Each day he goes to work, beef geneticist John Pollak crosses his fingers. Why? The Cornell University professor and head of the National Beef Cattle Evaluation Consortium (NBCEC) is patiently waiting for the next step in genetic analyses.
That step is universities transitioning out of the service of calculating genetic analyses — where the beef industry gets its EPDs and sire summaries. Instead, they'll focus their efforts on the research and development needed to support EPDs.
Three major universities currently do the work: the University of Georgia (UG), Colorado State University (CSU) and Cornell. Here's a look at the factors leading up to this transition.
The best in the world
The industry whisper is that universities are tired of conducting genetic analyses, which the university geneticists contend is not true.
Rather, the universities say that keeping the U.S. genetic evaluations the best in the world requires a change in infrastructure. Let universities do what they do best — research and creatively tackle problems — and let the industry absorb the data storage and warehousing. Canada, Australia and Europe utilize such a structure.
“In the U.S., we're divided up into many pieces of pie. How many different information management systems are being maintained in the beef industry?” asks Keith Bertrand, UG geneticist.
“With universities doing all the production of EPDs, we're handicapping advances in genetic evaluations,” says Mark Enns, a CSU beef geneticist.
As more EPDs are developed, and DNA technology becomes more prevalent, the lion's share of researchers' time is increasingly spent in calculating EPDs rather than conducting the research necessary to support and improve EPDs.
“If you look at my technicians, there's not a whole lot of time they have available for research,” Enns says. “We don't think we can keep the U.S. genetic evaluation system at the forefront if we don't keep performing the research.”
Iffy financial support
“Our beef-cattle technology is among the world's highest, but we put less industry and government money into our genetic evaluations than countries with far fewer numbers of cattle,” Bertrand says.
That's because universities have picked up the tab for the bulk of genetic evaluations in the U.S. For instance, at UG the university covers 90% of the program costs, once salaries are included. A complicating factor for universities is that state legislatures control the dwindling money flow, which could evaporate at any time.
Universities also can play a part in the tenuousness of support. At Cornell, for instance, the dean disbanded the dairy processing laboratories on campus eight years ago.
“We feel it's necessary to develop a sustainable approach to providing EPDs that's more under the industry's control and less vulnerable,” Pollak says.
Another factor is age. The average age of geneticists at two universities is more than 50. Will these positions be filled upon retirement? Some fear they won't.
Plus, while Pollak notes there are qualified beef geneticists in the industry, these folks lack the infrastructure developed at these universities. In addition, university staffs have been downsized, which further pressures researchers' time.
NBCEC was formed in 2001. Consisting of geneticists from several universities, its aim is to provide sustainability as individuals retire.
As a group, NBCEC requests federal funding, but it's on a year-to-year basis. That's why, from its inception, NBCEC has told breed groups and industry that universities needed to stop providing EPD calculation services in favor of research and development support.
NBCEC envisions a single-service entity that would provide EPDs to all breeds. By transitioning the normal, day-to-day production of EPDs to a separate entity, universities would have more time to research and develop EPDs, and make EPDs more accurate, Enns says.
What's happening now
NBCEC's goal is to transition genetic analyses from universities to separate entities by 2010, a process that could start this year. But Enns, who works with Bertrand in the transition process, adds that the goal isn't to “leave anybody out in the dark where they don't have EPDs.”
To prepare for this transition, universities are focusing their efforts on building the software necessary to compute EPDs. Georgia currently contracts its software to separate entities, such as the American Angus Association. Georgia also is developing a Technology Transfer Center to act as a research portal.
But NBCEC's vision of a single entity isn't coming together. “The industry has really struggled to get this going,” Pollak says.
“Where we'd envisioned consolidation into a single entity that could be supported by all the industry, we're starting to see multiple entities out there,” Pollak says. Still, he believes the effort will consolidate into one entity over time, which will make multi-breed evaluations easier because data will be kept in one dataset, as opposed to multiple datasets with different editing rules, definitions and data warehousing.
But cattle producers shouldn't notice much difference as a result of the changing of the guard on EPDs. “Whether done by the universities or one of the multiple entities that appear to be developing, EPDs will be the same,” Pollak says. Geneticists are confident that data integrity will remain a priority regardless of who conducts the analyses.
“We're not abandoning genetic evaluations; we're trying to make EPDs better, give producers better tools and find ways to streamline the process,” Pollak says. In the meantime, they continue to conduct genetic analyses, crossing their fingers that the industry will step forward and assist them in this process.