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What Is The Future Of Genetic Evaluation?

What Is The Future Of Genetic Evaluation?

“Genetic evaluation for Angus and for the industry has been instrumental in breed improvement and beef cattle improvement,” says Jarold Callahan, president of Express Ranches, Yukon, OK. “I’m concerned that we’ve lost opportunity, even if the American Angus Association [AAA] continues doing what it has in the past. What none of us can know is what potential has been lost.”

Mark Gardiner, Gardiner Angus Ranch, Ashland, KS, adds: “As a seedstock producer, I need accurate information to help our clients hit a profitable target. The biggest issue for us and our customers is whether we will be able to get genetic evaluation information going forward that allows us to create the cattle that make our customers money.”

Both are referring to the April dismissal of 12 multi-decade, industry-respected AAA employees who previously sent a letter of formal complaint to the AAA board citing concerns about association leadership. Among them were Bill Bowman and Sally Northcutt. Bowman was president of Angus Genetics Inc. (AGI), the AAA subsidiary that conducts genetic evaluation for Angus and other breeds. Northcutt served as genetic research director for AAA and AGI.

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Bowman and Northcutt built upon the breed’s historically strong foundation of performance programs and genetic evaluation. They captained its next chapter, incorporating genomic data into the breed’s expected progeny differences (EPDs).

Genomic-enhanced EPDs offer seedstock and commercial users of Angus — operations of all sizes – as much genetic prediction accuracy for young calves as if the calves already had seven to 20 progeny, depending on the trait.

On the outside looking in, severing ties with Bowman and Northcutt seems akin to trading Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen from the dynastic Chicago Bulls, and then telling the rest of team to go “win one for the Gipper.” Angus genetic evaluation will continue, of course, but some believe the departures create a kink in the thread of continuity — which frays confidence.

Trust is the foundation

That’s true even if the threat of disruption is perceived rather than real. Trust is the foundation of genetic evaluation, after all.

“Angus cattle aren’t better because they’re Angus. They’re better because of the information behind them,” Gardiner says.

You can debate the merits of the breed, and you can love Angus cattle or hate them. However, you can’t question the breed’s vast genetic sway in the U.S. commercial industry. According to results from a recent survey commissioned by Certified Angus Beef®, only 20% of the respondents had no Angus genetics in their herds. In 2013, 69.4% of the respondents used Angus bulls exclusively (40.2%) or bulls of multiple breeds, including Angus.

The breed’s ubiquitous genetic influence in the overall beef industry makes the shakeup at AAA and AGI more than an in-house dustup.

When universities got out of the business of conducting breed genetic evaluation, there was plenty of handwringing about how it would get done and who would do it. AGI and others picked up the slack.

“There’s a lot of concern on the part of people doing business with AGI,” says Callahan, who was AGI chairman for the first years of its existence. “They’ve invested heavily in it, and no one wants to see their investment taken lightly or frittered away.”

“It’s not about what’s available today,” Gardiner adds. “It’s about what comes next or needs to come next."

Nineteen past AAA presidents, including Callahan, signed a letter asking the AAA board to reconsider the dismissals. Breeders like Gardiner and Express — the two largest seedstock suppliers in the nation — registered their concerns. No dice.

For my money, the threat of disrupted continuity and stability within the industry’s largest — and many would also say, most advanced — genetic evaluation program adds credence to privatized genetic evaluation.

Think here of a private entity offering breeders equal access to data without depending on the leadership of a membership organization for progress and continuity.

Astute seedstock producers will get the genetic evaluation information they and their customers need. The question is who will provide it over the long haul?

The opinions of Wes Ishmael are not necessarily those of or the Penton Farm Progress Group. 

American Angus Association responds

Editor's Note: This opinion piece delves into concerns voiced by some influential breeders regarding the departure of key personnel involved in genetic evaluation at the American Angus Association (AAA). AAA provides this information in response:

"You can count on Angus when it comes to genetic evaluation.

"In fact, despite recent staff and structural changes, the nation’s largest beef breed organization continues to offer its weekly National Cattle Evaluation (NCE), released every Friday. All breeder-submitted data and DNA samples are being processed as usual, and Angus sales are enjoying their strongest prices in memory.

"Angus Genetics Inc. (AGI) customer service is fully staffed, and samples for genetic testing are being received and processed on time. Recalibration of the genomic trait tests is carrying on as planned for release in later this summer.

"Our team of dedicated professionals -- which includes two full-time geneticists -- continues to offer uninterrupted programs and services that allow us to fully complete our mission: To provide programs, services, technology and leadership to enhance the genetics of the Angus breed, broaden its influence within the beef industry, and expand the market for superior tasting, high-quality Angus beef worldwide.

"Indeed, the Angus breed today remains the business breed — a breed blessed with people dedicated to Angus cattle and to building a brighter future for rural America." 

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