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Cow Adaptability & Carcass Acceptability - Can Both Be Achieved?

Over the past 20 years, the beef cattle industry has become a confusing place to exist with messages conveyed to producers at a fast and furious pace. These messages aren't always consistent or compatible. Just a few of these might include:* Fierce pride in producer individuality and independence vs. strategic alliances and cooperative relationships.* Segmentation vs. vertical cooperation/ integration.*

Over the past 20 years, the beef cattle industry has become a confusing place to exist with messages conveyed to producers at a fast and furious pace. These messages aren't always consistent or compatible. Just a few of these might include:

* Fierce pride in producer individuality and independence vs. strategic alliances and cooperative relationships.

* Segmentation vs. vertical cooperation/ integration.

* Traditional purebred cattle-focused seedstock production vs. commercially-oriented specification seedstock production.

* Commodity-based marketing vs. value-based marketing.

* Consumer preference vs. production preference.

* Purebred vs. composite breeding.

* Matching the cow to the production environment vs. matching the calf to the marketing environment (i.e., cow adaptability vs. carcass acceptability).

These concerns and many others have contributed to a "fog" for beef cattle producers. What is a cow-calf producer to do? Fortunately, we do have some clearly defined answers.

The U.S. National Beef Quality Audit (NBQA) conducted by Colorado State (CSU) and Texas A&M universities in 1991 was a wake-up call to the beef industry. The audit of 28 U.S. slaughter plants found a total of $280 in inefficiencies for each fed steer and heifer produced in the beef business. These results indicated the beef cattle industry needed to change at the carcass level by implementing changes in feeding and management as well as genetic improvement.

The NBQA was repeated in 1995. It found a few management effects were different - cattle were less finished due to market conditions and quality grades had consequently declined. This resulted in a shift in recommendations away from decreasing fat (1991) to increasing quality and consistency (1995). The production segment of the industry responded by asking, "how can we shoot for a target when the bull's-eye keeps changing?"

There are several reasons why little genetic change occurred over the five years:

* Time - five years doesn't quite constitute a single-generation interval of beef cattle.

* Most of the necessary genetic tools for identifying specific seedstock animals for specific roles (in relation to end-product performance) were still under development.

* These genotypes usually were filling a perceived useful niche in the cow/calf sector.

* Genetics inappropriately used in 1991 were still being inappropriately used in 1995.

* There has been a long-standing perception that production of cattle with "value-based genetics" will not receive "value-based rewards."

* There has been concern relative to the effects of genetic change in carcass performance on raising rather than lowering production costs.

Lowering Production Costs All changes in a commercial cow/calf operation must be evaluated in terms of their effect on profitability of the whole enterprise. Given that profitability is often in the short-term very affected by external market conditions, these changes should be evaluated on the basis of economic efficiency measured as the ratio of input costs per unit of output product value.

When one operates under this philosophy, cost of production becomes very important relative to desired increases in product value. Furthermore, it's imperative to remember that many of these desired ends are often antagonistically related, meaning that we must be careful to keep the "big picture" in perspective.

For example, traditionally we've thought that in relative economic terms, reproductive efficiency is roughly twice as important as growth performance, which is approximately five times as important as carcass merit. A few years ago, a re-analysis of the importance of these three types of traits under a more current, value-based type of marketing system was completed by Bryan Melton at Iowa State University.

Under this more current marketing system, the former 10 reproduction: 5 growth: 1 product ratio was now closer to 2 reproduction: 1 growth: 1 product.

A more recent evaluation of these economic weights has been presented from the American Gelbvieh Association's (AGA) Alliance marketing program. After 110,000 feedlot cattle had gone through their program, the estimated relative importance of these three trait categories was approximately 4:2:1.

There are several things about these relative economic values that are very important.

* First, under the general assumptions used in their derivation, these results indicate that while we have paid a lot of attention to growth of calves in the past, it will not suffice in the future. In most cases, the problems are in the other two categories: reproductive efficiency because it has been so difficult to genetically change, and carcass merit because we simply have not paid much attention to this area.

* Second, one should not fall prone to the common error of assuming these economic weights are universally true. They're applicable to one particular system and environment but may be quite different if the system is changed. One of the universal strengths that makes the beef industry unique is that cattle harvest energy from sunlight, soil and water that is then converted to a higher quality form of protein. They do this from a set of natural resources that cannot be "farmed" any other way.

But, those resources exist under such a wide array of ecosystems that it's difficult to develop one management system, or one beast, that will work in all environments.

* Third, we in the beef industry often tend to over-generalize when talking about "the target." The first question a commercial producer must ask before addressing anything else genetically, is "Which target am I going to aim my production resources toward?"

As marketing of cattle in alliance and grid programs has escalated, it's become clear that there are major targets in the "lean," "high-quality" and "export" beef trade. There are smaller specialty markets, too.

The market may change over time in relation to premiums and discounts for "leanness" vs. "quality." But, a given producer must decide before the genetic decisions are made on a well-defined target that is comfortable. Producers must educate themselves on where he/she fits, then set their target based on that marketing program. Only then can they truly begin to determine the relative importance of these traits.

The late Bob Taylor of Colorado State University had great foresight in realizing the need to look at "balanced" performance of cattle long before it was popular. His analogy was for commercial producers to develop a "want ad" for the type of bulls and females they use in their system.

The ad would then be used by the seedstock industry to develop "specification seedstock" to address the needs of the commercial production sector. Taylor's generalized want ad (shown in Table 1), provides an excellent overview of the challenge a breeder has to mount in order to "hit the overall" target.

Can Genetics Do Both? Is it possible to genetically improve cow adaptability and carcass acceptability?

* Within population selection. Over the past 50 years, collective research results clearly show that genetic variation exists both between and within breeds for many of the important performance measures in beef cattle production. In general, selection within breed populations is quite effective for carcass traits, moderately effective for growth related traits and much slower for reproductive efficiency related traits.

Until recently, we believed there was limited opportunity to genetically improve fertility via direct selection within breeds. Indicator traits of fertility and age at puberty - such as scrotal circumference - have proven to be quite useful and heritable. But, they haven't been shown to be highly genetically correlated to fertility measured as pregnancy success.

Because fertility measures are binary traits (i.e., they are observed as either pregnant or not pregnant), it's difficult to use phenotypic information to determine genetic differences (i.e., two females may both get pregnant but may differ widely in their true genetic potential for fertility).

Two recent studies conducted at CSU by graduate students John Evans and Patrick Doyle concluded that heifer pregnancy is indeed more heritable than previously thought (14-20%). These studies indicate it's feasible to produce genetic predictions to enable direct genetic improvement in reproductive rate.

The only obstacle is getting breed association national cattle evaluation performance databases to adopt a "whole-herd reporting" format that is necessary to allow computation of these types of Expected Progeny Differences (EPDs). (See "Determining The Relative Importance Of Traits," page 26.)

* Between population selection. Over the past 30 years, scientists at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center (MARC) have conducted the world's most extensive genetic evaluation of breeds - the Germ Plasm Evaluation (GPE) program. They found the magnitude of genetic variability between breeds is roughly equivalent to that within breeds for most performance traits.

While this infers that genetic improvement is possible through proper breed selection implemented in designed crossbreeding programs (i.e., breed complementarity), it also points out that no one breed excels in all characteristics simultaneously. And, that there is a great degree of overlap between various breeds.

The GPE program and many other studies have shown that many genetic antagonisms exist in beef production systems (Table 2). These estimates clearly reveal general genetic antagonisms between growth rate and calving ease, growth rate and mature cow size, maternal characteristics and cutability, and carcass quality and cutability.

One of the most troubling genetic antagonisms to consider in attempting to genetically improve product quality and consistency is the relationship between carcass attributes and measures of reproductive efficiency. There is little information in the research literature.

The best existing data relating actual carcass measures to reproductive traits comes from a study by Mike MacNeil and co-workers at MARC. It indicated antagonistic relationships exist between selection to increase retail product weight, age at puberty and mature size. These antagonisms leave no doubt that no one breed allows breeders to "have their cake and eat it, too."

Colorado State University's Rick Bourdon has used the analogy of "sensible beef stew" to describe the effectiveness of utilizing designed mating systems to "mix and match" strengths and weaknesses of breeds to meet specifications for balanced performance.

This approach was further supported in the analysis of the AGA Alliance results where a ratio of 50% British to 50% Continental European breeding appears optimal to hit market targets in many environments. Breed inputs in sub-tropical environments should be altered, however, to include either some Bos indicus or heat tolerant Bos taurus germ plasm, up to 25% as suggested by Texas A&M's Bill Mies.

Fortunately, nature has provided a significant amount of heterosis observed in the reproductive efficiency and maternal trait complex to allow breeders to overcome the obstacles of direct selection for fertility and cow adaptability mentioned earlier. Heterosis levels of 20-25% are achievable in pounds of calf weaned/cow exposed to breeding using systems that exploit a terminal sire breed mated to crossbred females of unrelated breeds. This amount varies according to the breeds used in the crossing system because heterosis is directly proportional to the difference in gene frequencies affecting the traits among the breeds used in the cross.

The Balancing Act Given the enormous diversity of feed resources and climatic environments used in cattle production - yet end-product performance must fit within specification targets - what do we do? Animal breeders say this balance can be achieved by using breed complementarity and heterosis in carefully designed crossbreeding programs. This process includes:* Choosing the proper breeds to match maternal performance of the cow herd to the production environment;

* Selecting the proper lines from within those breeds to properly hit both environmental and minimum end-product targets, while selecting a terminal sire breed to bring necessary performance for efficiency of growth and end-product performance to the system.

* Sires selected from within the terminal breed (or breeds) must have documented performance for growth and carcass traits (EPDs), whereas maternal sires must have documented EPDs for reproductive and functional soundness with less emphasis on carcass yield.

Several different types of crossbreeding programs are available to producers. (See "Designing Breeding Systems That Work," page 18.) Each has advantages and disadvantages. Unfortunately, a number of our industry's product inconsistency problems stem from misuse of these systems and mismanagement of the cattle resulting from them.

Usually, it's not the choice of the crossbreeding program that's gotten breeders into trouble as much as the inability to properly design, implement and then stay the course in a crossbreeding program. Many programs are doomed because they weren't properly thought out. Others fail because a new breed has come along that tempts the curiosity too much. All this, coupled with the wild chase for extra growth and extra heterosis, has resulted in what some call the "mongrelization" of the U.S. beef cow herd.

What About Carcass EPDs? Even if many problems can be remedied with designed breeding programs, breeders still must be able to accurately select the best animals. If we don't have the extensive information for end-product EPD, then how do we select the right terminal sire?

For example, there is little doubt that the Brahman crossbred female is hard to outperform in the Gulf Coast region. We also know we must find a way to make sure the Brahman sire lines used in that cross don't present the wrong type of end-product specs. Without genetic predictions for these carcass traits, we're shooting in the dark.

If there's such a need for carcass EPDs, and the genetic bases of these traits are relatively high, why aren't they widely available? There are several reasons, but we are finally seeing them resolved.

The largest hindrance to collecting carcass information has been that until recently we've had to solely rely on progeny data. This information requires time, expense and labor to collect, as well as cooperation in the packing plant for accurate individual identification of carcasses. These factors have resulted in somewhat limited amounts of progeny data being placed thus far into breed performance databases.

In the U.S., the American Angus Association has the most concerted effort in designed progeny testing of sires. About 50% (2,772) of their currently published sires have carcass information. This proves the difficulty of obtaining progeny data for carcass traits, but it also emphasizes that useful carcass information can be obtained for a meaningful percentage of the breed. Most other breed programs are actively attempting to build carcass EPD databases.

The second hindrance has been the inability to determine true carcass value differences on live, yearling seedstock cattle to circumvent the need for progeny data. Real-time ultrasound imaging has been pursued recently as the primary means to obtain these live measures and now appears to be entering the adoption mode.

In the early 1990s, a national consortium of U.S. universities worked together in a project which had as one of its objectives "to determine the efficacy of using real-time ultrasound imaging to measure body composition and carcass merit traits in beef cattle." The conclusions drawn from this and other research indicate:

* Assessment of retail yield amount or percentage on the basis of 12th rib fat thickness (FT) and 12th rib ribeye area (REA) is slightly less effective using ultrasonic measures on the live slaughter animal as compared to direct measures on the carcass postmortem;

* FT is a better predictor of cutability than is REA in the current cattle population, although not so of retail product weight;

* Ultrasonic measures of these retail yield indicators appear to be under a moderate degree of genetic control (weighted average h2 of 37% for FT and 26% for REA);

* Genetic correlation estimates between ultrasonic predictors of carcass merit and other economically important traits are sparse but indicate some antagonism between REA and mature size;

* Prediction of intramuscular (IM) fatness and palatability traits is more difficult using ultrasound, although high and acceptable levels of accuracy have been achieved in the past few years; and

* Data to estimate relationships between ultrasonic measures in yearling bulls and slaughter steer carcass retail yield and palatability have been more limiting.

This last issue has been the hardest to resolve in recommending adoption of ultrasound-generated carcass data for breed improvement programs. As data addressing this issue have been accumulated over the past five years, researchers' conclusions have been mixed, but they are moving more clearly in favor of real-time ultrasound.

Data from the Brangus and Angus breeds have indicated high correlation between ultrasound and actual progeny carcass data for sires where both types of information have been collected. These conclusions have lead to the recent acceptance of ultrasound data by several breed associations, including Angus, Hereford, Simmental, Brangus and Gelbvieh, with more to follow suit in the next few years.

Coupled with actual carcass progeny data, real-time ultrasound data should greatly accelerate the percentage of active sires with carcass EPD for most breeds. For example, the American Angus Association amassed enough ultrasound data in the first nine months after adoption to increase the size of its carcass record database by almost 50%.

Genetics And Carcass Acceptability The only area yet to be addressed is genetic evaluation of overall meat quality, particularly tenderness. This is a major industry issue - one in five steaks produced currently are tougher than desired. No industry can afford this defect rate!

There is much debate in the U.S. as to whether marbling can - or can't - address the meat quality and tenderness issue. The collective U.S. experience indicates that while it would be nice to rely on marbling and USDA Quality Grade to be the "insurance policy" for palatability, it's simply not good enough.

The probability of getting an unpalatable steak does reduce significantly as you move from Standard through Prime. But, there's so much overlap in palatability amongst the grades that it's possible today to have steaks from Prime and Standard grade carcasses that are equally palatable. (See "Putting Marbling In Perspective," page 26; and "Can You Chase Too Much Marbling?" page 31.)

Beef is perceived to currently have a toughness problem. There are two solutions: tenderize the product postmortem and/or genetically fix it.

We know that postmortem aging, electrical stimulation, and calcium chloride injection postmortem can reduce toughness. We also know that tenderness, assessed as Warner-Bratzler shear force of loin or rib steaks at a 14 days aging endpoint is heritable (h2 of 38%) and variable.

However, application of best management practices postmortem results in a toughness rate that is still unacceptable, leaving genetic selection the only long-term remedy. This means breeders must collect objective progeny tenderness data (measured as Warner-Bratzler shear force). The availability of such data will allow producers to identify and remove "tough" genetics from the cattle population.

A 42-month study - the NCBA National Carcass Merit Project - was initiated in June 1998. (See "An EPD For Tenderness," page 53.) It will collect complete carcass data (including ribeye shear force) from 11,000 progeny of sires from 15 breeds. The objectives of the project include estimation of EPD for shear force and sensory panel assessments of tenderness (as well as all other carcass traits) and an economic analysis of the costs and benefits associated with this type of information.

As the planning for this project developed, a focal point became an evaluation of a set of 11 promising DNA marker tests for carcass merit. This project will give us our first glimpse of how practical and useful DNA information resulting from gene mapping efforts around the world will be in cattle breeding programs. For more information on marker-assisted selection, see "Genetic Revolution," BEEF 1999 Spring Cow/Calf Issue.

A last area worth mentioning in our discussion deals with how to balance emphasis among all of the traits that are important. This has always been a challenge and is becoming more so as we develop information on more and more traits in our performance programs. "Selection indexes" are one way we have to approach this problem.

These ideas have been around a long time (Iowa State's Jay Lush and Lanoy Hazel proposed them in 1943). They've become applicable and important as we've developed genetic information on more and more traits in the past 10 years. (See "Determining The Relative Importance Of Traits," page 26.)

The dairy and swine industries have indexes for use in their national genetic evaluation programs. The beef industry will rapidly develop the same in the next few years.

In our case, however, the indexes will need to be customized for a given type of production scenario. Fortunately, the recent development of tools such as the recently released Decision Evaluator for the Cattle Industry (DECI) model developed by USDA scientists at MARC will help.

DECI is a simulation model that allows a producer to provide a base-line picture of his/her production system so that "what if" questions can be asked. This is a critical area where a great deal of research and development is needed.

Here Are The Implications The following are unavoidable conclusions over the past 30 years:

* Beef is losing market share relative to poultry and pork. A large reason is the higher cost of production for beef.

* Reproductive efficiency and other aspects of maternal performance in the environment can't be sacrificed.

* We can genetically alter cattle for end-product performance.

* The most feasible way to approach the end-product, non-conformance problem genetically is to use properly designed and implemented crossing systems that match maternal production to environmental feed resources with sire selection based on growth and carcass performance.

* The benefits of heterosis on overall performance of a cow herd (upwards of 25% improvement in weight of calf weaned per cow exposed) can't be ignored.

* Proper terminal sire selection for growth and carcass performance is unachievable in the absence of end-product EPDs, and proper maternal sire selection for reproductive and maternal performance is unachievable in the absence of appropriate EPDs.

* Single-trait selection will never be a wise breeding philosophy.

Finding A Balance Given these conclusions, we have several possible approaches to be successful in achieving both cow adaptability and carcass acceptability. Each has merit and should be attempted. In priority order, they are:

* Immediately demand that end-product performance data be gathered and utilized in national cattle evaluation programs. This must be done by amassing the necessary progeny data (either carcass or ultrasound) for lean yield and objectively measured meat quality attributes. Additionally, we must implement whole-herd reporting formats for breed performance data collection to enable calculation of EPD for fertility and longevity-related traits.

* Breeding plans must be developed - by geo-climatic region - for matching of breed resources to environments. Much of the genetics puzzle is already solved, but we don't use the knowledge in a very coordinated and cohesive manner.

* Seedstock suppliers (of both maternal and terminal line genetics), commercial multipliers and feedlot professionals must become better integrated and aligned in order to makeuse of value-added genetics. A critical part is the identification and implementation of best management practices to lay over onto the genetics produced in the system.

This type of a system will require a new "full service provision" philosophy that is currently little-used in the beef cattle industry. Our competitors in the meat marketplace already have much of this in place.

* We must develop a high-integrity system of identification on every animal produced, and be willing to use this system to provide information feedback and true value discovery/pricing.

* We must use all available resources to identify new DNA-based technologies to assist in making genetic improvement in traits that are costly and difficult to measure (i.e., tenderness, feedlot efficiency and health).

Some of these items are politically difficult to achieve. Others are physically more challenging. The political difficulties may or may not be overcome, and depend on whether groups and people within the industry are committed to the good of the whole industry or just their portion.

The physical challenges, however, we have direct control over. We can make those happen with the right resources directed in the right directions (i.e., carcass EPD, individual animal ID and feedback and whole-herd reporting). The beef industry and its consumers will universally benefit in the long term.

For further information, contact Ronnie D. Green, Department of Animal Sciences, Fort Collins, CO 80523-1171 or phone 970/491-2722, fax 970/491-5326, e-mail: rdggene@lamar.

Spade Ranch's cattle production goal is to efficiently develop reproductively sound cows that will raise calves with acceptable carcasses. We've used three tools to accomplish this goal: heterosis, management and genetics.

* Heterosis can provide increased growth and reproductive efficiency without big increases in costs. Spade Ranch utilizes a four-breed crossbreeding system to increase heterosis. We try to optimize cow size while maintaining adequate growth through our management and genetic selection.

We use Hereford, Braunvieh, Angus and Simmental. Hereford-sired cows are bred to Braunvieh bulls, the Braunvieh-sired cows to Angus bulls, the Angus-sired cows to Simmental bulls, and the Simmental-sired cows to Hereford bulls (see Figure 1). By rotating these breeds, we've been able to achieve a balance in milk and carcass traits while maintaining outstanding growth.

Our four-breed system has some challenges. First, it takes more pastures to run four different breeds, and it's more difficult to properly use the rangeland when you keep four separate herds. Second, the shortcomings of the dominant breed will tend to manifest themselves in their progeny. Finally, if not properly managed, the cattle can become too big. We address these problems through our management.

* We start with our selection for breeding animals. In selecting replacement females and breeding bulls, we look for a moderate frame size. In developing our heifers, we determine what resources will be available and what inputs we can afford. We then set production benchmarks we want to obtain.

For yearling heifers, we have a 60-day breeding season starting when the heifers are 15-16 months old. They're developed and bred on range with minimal protein supplement.

We palpate 45 days after breeding and send open heifers to the feedlot. Bred heifers continue on the rangeland throughout their lifetime. We breed first-calf heifers to calving ease bulls and expect them to calve unattended. We early wean the calves off of these two-year-old heifers when the calves average 60 days of age, then turn out bulls with the heifers for 90 days.

All heifers not rebred and most heifers not weaning a calf are culled. It's thought that reproductive efficiency isn't highly heritable, but I've observed that reproductive inefficiency can grow exponentially if not managed. We have been able to maintain acceptable cow size and milk production by maintaining our heifers this way.

* We try to improve our carcass traits through bull selection. In order of priority, we select bulls that have acceptable calving ease, better than average growth, and with the best carcass traits we can find. In carcass traits, we emphasize marbling and percent red meat yield, never selecting for or going to extremes in any single trait.

We gather carcass data on nearly all the cattle we feed and have joined an alliance to help facilitate the transfer of data from the packer, through the feedlot and back to us. We use this data in our bull selection.

We also have a small composite group of cattle comprised of 9/16 Angus, 4/16 Braunvieh, 2/16 Hereford and 1/16 Simmental. They appear to be moderate in frame size and milk with acceptable growth, maturity and carcass characteristics. We are currently evaluating their longevity and consistency. Nonetheless, we plan to continue our four-breed program to allow us to easily adapt to the ever-changing beef industry and markets.