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Articles from 2005 In January

Industry Prepares To Convene In San Antonio

Seemingly, there's never a shortage of issues that promise to have dramatic impacts on the industry, but this year promises to be especially important. It's almost easy to forget big issues such as national ID, food safety, endangered species, public lands, taxes, marketing, etc., what with all the conversation and the industry's attention decidedly turned towards BSE. But all of those issues are as alive and well.

The industry remains outmanned and under-funded in contrast to its opponents. But, the reputation earned by cattlemen over the years has not only enabled us to prevail in most cases, but make significant progress, particularly in the last couple of years.

Our greatest weapon in the political wars we find ourselves involved in is that the industry remain factually based and unflinching in its resolve to deal with issues honestly, sincerely and with character. It's a policy that's served us well.

Admittedly, there have been mistakes along the way, but I truly love these industry gatherings. That's because despite all of the heartfelt debate and discussion, you always feel that decisions are made and policies created with one thing in common -- they're done with the industry's best interest at heart.

It's always amazing to see such democracy in action, to see the initial fervor evolve with debate into sound policy that not only considers short-term but long-term ramifications.

Indeed, there are a lot of proposals being discussed relative to the top-of-mind issue of BSE and Canada. But, listening to the various state associations and looking at the policies they plan to carry to San Antonio next week, it's fairly easy to predict the outcome if not the exact policies that emerge.

Cattlemen are overwhelmingly opposed to the March 7 date from a timing standpoint, and to the allowing of product from cattle more than 30 months of age into this country. They have reservations and questions. They're concerned rightly about risk to domestic beef demand. They want concrete proof of Canada's compliance with its own feed ban.

At the same time, the majority realize trade has a dramatic positive impact on the beef industry, and that we must get trade re-established by holding true to trade policy that is based on sound science.

While the policy debates will undoubtedly have a little tension from time to time, if history holds true, the industry will find a policy that matches both short-term and long-term considerations and, just as importantly, has a realistic plan and approach to ensure it's implemented.

Don't Open Border To Canada On March 7, Readers Say

Only 13% of 1,485 respondents to last week's BEEF Cow-Calf Weekly survey of reader attitudes on Canada trade believe the U.S. should allow Canadian live cattle to cross the border on March 7, as USDA proposes. Of respondents, 51.9% say the border should be kept closed indefinitely, while 34.3% say reopening of the border to Canada should be tied to the resumption of U.S. beef exports.

A USDA rule published in the Jan. 4 Federal Register calls for resumption of trade with Canada of live cattle less than 30 months of age, and whole-muscle beef products from cattle more than 30 months of age. The U.S. shut its border to Canadian beef and cattle trade in May 2003 following the discovery of a BSE-infected cow in Alberta. Imports of whole-muscle products derived from Canadian cattle less than 30 months of age were re-instituted in September 2003.

The best science indicates the agent responsible for BSE resides in a set of specified risk materials (SRMs) -- brain, spinal cord, eyes, tonsils and a portion of the small intestine. The prion thought to be responsible for BSE in cattle has never been found in whole muscle. And, the class of cattle believed most at risk of BSE is those more than 30 months of age.

It was on the basis of that science, and international protocols instituted by Canada, that the U.S. opened its border to Canadian whole-muscle cuts in September 2003. Next up was USDA's plan for opening the border to Canadian live cattle.

That announcement came Jan. 2, the same day Canada announced discovery of another BSE-infected cow. What was already a hot issue really erupted Jan. 11 when Canada announced it had discovered yet another BSE case. It was the second in nine days, and the third of Canadian origin in little more than a year.

It was in December 2003 that a BSE-infected cow of Canadian origin was discovered in Washington state. Overnight, the U.S. beef industry's $3.8-billion export market vanished. About a third has been regained but the big prize, the Pacific Rim, has proven elusive.

Respondents to the BEEF Cow-Calf Weekly survey say their top concern (73.2%) with USDA's proposed rule to open the Canadian border to live cattle less than 30 months of age is the "economic impact on U.S. cattle producers resulting from resuming trade with Canada without having reopened other export markets, specifically Japan." Meanwhile, 62.3% say the prevalence of BSE in Canada since the announcements on Jan. 2 and 11 is a top concern. In addition, 55.4% cite the compliance of Canada's beef industry with its feed ban, and 42.8% say the overall implications of importing meat from Canadian cattle older than 30 months of age is a top concern.

Interestingly, 82.4% of respondents agreed that, as a general principle, the U.S. beef industry should always stand on the best available science in determining its positions on key industry issues. Still, 86% say USDA should not allow the importation of meat from Canadian beef animals more than 30 months of age when live cattle more than 30 months of age are not allowed to be imported into the U.S. And, 69.7% believe that, even though it may violate World Trade Organization rules, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) should insist that trade be reestablished with Japan and South Korea, and expanded in Mexico, before the U.S. border is reopened to Canadian cattle.

Other survey points include:

  • 95.6% of respondents say that USDA should demand Canadian government officials provide a detailed assessment of the country's ruminant feed ban compliance.
  • 68.6% say total harmonization of bluetongue and anaplasmosis requirements should be a condition to reopening the U.S. border to the Canadian cattle trade.
  • 70.2% attribute recent production cutback announcements by big packers -- Tyson, Swift and National Beef -- as being a tactic to pressure USDA into maintaining its March 7 timetable to reopen the Canadian border. Meanwhile 15.4% see it as the precursor to some permanent plant closures based on overcapacity in the meat packing sector, and 10.6% believe the cutbacks are due to economic conditions caused by flattening demand and bad weather.
  • Of respondents, 90.6% report they have cattle operations located in the U.S., while 6% say they are not directly involved in beef production. Another 2% say their cattle operation is not in the U.S.
  • In answer to the question, "If USDA and NCBA are satisfied that science indicates trade can be safely resumed with Canada, do you believe the nation's cow herd and the American consumer are safe with the Canadian supply?" a total of 59.5% of respondents say "no," while 39% say "yes."
To view results of the BEEF Cow-Calf Weekly study, presented as overall responses and by organization affiliation, click here. Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader, free download.

Cattle industry to convene

The 2005 Cattle Industry Annual Convention & Trade Show is set for Feb. 2-5 in San Antonio, TX. For more information, call 303/694-0305 or go online to see the program and register at

The gathering features joint and individual meetings by five industry organizations: National Cattlemen's Beef Association, Cattlemen's Beef Promotion & Research Board, American National CattleWomen, Inc., Cattle-Fax and the National Cattlemen's Foundation.

Certified Hereford rolls

Certified Hereford Beef (CHB) LLC enjoyed its third consecutive fiscal year of double-digit growth, with a 17% increase. A total of 38 million lbs. of Certified Hereford Beef® sold in 2004, a 5.5-million-lb. increase over 2003. Since fiscal year 2000, CHB LLC sales tonnage has climbed at an annual average rate of 36%, while the retail customer base has expanded to 376 store locations in 26 states.

CHB LLC expanded into several value-added product categories during the past fiscal year. These include a deli program, frozen patty line and pre-cooked prime rib products.

Canada PUMPS Up

The U.S. border closure to imports of live Canadian cattle following the discovery of a single case of BSE may prove to be a blessing for the Canadian beef industry. That is, it may result in more processing independence for Canada.

Prior to BSE being discovered in an Alberta cow in May 2003, Canadian cattlemen shipped the vast majority of their harvest-ready animals to U.S. plants. The loss of access to U.S. plants due to the border closure, however, created a huge backlog of cattle north of the border.

With few signs the border would reopen anytime soon, tremendous pressure arose in Canada for the expansion of existing plants and construction of new ones.

“There are about 15 proposals to construct new plants and many of these have a good chance of going ahead,” says John Ross, director of Agriculture and Agrifood Canada's Red Meat Section in Ottawa. “Most Canadian plants are expanding. Small plants are getting bigger, large plants are expanding, and old mothballed plants are reopening.”

At the end of October 2004, weekly cattle harvest numbers at Canada's federally and provincially inspected packing plants exceeded 80,000 head for the first time since 1978. By the end of 2005, Ross estimates there will be enough harvest capacity to handle all of Canada's fed cattle.

“We'll have the fed-cattle harvest under control within the year,” Ross says, “and should be making headway on the cull cows and bulls. There will still be a backlog, but at least the numbers won't be growing.”

A change in the '80s

Until the early '80s, most of Canada's cattle processing needs were handled domestically, says Sandy Russell, a beef economist with Saskatchewan Agriculture, Food and Rural Revitalization in Saskatoon.

“As plants aged, they weren't replaced. Slaughter slowly shifted to newer plants in the U.S.,” he says. “It was lucrative to supply these U.S. plants and no one was thinking about what was being lost.”

Lack of domestic harvest capacity has cost the Canadian industry dearly. That lesson was borne out after the U.S. border closure when the supply of harvest-ready animals in Canada glutted the market. Prices to producers fell dramatically.

Today, cows and bulls are almost worthless, Russell says. Horror stories abound of cattlemen receiving paltry checks for older animals.

“We've had to pay a very severe penalty for not having enough domestic capacity,” he says. “Reopening the border is still the No. 1 priority but there's been a real shift in attitudes over the past few months.”

More people, he says, are talking about the need for a strong domestic packing industry to keep the gate-to-plate benefits of domestic cattle at home.

“It's a testament to producers' strength that they're able to take control of this horrible situation and move forward,” Russell adds.

One of the larger units under construction is owned by Ranchers Beef on the outskirts of Calgary. Planned for an initial harvest capacity of 800 head/shift, or 4,800/week, it's designed to easily facilitate a second shift, which would double production.

Rancher's Beef was formed by a group of 50 investors, almost all of them beef producers representing every production segment, director Doug Price says.

“This (the border situation) has taught us we can't continue to operate our business in a way that leaves us so dependent on what will happen at the U.S. border,” he says. “You don't have to be American to harvest an animal, and we have a freight advantage. We're one of the closest suppliers to the California market.”

Vertical integration was another major attraction for Rancher's Beef investors. Cow-calf operators still get full market value for their animals but have access to feedlot and packer profits, as well.

“Our research shows we need to be able to harvest at least 500 head/shift to be competitive with the bigger players out there,” Price says. “At 800 head, we think we can be very competitive.”

Price says the project's lone disadvantage is in capturing drop value, something he thinks can be remedied with improved marketing.

“Having a smaller scale plant with full traceability will allow us to do things the larger plants either don't want to do or can't do,” Price says. “We will fill some niches that will let us be more profitable than if we were just selling a commodity.”

The improvements, Ross says, should allow Canadians to be more competitive buyers of cattle once the border reopens.

“There will be a strong pull (once the border opens to live cattle) to take the animals south, but all the modernization going into these plants bodes well for the future,” he says.

Ross admits the risk is significant but believes Canadian producers are going in with eyes wide open.

“They know they can't run with the big packers on price, so they're looking at specialty markets,” he says. “Packing margins are normally razor thin; the guys watching the pennies will be the winners.”

Ross believes that, even with a reopened border, Canadian ranchers will prefer to sell to domestic packers but will continue to sell to whomever offers the best deal.

“Canadian plants will be competitive and aggressive,” Ross says. “Plants like the Cargill plant in High Prairie and Lakeside Packers in Brooks, Alberta, are major players. They're not adding new capacity just to idle it once the border reopens.”

Though the border will reopen some day, Russell says, “it won't mean a return to the status quo. Producers now understand how risky it is to do 80% of your business with one customer. There's a growing belief we'll have a far stronger industry if we keep our steers at home and ship boxed beef.”

“The U.S. and Mexico threw the Canadian industry a big lifeline by reopening their borders to Canadian boxed beef in August 2003,” Ross says. “Canada harvested 80,000 cattle last week, which certainly wasn't just for domestic consumption.

“Before the borders reopened, we were only harvesting 30,000 head/week. As tough as it is for producers in Canada today, it would have been disastrous without their help,” Ross says.

Lorne McClinton is a freelance writer based in Yellow Grass, Saskatchewan, Canada.

BEEF Chat Chandler Keys

It was in November 1984 that Chandler Keys, armed with a new bachelor's degree from the University of Maryland, hopped on the metro to cover the 20 miles from his family's Maryland farm into Washington, D.C. It was his first day on the job with what was then the National Cattlemen's Association (NCA), the forerunner to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA).

Keys was the first hire in NCA's move to muscle up its Washington, D.C., presence following an Arthur Anderson study that indicated NCA needed more boots on the ground in the nation's capital.

Twenty years and one month later, Keys, vice president of NCBA's Center for Government Affairs since 1996, left to assume similar duties for Swift & Co. He left behind a staff that has grown to 20 full-time positions and built a reputation as one of the best units working D.C.'s bureaucratic and legislative meeting rooms, offices and hallways.

Keys was the lone original plank left in a span that bridged a simpler time of doing business in the nation's capital with what is now a sophisticated, high-stakes game.

“When I started with NCA, we didn't have computers, fax machines, voice mail, copiers; none of it,” Keys recalls. “What I've seen over the past 20 years is a virtual explosion of technology as it relates to participation in society and at all levels — political, social, marketing. It's been revolutionary.”

Keys has strayed little from his roots and his native philosophy. He grew up on a Maryland farm located five miles from the end of the D.C. metro. There, his family raised 3,500 acres of crops, Angus cattle and thoroughbred horses.

“Growing up, I was always aware that grain was an important component of the farm, and we had thoroughbred horses, which was a fun and glamorous aspect. But there was always a sense in our family that we were a cattle family first,” Keys says.

Policy and politics were a natural inclination ever since high school, Keys says.

“Political stuff just interested me, and our family was always involved in local politics and political issues. I liked it and I loved ag. My job at NCA gave me the chance to combine both of them,” he says.

Keys' style as a self-assured, hard-charging, ag policy wonk is anything but soft-shoe. Once given the membership's position on an issue, Keys was known for trying to punch through rock and drain seas to realize its implementation. Some folks viewed him as arrogant and insensitive; Keys says he's just short on nuance.

“I'm definitely not milquetoast,” he says. “I don't like playing nuances, and I don't ‘windsock’ to see which way the wind is going. I don't BS people and I stay the course.”

A few skinned egos aside, that honest approach has apparently served NCBA well. A few years back, NCBA's Washington operation was honored as one of the top shops in this mecca of professional advocates that is the nation's capital.

“NCBA has a reputation as straight shooters, maybe even to a fault sometimes,” Keys says. “But, we're not here to make people comfortable; we're here to carry the membership's directions to public policy. It's a big job.”

Prior to leaving his NCBA duties, BEEF had an opportunity to chat with Keys about his past 20 years and coming challenges.

BEEF: Why are you leaving NCBA?

My decision to leave NCBA was heart-wrenching. These are some of the best people in the world — members, volunteers and staff.

I wanted to leave on my terms at the height of my game for NCBA, and only for a good opportunity. The cattle industry is doing well, we got through the BSE crisis, the morale and staff in this office are great, and I have a good opportunity.

BEEF: So what exactly will you be doing?

I'll be the first full-time employee in Washington for Swift & Co. My job as senior vice president of government and industry affairs is to do whatever Swift wants me to do.

For one, Swift wants to be at the table when big discussions in the beef and cattle industry are going on, and they want someone with the stature to carry the company's will and wishes when the time is right.

Swift is looking to do some dynamic things. It's a private company that I imagine wants to eventually go public, and it wants to be a cutting-edge company on source verification and food safety.

BEEF: What's your response to detractors who depict your move to Swift as an affirmation that you worked too close with packers in the past?

That's a bunch of bull crap. Everyone in this town, and I'm very proud of the fact, knows I've represented NCBA and NCBA's policy and aspirations with my whole heart and every ounce of my fortitude for 20 years.

When I've had to cooperate with the packers, I've cooperated and collaborated with them. And when I've had to fight them, I fought them. You can ask any packer rep in town or anyone on Capitol Hill if Chandler Keys ever compromised NCBA's position at any given time of his career for self-advancement; they'll laugh you out of the room.

BEEF: What are the lessons you take with you from 20 years as a beef industry lobbyist?

There's no doubt about it, the reason I've stayed here 20 years is the great people I've worked with and for. There are a lot of honest, hardworking people in this business who believe in the things I believe in, which are freedom, people's right to choose on how to do things, less government, and they believe in the marketplace. Those are some of the key thing I'm taking with me.

It was a great opportunity to really learn about the beef and cattle industry over the past 20 years — to learn about democracy and how it operates and how we interact with it as an industry. But, probably the most important was just the great people I've worked with, both volunteers and staff people of NCBA, people on the hill, people in the agencies.

BEEF: What are your personal highlights during this time?

My first personal highlight was just getting the job. I hope there's one thing people can say about me, and I believe this of myself, is that in the last 20 years I've never skated or slowed up.

But the other one was when I got to run this Washington office and put together and manage this team. There was a lot of personal and professional satisfaction in putting together a team of professionals here that I think do a wonderful job.

BEEF: What are your personal disappointments?

I learned a valuable lesson as a young lobbyist on the dairy buyout. It taught me that if you assume things in this town, you'll get your butt handed to you, and I really learned a valuable lesson from that. No matter if they're your friends or your enemies, no one is going to watch out for you except yourself.

The trick is to stay on top of things, work hard and don't let things creep up on you. I think we've done a dang good job since then of having no surprises. It was a disappointment but we learned a lot from it and the industry got tougher as a result, too.

BEEF: Given the checkoff's stellar record, why is its future so precarious?

Success is sometimes your own worst enemy. We did such a good job with the checkoff. We countered all the anti-beef movements of the 1970s and early '80s, we got beef demand turned around, and now some people want to get rid of it.

We're a lot more prepared now and have the resources and the skill sets we didn't have 20 years ago to counter our opponents. I saw all those skill sets just blossom in the last 20 years, the professionalism, the fortitude, the research, the coordination and collaboration.

With the merger and one voice in the industry on marketing and business climate issues, a lot of people, even if we lost the checkoff, feel confident we would come up with an alternative and that we have the apparatus in place to make it happen.

BEEF: How damaging would it be to lose the checkoff?

If we had lost the checkoff before the merger of the Meat Board and NCA, it would have been devastating. The merger meant we no longer had two organizations to feed, so to speak.

I think a lot of the checkoff's detractors seem to think that if they kill the checkoff, they'll kill NCBA. But, if the checkoff is lost, only the Beef Board goes away. NCBA doesn't.

And, all you have to do is look at the people involved with NCBA, as it relates to the players in the beef and the cattle industry, and you know NCBA will survive. The players are all at the table with NCBA.

BEEF: What does NCBA-PAC's support of President Bush's successful re-election effort in November mean for NCBA?

I think NCBA basically said: “Here's a guy that's out here helping us, his administration is good, he's getting things done and we need to have him for four more years.” It was a gamble, no doubt about it.

In this town, I think it rocked everyone in ag back on their heels a little. Bottom line is you have to look at the political dynamic that you're dealing with. Our political weight is diminishing every year, as the U.S. gets more urban. If you want to stay in the game, you have to make political choices.

When I hear ag organizations say they're not partisan, that they just do policy, I have to smile. Politics and policy are tied together. You won't get your policy if you have the wrong political entities involved.

BEEF: Many folks thought the defeat of Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle in the recent elections spelled the end of mandatory COOL. But the 108th Congress wasn't able to shut down the effort last November.

We lost COOL years ago because NCBA went back and forth on it a few times. When you do that, it's bound to go sour on you and it's bound to stay sour on you.

Daschle lost, but COOL is more of a regional issue than anything. Sen. Conrad Burns, a Republican from Montana, is who stepped up and kept it from going voluntary.

I haven't talked to Daschle of late but I've talked to some of his confidants. They're very upset that after the Minority leader stuck his neck out in a very bold way over the past four years for R-CALF, that the organization wouldn't help him get re-elected. I think Democrats will remember that.

I think populism was dealt a blow by Daschle's defeat.

Hot Shots

With calf prices showing protracted strength, Noble Foundation ag economist Fred Schmedt suggests producers use some of the profits to invest in the future of the operation.

Schmedt suggests producers begin by identifying key areas of the operation where investments will lead to lower production costs or increased quality and quantity of production. These might include:

  • Cattle genetics — Assess the type and quality of calves you're producing. Do they fit the market?

  • Working facilities — With more emphasis on calf backgrounding programs, working facilities are needed to easily perform routine health management procedures. Focus on items that will make cattle working faster, easier and safer for both humans and animals.

  • Grazing facilities — Fencing and water systems can make grazing more efficient, and lead to increased production, and grazing cows can cost half as much as producing and feeding hay. Check with your local Natural Resource Conservation Service office about cost-sharing programs available in your area.

  • Feed storage — Bulk storage is a long-term investment that immediately can save $20-$30/ton over sacked supplements. Often, hay storage sheds can offer long-term feed savings. A good investment might be building a commodity shed to receive and store truckload lots of the cheaper by-product feeds.

  • Pasture acquisition — Now's a good time to consider adding additional grazing capacity. Leased land is usually more economical than purchasing, but now's a good time to evaluate all possible alternatives.

Guarding Heterosis

In the cow business, Aristotle's expression “the whole is more than the sum of its parts” comes to fruition in the form of heterosis.

Heterosis, or hybrid vigor, is the boost in performance a producer gains in crossbreeding, over and above the performance of the individual parental breeds. And few factors of the cattle business are better documented than the benefits of heterosis.

Today though, even the genius Aristotle would be tested by all the pressures cow-calf producers face in developing a breeding program. Productivity and profitability are no longer simply influenced by reproductive, growth and maternal traits. End-product traits including tenderness, retail product yield and optimum carcass weight drive many selection decisions.

No question, genetic improvement can be achieved by selection. But, genetic change via selection within a breed can be slow compared to what's achievable in a single generation by crossbreeding (Table 1 on page 40).

“I've always said hybrid vigor is the only free ride a cowman gets,” says Dave Nichols, Nichols Farms, Bridgewater, IA. “Corn and soybean farmers, and hog and poultry producers, have used heterosis for decades to increase yield and efficiency and build a higher quality, higher-value end-product.”

But to obtain the greatest benefits of hybrid vigor, breed complementarity must be considered, Nichols adds.

“Complementarity results when desirable characteristics from different breeds are combined into a crossbred,” he says.

Taking on the color

But, over the past 15 years, many cow-calf operations have evolved to maintaining straightbred cattle. They've eschewed crossbreeding mainly for the good reason that truckload lots of black-hided cattle bring more money.

The popularity of black cattle is largely due to the unprecedented success of Certified Angus Beef® — coupled with the large and powerful database of the American Angus Association.

“The long-term goal may be to breed superior carcass cattle for a ‘color-blind’ market,” says Jim Gosey, University of Nebraska beef specialist. “But, the short-term reality in many markets is that black cattle generally sell for a higher price.”

The dominance of the black gene solves color inconsistency, and ranchers concerned about practical conditions like cancer eye and sunburned udders prefer the pigmentation of black cows. Plus, Angus genetics have become the calving-ease choice for breeding commercial heifers.

The logic of breeding cattle for a market that rewards black cattle has led many producers to make their cattle black, then to work on making them genetically superior for production and carcass traits.

“Producers shouldn't be criticized for this decision,” Gosey says. “They're simply responding to market reality.”

Table 1. Levels of expected heterosis for various mating systems
Mating systemb % of maximum possible heterosisa Estimate increase in calf weight weaned per cow exposed (%)
Pure breeds 0 0
Two-breed rotation at equilibrium 67 16
Three-breed rotation at equilbrium 86 20
Static terminal sire system 86 20
Two-breed rotation & terminal sire (rota-terminal) 90 21
Terminal sire × purchased F1 females 100 23-28
Rotate sire breed every 4 years (two breeds) 50 12
Rotate sire breed every 4 years (three breeds) 67 16
Two-breed composite (½ A, ½ B) 50 12
Three-breed composite (½ A, ¼ B, ¼ C) 63 15
Four-breed composite (¼ A, ¼ B, ¼ C, ¼ D) 75 17
Rotating F1 bulls
AB⃡AB 50 12
AB⃡AD 67 16
AB⃡CD 83 19
aRelative to F1 @100%
bSee “Crossbreeding Systems for Beef Cattle,” MIchigan State University, Ext. Bull. E-2701
Source: Harlan Ritchie's Beef Review
Table 2. Heritability estimates of beef cattle traits
Trait Percentage heritable
Low heritability
Conception Rate 0-10
Calving interval 0-10
Moderate heritability
Milking ability 15-25
Calving ease 10-40
Gestation length 30-40
Cancer eye susceptibility 25-30
Birth weight 35-40
Weaning weight 25-30
Weaning conformation score 20-25
Postweaning daily gain-pasture 30-35
Postweaning feed conversion 35-40
Slaugher conformation score 35-40
Dressing percentage 35-40
Percentage retail product 25-30
Moderate to high heritability
Scrotal circumference 40-55
Postweaning daily gain 40-45
Postweaning daily feed consumption 50-55
Final feedlot weight 50-55
Yearling weight 50-55
Ribeye area 60-65
Fat thickness 40-55
Marbling score 40-45
Tenderness score 50-60
Source: U.S. Meat Animal Research Center

In making those breeding decisions, Gosey warns many commercial herds have been drained of nearly all their heterosis. He points to research conducted at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center, Clay Center, NE, that indicates lifetime productivity of crossbred cows exceeds that of purebred cows by at least 20%.

“Three generations of Angus bulls on F1 Angus-Hereford cows results in 15/16 Angus cows and 87% lost hybrid vigor,” Gosey explains. Hardest hit are conception, survival and fitness traits — lowly heritable traits that don't respond well to selection for the more highly heritable carcass and growth traits (see Table 2).

Gosey says much of the industry's attraction to high percentage or purebred commercial cattle was prompted by a desire for increased consistency. The so-called “mongrelization” and “rainbow herds” of the 1970s and '80s led many in the industry to conclude there were too many breeds. One solution was to return to two or three breeds — and purebred commercial cattle.

“Lack of consistency wasn't caused by too many breeds or multi-colored crossbred cattle,” Gosey says. “It was caused by producing extreme biological types that weren't adapted to their environment as cows, nor targeted to a specific beef market as finished steers.”

Simply put, many crossbreeding programs were mismanaged.

“The continual swing in breed composition became too difficult to manage,” Gosey adds. “This effect is multiplied when the breeds used are not similar in biological type.”

Proof is in the puddin'

Some crossbreeding systems offer more heterosis than others, and some traits respond more to crossbreeding. But, can a rancher maintain high levels of production efficiency through straightbreeding even if heterosis may not be maximized and still optimize market factors?

Bill Davis, Sidney, MT, owner of Rollin' Rock Angus, says the Angus breed offers enough genetic diversity that commercial producers can maintain a straightbred Angus-based herd while optimizing maternal and end-product traits.

“There's tremendous opportunity for heterosis within the Angus breed,” says Davis, who is also an American Angus Association board member. “If a commercial producer pays attention to the selection tools and uses the database we have, he can achieve all the advantages otherwise gained by heterosis.”

Should a rancher bent on straightbreeding worry about inbreeding? Davis says today's inbreeding coefficient in the breed's top 200 bulls (according to number of calves registered) is less than 2%.

“There are lines within the breed that can do well in just about any environment,” Davis says. “There's a reason that 70% of the herd bulls turned out last spring were Angus.”

The proof is in the puddin' — so to speak.

Bill Donald, Melville, MT, ranches in an area where it's almost an understatement to say Angus genetics dominate.

He readily admits to not spending a lot of time thinking about heterosis when buying 10-15 bulls/year.

“You can't beat the straight Angus cow for ease of maintenance, longevity and mothering ability,” Donald says. “That's the main reason we've gone with a straight Angus herd.”

Plus, uniformity is very important to the Donalds.

“With the genetic base and EPDs the Angus breed offers, we can raise the kind of feeder calves the market wants without having to crossbreed,” he says.

But, Gosey maintains that in the long-term a purebred commercial industry based on a handful of breeds might come at a cost. It's unlikely, he claims, that a single beef breed can produce cows adapted to a wide range of environments and also produce high-quality carcasses without the coping mechanism of hybrid vigor.

Getting back to heterosis

Gosey isn't alone in his concern over a narrowing genetic base of the nation's cattle herd. In South Carolina, a producer-led project is underway to evaluate the integration of new genetic beef production systems for the state's coastal plains. There are four beef breeds in the state from which significant numbers of performance-tested bulls are available to cow-calf producers — Angus, Gelbvieh, Simmental and Charolais.

The goal of the project is to develop Angus-based genetics that use a 25% Continental cross to optimize heterosis while maintaining color uniformity.

“Variation is a wonderful thing,” says Larry Olson, Blackville, SC, a Clemson University animal scientist and a population geneticist. “But in the real world of the cattle business, genetic and phenotypic uniformity and predictability is the name of the game.”

Olson knows breeding Angus bulls back to 50/50 Angus/Continental females will mean some loss of heterosis, but the maternal and end-product traits provided by Angus will make up the difference.

“Our producers bought a lot of Angus bulls and got into straightbreeding to demongrelize their herds,” he says. “Now, they're looking at getting back some of the heterosis they lost in doing so.”

Unlike 25 years ago, Olson says using today's genetic evaluation tools allow crossbreeding that results in uniform and predictable cattle. Stressing he's not trying to build a composite, Olson says this crossbreeding model is a way to utilize readily available genetics and do a better job in matching genetics and environment.

“Our guys aren't going to artificially in-seminate, and they're not ranching in Montana where there's a sea of black bulls to choose from,” he says. “We're trying to find the best of both worlds — gaining the benefits of heterosis and producing for market reality.”

Gosey agrees that potentially diverse pure breeds can be crossed to produce F1s of similar biological type. Then those bulls can be used in a rotation and help solve management problems.

“More diverse breeds can be used allowing large breed complementarity and avoiding big swings in breed composition,” he explains. “Two-breed cattle and three-breed crosses with no backcrossing yields maximum hybrid vigor.”

Cows of the future

Most commercial cows of the future will have at least 50% of maximum F1 hybrid vigor as a result of crossing only two or three mostly British breeds, Gosey says.

“This cow will likely be at least ½ Angus or Red Angus and have no more than ¼ Continental breeding, if in a program that produces yearlings for grazing,” he says. “But, she may have up to ½ Continental breeding if her progeny are placed directly on feed post-weaning.”

Gosey says feeder cattle will be the product of at least two generations of known genetics (including carcass merit) and sired by bulls with linkage to comprehensive databases.

“The stone-age practice of allowing cattle prices to be influenced by coat color will continue only until such generic cattle are replaced by genetically sourced cattle that are priced on factors relating to their true profit potential,” Gosey concludes.

A Genetic Threshold

Genetic improvement in the cattle business over the past 20-30 years has been nothing short of phenomenal. Every industry segment has benefited from the increased ability to identify superior genetics and employ them in economically important traits.

Still, there are more selection tools on the horizon in the emerging discipline of molecular genetics. With the sequencing of the bovine genome, scientists expect to discover a number of benefits to basic animal biology. Those discoveries may translate to increasingly efficient and profitable methods of meat and milk production.

“The cattle, swine and poultry industries stand to reap huge rewards from the sequencing of the human and bovine genome,” says Ronnie Green, USDA's national program leader for food animal production.

“For the cattle business, it's going to allow a convergence of the science of DNA marker-assisted selection with performance-based selection tools like EPDs,” he says. “There's a long list of scientists who have worked for decades to see us get to this point.”

Comparative genomics

Early on in the discipline, animal scientists noticed that while the arrangement varied, similarities in regions of the DNA code between some animals and humans were remarkably high. They also found large regions of the genome had been conserved throughout evolutionary time.

This provided a leg-up by allowing a linkage of genomic information from one species with another.

The international cattle research community was quick to organize itself in a manner similar to the biomedical research community, says Steven Kappes, a geneticist at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center (MARC) in Clay Center, NE.

“Genomics has caused the integration of genetics with all types of biology — growth, muscle, reproduction, immunology, behavior, nutrition, development, biochemistry and cell biology research,” Kappes says.

To date, a handful of genes have been mapped in cattle through the “comparative mapping/fine mapping” approach. This has led to the commercialization of DNA “fingerprinting” or marking genes associated with economically important traits that seedstock and commercial cattle producers can incorporate into their genetics selection systems.

A DNA marker can be used to follow the transmission of a gene or a chromosome segment from parents to offspring. In this way, favorable and unfavorable genes can be tracked and animals can be ranked accordingly.

Commercial applications

Among the first DNA fingerprints developed was Frontier Beef System's “eating quality” test — TenderGENE. It's based on the calpain gene marker developed by MARC. Frontier (now part of Merial's IGENITY DNA testing services) also developed ParentMATCH, a parentage verification test and DoubleBLACK, a homozygous black color test.

These tests complement Merial's IGENITY L test, which identifies the leptin genotype of cattle from DNA samples. Leptin is a protein linked to energy balance, marbling score and red meat yield in beef cattle.

IGENITY DNATrace, another Frontier test acquired by Merial, provides birth-to-consumption ID on an animal. With it a certain cut of meat can be traced back to the original individual animal.

“Some day, we'll have genetic tests that show which cattle are more likely to get sick, whether it's BVD, BRSV or other diseases in beef cows,” says Jim Gibb, former general manager of Frontier Beef Systems. He now serves as Merial's senior manager in beef segment development.

Bovigen Solutions, LLC, is the American licensee for Australian-based Genetic Solutions Pty. Ltd. Its products include SureTRAK, GeneSTAR and SireTRACE.

Firms like these recognize most economically important traits are controlled by multiple genes that interact with each other as well as with environmental factors. Therefore, gene markers for complex traits will be best applied as a component of an integrated genetic improvement system, says Jay Hetzel, scientific director of Genetic Solutions.

“The maximum impact of DNA markers will be for traits difficult to breed for, either because phenotypic measurements are inaccurate, expensive, only possible on one sex, or they can't be carried out at a young age,” he says.

Hetzel adds it's important to fully evaluate new markers to determine economic value, as well as under what circumstances the markers have value.

“Both the GeneSTAR marbling and GeneSTAR Tenderness 2 tests have been independently validated which explains why the industry uptake of these tests has been rapid,” Hetzel says.

“It's been exciting to see the discovery of these few genes and how they can be used to make genetic improvement,” Green adds. “But, there are hundreds of others identified for various traits yet to be successfully mapped to the gene level.”

The first-ever marker-assisted expected progeny differences (MA-EPDs) were published in the American Simmental Association's 2004 Fall Sire Summary. Calculated by Richard Quaas of Cornell University, shear force MA-EPDs blend the outcomes from DNA marker tests with tenderness data on sires' offspring. They are used to arrive at slightly more accurate EPDs, particularly on low-accuracy animals, than with tenderness data alone.

International implications

Thanks to a new gene profiling technique, Canadian researchers are one step closer to describing the potential productivity and profitability of cattle with regard to feed intake.

“We've identified a collection of candidate genes that have a role in regulating hunger and fullness in cattle,” says David Glimm, University of Alberta.

The Canadians hope to further characterize candidate genes in more cattle and relevant breeds. The aim is to develop molecular genetic markers that allow selection of cattle for superior feed intake ability.

“This is just a part of leading-edge functional genomics strategies that promise to deliver a wealth of new information,” Glimm says.

Breeding cattle that produce more-tender beef is the primary aim of Brazil's Cattle Functional Genome Project. Project coordinator Luiz Lehmann Coutinho, a University of Sao Paulo ag professor, says if the project is successful, it would mean higher productivity and improved quality of Brazilian beef.

The research will focus on the tropically adapted Nelore breed, which represents 80% of the genetics in Brazil's 170-million-head cattle herd. Nelore beef is not as tender as beef from breeds originating in more temperate climates.

Nelore cows generally aren't sexually mature until 2-3 years of age. Identifying the genes of early sexual maturity is of great interest to firms like Sete Estrelas Embriões and Central Bela Vista, Brazil's leading suppliers of cattle semen and embryos.

The Brazilians, like others, are careful to point out this project, like similar genomics projects around the globe, won't include the processes associated with transgenesis.

“That is, there will be no introduction of genes from other species,” Coutinho says.

Len Stephens, livestock production innovation manager for Meat and Livestock Australia, says the potential advantages of genomics are enormous. He says gene markers will allow producers one day to even identify the more productive and sustainable pasture plants, allowing them to produce more meat from less pasture.

Concerns and considerations

The challenge is to integrate DNA mapping with quantitative genetic procedures in genetic evaluation of beef cattle. But, while recognizing the potential of functional genomics, John Pollak, professor of animal genetics at Cornell University, has some concerns.

“My first concern right now is that there are no checks and balances, Pollak says. “DNA testing will be subject to the same problems as any field data recording process — including misidentified animals, misidentified samples, etc.”

Under the current system, there's no random retesting of animals to confirm their genotype by a breed association or any other organization, as is done with parentage.

“Quite simply this means to me that there will be a significant proportion — 5-10% — of animals for which the genotype is wrong or not consistent with that animal's pedigree,” Pollak says.

Another of Pollak's concerns has to do with testing at the ranch level.

“At the current pricing of DNA tests, there's no question in my mind testing will be done selectively,” he says. “I would like to see us develop a decision-aid program that helps producers decide which animals to test.”

A major factor influencing cattle genomic research is the vertical integration and consolidation in other food animal industries. Vertically integrated companies are more likely to implement new and more efficient technologies because they can spread the costs and benefits across several company-owned segments.

“The cattle industry is less likely to be vertically integrated,” he says. “Therefore it is slower to implement new technologies. That's because in a commodity-based industry, the segment that needs to make the initial investment has a difficult time getting compensated.”

Most geneticists agree enthusiasm for this emerging technology is best tempered with caution. The Beef Improvement Federation has convened a committee charged with addressing these concerns and addressing mechanisms for getting the DNA test information into breed association databases.

Virginia Tech's David Notter cautions that individual gene markers often account for a small percentage of genetic variation for specific traits. He suggests genetic markers will be most valuable not as re-placements for existing methods of cattle evaluation but as refinements of the already proven tools.

“More specifically, gene marker information can be used to augment development of EPD values with improved accuracy,” Notter says.

“Most of the work to date has been in product quality,” Green says. “Future genomics will focus more on factors like feed efficiency and disease resistance — the cost side of the production equation.”

Finally, Gibb emphasizes that genomics is still a very immature discipline.

“Management by genotype through discovery of markers for critical traits such as fertility, feed efficiency, disease resistance and adaptability holds great promise,” Gibb concludes. “This is just the beginning.”