If you are a purebred Angus breeder, odds are that you haven’t spent much time contemplating the latest Trump revelation over involvement with Russian lawyers. Instead you have been focused on the biggest change to the national genetic evaluation landscape that has happened in quite some time.
The American Angus Association on July 7th unveiled its new methodology and genetic evaluation, which ironically has a simple sounding name – Single Step. The methodology is not new, other beef breeds and industries have already adopted, but nevertheless, it sent shockwaves through the seedstock industry. Seedstock producers are scouring through data right now, but these major genetic changes will mean commercial producers will have to do some readjusting as well, as they prepare to make selection decisions in the future.
The good news is that the Angus genetic evaluation should be more accurate, more robust and generally better. The bad news is that there were some pretty big changes, meaning some EPDs saw a boost, and some saw a major decline.
It isn’t simply the new methodology but also the fact that the number of genotypes that were used in the calibration almost tripled. Geneticists will tell you the more good data, the better the outcome, but it’s an awful lot to digest at one time.
Producers will be able to make more improvement and more accurate genetic change than any time in history, but everyone will have to retrain himself or herself a little bit. Traits like marbling and milk tended to migrate back toward the mean. Some other traits saw major re-ranking, and others perhaps took on entirely new meaning from a selection standpoint.
For instance, traits like $B have become a staple in both selection and value determination calculations, but the improvement in the evaluation has made $B totally into what it was designed to be and that is strictly a terminal index.
Of course, Angus is not seen by most as being strictly a terminal breed. I’m sure the revolution has just begun. We will see more comprehensive indexes geared to look at the entire production phase, and we will get tools that leverage the knowledge we aren’t currently using.
Now in the end, it seems the more things change, the more they stay the same. The cattle that were good on July 6 are still good today. But it is one of the great mysteries of life that improved technologies and more accurate science haven’t necessarily lead to a less complicated life, nor has it reduced the need for good judgment and common sense. Perhaps it could be argued that it has made those traits even more valuable. The closer we get to being able to breed cattle off of paper, the more absurd the proposition becomes.
Some are arguing that it was too much change too rapidly, that there should have been a phase period, recalibration, new heritabilities and methodology being phased in over time to cushion the blow. But I have always been in the camp that believes the best way to remove a band-aid is to quickly pull it off all at once. The shock is still there, but it is over quickly. Besides, to take a multi-pronged approach to implementing a single-step methodology seems hypocritical.
Admittedly, I’m like all breeders. The new system created some new winners and some new losers, but unlike so many times in the past when we had to recalibrate or adjust our way of looking at what we were doing, this was something that merely allows us to move toward our goals more efficiently.
From a commercial perspective, Single Step must be seen as a positive development. It will just require some rethinking relative to knowing the components that drive the indexes and adjusting to some changing baselines.
We can make progress in 20-plus traits simultaneously, which is almost miraculous, but knowing how to combine those traits for a given environment is no different than it was 20 years ago—find that optimum combination that leads to maximum profits, while avoiding risk and the extremes, all the while being flexible and cognizant of an ever-changing, ever evolving market environment. Because in the end the only single step that really matters is the journey of a thousand steps that leads to profitability.
The only thing I can say for certain is that it is good that we don’t all agree on what is optimum today, because what is optimum today will definitely not be optimum five years from now. If it is, we have failed as an industry and I’m more than happy to wager my entire net worth on this industry continuing to move forward.