There was been a lot of discussion among animal breeders following this year’s Beef Improvement Federation annual conference where some of the traditional paradigms and thoughts regarding animal breeding were challenged.
For instance, it was argued that straight breeding can compete with crossbreeding animals in some contexts. That was considered big news in some quarters but shouldn’t have been. Just look at the dairy industry, where certain breeds – depending on the marketing target and system – boast genetic advantages that can make them more profitable.
In addition, we’re finding that as our genetic evaluations grow in power and our selection tools improve, some of the genetic antagonisms we thought existed either aren’t as strong as they once were or can be overcome by finding and propagating those outliers that defy the genetic antagonisms.
Very few people would have believed in the early 1980s that we could bend the growth curve on cattle to the degree we have today. A large research project in Brazil just looked at cow stayability and found, not surprisingly, that cow stayability was highly correlated to cow production. But what shocked some people was that the correlations between post-gain, yearling weight, scrotal circumference and the like were all extremely low. They concluded it was possible to select for growth, productivity and stayability all at the same time. Again, most cattlemen likely have seen those trends in their own herds.
In some respects, the data may seem difficult to interpret at first. But when one takes a step back, the answers likely aren’t difficult to decipher; they’re just more difficult to achieve than we would like. If you want to improve stayability, longevity and lifetime production of the cow, it can be done – with straightbred animals or with crossbred animals. It’s simply easier and more cost effective to do it with a crossbred female.
If you want to have a cow that breeds back year after year, provides little risk, and requires very little supplementation in tough years, just reduce growth, milk and production. Or you can take the more difficult route of increasing stayability, fertility, longevity, production traits, and even quality and product composition simultaneously.
Sometimes the path to the most reward is the simplest approach; sometimes the path to the most profit and long-term sustainability is the more difficult approach. The answers vary greatly depending on where you are in the production cycle.
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Feeders and packers benefit the least from heterosis, the traits that drive their systems for the most part are highly heritable production traits. Of course, the converse is generally true for cow-calf producers, and these differences must be understood and factored into the equation.
A commercial producer can’t afford to put the kind of selection pressure on his herd as a seedstock producer does; the economics won’t allow it. Thus, they must rely on their seedstock producers to make those investments and economically provide the type of genetics that will allow the commercial producer to make progress.
The debate shouldn’t be about the tools or the principles, which are well known and accepted at this point. Rather, the problem has been in implementing them in an efficient manner for each individual operation, each of which inherently has different priorities based on the uniqueness of its resources, management and marketing opportunities.
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