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Bullish On AI

What does the future hold for the AI industry? BEEF turned to four sire-selection experts for some insight.

Since becoming popular in U.S. beef herds in the late 1960s, artificial insemination (AI) has proven to be an efficient means for cattlemen to rapidly improve economic traits within their herds.

Access to top genetics has helped the beef industry infuse traits for calving ease, weaning weight, yearling weight, maternal ability and carcass quality into America's cow herd. Yet, the industry's adoption of AI technology has lagged, with only 7-10% of beef herds utilizing the technology.

What does the future hold? BEEF sat down with sire selection specialists from four well-known AI companies for a thought-provoking discussion on the factors they believe will shape AI's role in beef herds in the years to come.

The panel included Chad Ellingson of Genex/Cooperative Resources International, Lorna Marshall of ABS Global Inc., Don Trimmer of Accelerated Genetics, and Roy Wallace of Select Sires.

BEEF: How would you classify most cattle being fed for market today? Are producers utilizing the genetics needed to meet consumer demands? If not, what needs to change from a genetic selection standpoint?

Wallace: We have such a spectrum of people breeding cattle — from programs with no emphasis to extremes. The data we have available on cattle today is excellent but, as a whole, there are still a ton of producers who buy based on what they like — and they still love fat.

Marshall: The beef industry has the genetics to hit the grids that are out there. The problem is consistency and uniformity and that's where AI can help. Using proven genetics in the context of a planned crossbreeding program is key to hitting industry targets.

Ellingson: Crossbreeding doesn't work for most producers because they don't use the data available. It's simple: Use the data and stick to the plan.

Wallace: Years ago, all we had was British cattle, and it was simple. Now, the outcome can be varied, so breeding requires discipline. The genetics are there, producers just need to be disciplined in the applications.

BEEF: Will we see fewer breeds?

Trimmer: The marketplace has already done that. There is less demand and fewer markets for some breeds.

Ellingson: But some of the less-popular breeds do have to be complimented because in the last five years, as they lost market share, several have tried to do something about it. For example, many of the smaller breed associations began to aggressively collect information on more traits and now have large databases of highly proven data on their breed's performance. In fact, a couple of breed associations started calculating fertility and tenderness EPDs, which has earned them more recognition in the industry.

BEEF: What technologies will play a role in promoting more use of AI among beef herds in the future? Any predictions as to the percentage of beef herds that will use AI in Year 2025?

This panel agrees that the labor intensity of AI has hindered its use in the past. But they remain optimistic.

Although no one was willing to predict how many beef herds will utilize AI in the future, the group believes AI will be on the upswing. Their optimism stems from promising research toward timed breeding practices, the trend toward value-based markets and the overall benefits of AI. Wallace adds, “We all agree there are going to be fewer seedstock producers in the near future. Therefore, there will be a need for more AI.”

Marshall is encouraged by the caliber of young people returning to the ranch. “Those coming back to the industry are educated and more sophisticated. They have a better understanding of the business and realize they have to have a different style of management than what was used in the past. And, most realize that commodity producers won't survive.”

Here are more of their comments:

Trimmer: Our rancher population is getting older and can't find adequate hired help. So as we look to the future, we need to look at technology that makes it easier or faster to AI. Timed AI will be one solution.

Ellingson: I believe the new CIDR program (FDA-approved, intra-vaginal device to aid in building a timed breeding program — see “Managing estrus for more dollars,” pg. 26, July 2002 BEEF) will increase the number of cattle being artificially inseminated. In the past, AI has largely been used to breed heifers, but CIDR should help AI regain a percentage of the cow market.

Marshall: I agree we won't see much increase in the use of AI unless it becomes cheaper and easier. It also must be market driven. The only thing that will drive more use of AI is movement toward value-based marketing and producers being rewarded for proven and consistent genetics.

Wallace: It's all tied to labor and profitability. The average cattle operation saw a 2% return on investment in the last decade. When you have 800,000 producers selling to feedlots and packers paying for pounds of product, that's what they'll aim for until they're paid for quality.

Everyone's already concentrated on selling the genetics part of AI, but there are a lot of other benefits to sell: AI is cheaper than using bulls and, if you synchronize, you can get a 13-day advantage in age of calf, which translates into more pounds to sell.

Trimmer: It's the total package with synchronization. For use of AI to increase, it's going to take people in the field actually providing the service of synchronization and breeding. That's because, for the producer, it all gets back to labor.

Marshall: I think we'll see some growth in AI as people realize the value of genetics. It's inevitable we're going to see value-based systems along the chain, and more producers will realize they can't produce commodity beef. Value-based marketing is going to drive AI in our industry like it did in the hog industry.

Trimmer: Look at what branded programs like Certified Angus Beef have done for the Angus breed.

Marshall: And, it will be our role to help market those superior genetics. The AI company can't just provide genetics, but must add value to those genetics through improved marketing opportunities.

BEEF: Looking ahead, what will your bull stud do to offer more services to cattlemen in the next 10-15 years?

Ellingson: Genex is moving toward being a full-service organization with full-time, year-round employees who will offer genetics, AI service, marketing assistance and ultrasound collection. Through existing alliances with major feedlots and having Central Livestock Association as our sister company under the CRI structure, we're already working to assist customers with direct placement of their calves into feedlots. We've also sponsored several Genex-sired calf sales to help the customer capture more value in the superior genetics they are producing.

Trimmer: At Accelerated we recognize it's more than just genetics; it's the service. Representatives must be able to sell semen and AI cows, that's how we'll grow the AI industry. If you're not providing the services producers need, you're not going to be in business.

Marshall: Our direction is the same. ABS has 600-plus, full-service representatives across the U.S. who help with entire synchronization and breeding programs. We've also focused on marketing those genetics through heifer sales and through our network of representatives who help place cattle. Increasing producer profitability is the bottom line.

Wallace: We've focused on helping producers set up synchronization programs. Select Sires also has a Web site to move 3,000-4,000 heifers/year that are Select Sires progeny.

BEEF: What tools (i.e., genetic markers, new EPDs, ultrasound technology, etc.) would you like to have to assist with selection?

Wallace: Ultrasound data has made it easier, but it makes it harder, too.

Trimmer: As we add ultrasound data and information on more traits, it sometimes gives more reasons why not to buy an animal.

Marshall: Those bulls that have been proven to excel for a variety of economically relevant traits are of value to the industry. The trait I'd like to see available is feed efficiency — both a maternal cow type efficiency and terminal efficiency. I also think there's a lot of room to measure reproductive traits. To me, those are the key traits down the road. I also see us moving away from EPDs and focusing more on indexes in the future.

Ellingson: I'd like to see a maternal index that encompasses longevity, fertility, milk, etc. A maternal index is important because the cows that are artificially inseminated are often bred with the goal of getting superior replacement females from their AI program. The only way to get that information is through whole-herd reporting.

Our Panel

Chad Ellingson, Genex/Cooperative Resources International: Ellingson has been with Genex/ CRI for 11 years. He says his selection strategy puts high emphasis on EPDs along with physical evaluation/phenotype, and he says, “until there's more total-herd reporting, that's all we have to go on for longevity.”

Ellingson points out that Genex/CRI is unique because it's set up as a cooperative, with selection goals reviewed annually by members on the board of directors. The purchase of Canadian-based bull stud Alta Genetics last year has also given Genex a strong Canadian presence and a more diverse set of genetics, Ellingson says.

Don Trimmer, Accelerated Genetics: Formerly an Angus fieldman, Trimmer has worked as sire selector for Accelerated Genetics for nine years. He uses EPDs and phenotype as his selection guide, and says, “Our philosophy in bull selection is to have bulls in the top one-third of the breed for as many traits as possible. The traits we focus on are calving ease, growth and maternal because that's what affects most producers. If possible, we like to have carcass performance along with that package.”

Trimmer reports that Accelerated Genetics primarily focuses on five main breeds — Angus, Red Angus, Hereford, Simmental and Charolais.

“A few years ago, our company made the decision to eliminate most of the minor breeds from our offering. We've added a few breeds (like Gelbvieh) back in, but eighty percent of our sales are from Angus and Red Angus genetics,” he says.

Lorna Marshall, ABS Global Inc.: “Our philosophy at ABS is ‘Pasture to Plate’ genetics — cattle that work in the pasture and on the plate. Genetics can no longer only work for one segment of the industry,” she says. “In addition to EPDs, our selection process encompasses phenotype, structure, and even the dams production record.

“We utilize selection indexes to aid us in selecting bulls that excel for multiple economically important traits,” she adds.

Marshall formerly worked with the Gelbvieh Association and earned a master's degree from Colorado State University. She's worked with ABS for seven years.

According to Marshall, ABS is the only stud service that has collected extensive GTS data on progeny of their sires. In the future, the company plans to add feed efficiency performance to the data. “We are presently testing progeny of ABS Angus sires for feed efficiency through the Circle A alliance,” she reports.

Roy Wallace, Select Sires: Wallace is a 36-year veteran of sire selection. His career began with Select Sires in 1967, and he says, “It's the only job I've ever had.”

“Our emphasis in the last 10 years has been birth weight more than any other trait because heifers are the majority of beef cattle being bred AI,” Wallace says, but adds, “Trait-wise, they've still got to be a balanced bull.”

He points out that Select Sires has a longstanding young sire program. In his selection, Wallace relies on a methodology he developed called the Power Score Index. It entails adding the birth, weaning and yearling weights and milk EPD together, then dividing that sum by four.

To consider carcass traits, a bull's EPD for marbling and percent retail product are added together and divided by two. Wallace says, ‘The bulls with the lowest numbers win.”