which culminated in a vote of confidence for the executive director by AAA’s board. I understand that a number of AAA employees, including regional managers and key executives, subsequently left AAA’s employ.
It will take some time to fully understand and comprehend what the outcome of the moves within AAA will be. I will admit that I am biased, as I love the Angus breed, have respect for the breeders and the leadership, and have faith that they will overcome any obstacles.
However, I do think this situation merits a look at the industry from a broader perspective. In many respects, AAA has been an industry barometer, so to speak, acting as a sort of standard currency in the business. Like the dollar in world trade, or English as the primary language of business, the Angus EPD system has been the standard for the entire seedstock industry.
Whether or not AAA is ultimately weakened, or evolves into something even stronger, is up for debate, but nobody I know has the answer to that question. The moves do open the door for trends that have been occurring to accelerate, however.
National genetic evaluation programs changed the structure and course of the seedstock industry, as well as the look and shape of breed associations. Breed associations were no longer simply social organizations of likeminded people who loved a certain breed or type of cattle; they now had the tools to help breeders improve their selection decisions.
It’s a model that has served the industry extremely well, and the genetic trend lines are amazing. However, like so many industries, economies of scale and a technology revolution have changed the game. It’s no longer necessary to have huge, centrally located main-frame computers to collect data. Nor is it necessary to centralize the computing power and expertise required to conduct a national genetic evaluation program at a small number of land-grant universities.
Genetic evaluations have been moving in-house, and breed associations have begun to run their genetic evaluations concurrently. This not only allows them to take advantage of economies of scale, but supplement the power of their individual evaluations and allow them to produce numbers that are every bit as accurate for composite animals as purebred lines.
Throw in DNA and new traits like feed efficiency and the dynamics change even more. No longer are the technologies equally available to everyone; the data are proprietary and concentrated.
Will we return to the model of the past where breed associations are the primary social clubs? Will there be one or two entities that produce the genetic evaluation for everyone, greatly improving the accuracy of the genetic values that producers use? Are we migrating toward the models we’ve seen develop in the pork, chicken or dairy industries?
Like the smaller issue we began this discussion with, it depends. I’m a traditionalist, so I see value in the current structures and feel most comfortable operating under those paradigms. But I hope I’m also a realist. The game is changing, and it evolved in other directions for the other protein industries because it made sense both scientifically and economically. Those other industries were simply searching for the best business models; in the beef industry, it is more like a family operation looking for success and happy holiday gatherings as well.
Even the structure of the seedstock business is in question. A small to mid-size breeder always had the same opportunities as the larger breeder, and the same access to genetics and information. It’s true that the larger producers always had population genetics on their side, but it still was as egalitarian of a system as one could make in a free-market scenario.
We’re now entering into the age of proprietary genetics and information. For example, breeders who first adopted artificial insemination, performance testing, EPDs and ultrasound, were able to create a big lead on their competitors. They dominated for a while, but the masses eventually leveraged their data and size, and erased the lead. There is real doubt if that model will exist with traits like feed efficiency and DNA. We’re moving from an open book to a black box approach.
The biggest lesson from the moves within AAA is that membership must be ever-vigilant. The industry’s checkoff nearly imploded under a similar scenario a couple of years ago. And the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) has yet to recover from the divide created by R-CALF. History tells us everyone would have been better served to avoid the division and years of infighting. A house divided will not stand.
That brings up another dynamic in the seedstock industry that everyone hates to talk about, because it is politically sensitive. And that is that the smaller breeder has to carve out an incredible niche, or do a tremendous job of lowering costs, to be competitive.
The large seedstock entities are gaining ground on the three most important fronts – genetic selection capabilities, marketing and customer service. While the majority of seedstock producers are relatively small from a size standpoint, they constitute the majority in number of producers and even cows. However, this majority is a minority when it comes to contributing to a national genetic evaluation program and marketing might.
I still believe that on 98% of the issues, seedstock producers are in agreement. But as the R-CALF/NCBA split clearly shows, that is not necessarily enough to keep everyone under the same tent. Recent events at AAA probably reflect these dynamics and the changes that are occurring in the industry. The challenge for strong, consensus-building leadership with a clear vision will be great.
The views of Troy Marshall do not necessarily reflect those of beefmagazine.com or the Penton Farm Progress Group.
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