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Articles from 1999 In March

Creating Opprotunities

For Paul Genho of the King Ranch, being a successful genetic provider means creating opportunities for customers.

Located at Kingsville, TX, the King Ranch offers those opportunities to south Texas producers in the form of their Santa Gertrudis and Santa Cruz cattle.

In addition, the King Ranch has a stocker program, operates a custom feedlot with a 20,000-head capacity and offers quarter horses for sale. "These are all opportunities we provide to our customers," he says.

Presently, the operation includes around 1,000 registered Santa Gertrudis and 24,000 Santa Cruz cows. The Santa Cruz composite is composed of 12 Santa Gertrudis, 14 Red Angus and 14 Gelbvieh and was developed about 10 years ago as a means of matching the cow to the environment, Genho says.

But it wasn't just a match to the climatic environment they were after, he says. "Beef's decreasing market share is also part of the environment.

"One of the real issues in the economic environment is that we're competing with highly integrated pork and poultry. Their inefficiencies are very low," Genho says. "We need to bring those efficiencies to our industries so we can compete."

Genho recognizes alliances as an important way to do that. "We have to bring enough cattle into marketing groups to compete with pork and poultry," he says. "By gathering groups of uniform, efficiently managed cattle, seedstock producers and livestock marketers will have opportunities to regain market share."

Close, Yet So Far--Carcasses outside the window steal industry opportunity

If packers could wave a magic wand to make the cattle they harvest more acceptable to consumers, they'd zap the outliers, but for different reasons than many cattlemen think.

"The first thing that needs to be changed is carcass weight. The range needs to be narrowed," says Dell Allen, vice president of quality and training for Excel. Rather than the 650- to 850-lb. carcasses Excel would like, Allen says his company routinely deals with a 500-lb. range in carcass weights, some barely weighing 400 lbs. to others breaking the scale at over 1,000 lbs.

"It prevents us from being able to automate a lot of things. If we could narrow the weight range, we could be a lot more innovative," says Allen.

As an example, Allen says further automation would make the implementation of at-harvest technologies, like those to enhance tenderness, more cost-effective. Plus, he says increased plant efficiency through automation would allow packers to be more cost-effective.

More than anything, reducing the variation would help packers serve customers with more product consistency.

"How are we going to take cattle that come in weighing 1,300 lbs., and produce a carcass weighing 900 lbs., - with more than 100 lbs. of chuck - and serve customers who want boxes weighing 60 lbs. or 40 lbs.?" asks Allen. As it is, he says only half the cattle Excel harvests fall within an acceptable 200-lb. range on carcass weight and a range of 11-14 sq. in. for ribeye.

Agreement On Outliers Likewise, Gary Mickelson, manager of communications for IBP, says, "If we could magically change the consistency of today's cattle, we'd eliminate the outlying cattle. This includes animals producing carcasses too heavy or too light, Yield Grade 4 and 5 cattle and dark cutters or those of poor quality." He explains IBP prefers USDA Choice and Select carcasses weighing 600-900 lbs.

Actually, most producers already have a firm grasp on the quality and yield grade demanded by the industry (Table 1). Depending on where customers draw the line of acceptability, most cattle coming to market are Select and better for quality grade and at least Yield Grade 3.

"Our preferred cattle herd would not be dramatically different from what is available to us today," says Mickelson. "Overall, U.S. cattle producers are doing an excellent job of producing lean, high quality beef. Less than 20 percent of the cattle produced are outside of our desired specifications."

But this minority is costing big money. At Monfort, another of the nation's Big-Three packers, Tim Schiefelbein, manager of value-based procurement, says, "Today, out-cattle cost us $20/cwt." For perspective, if the mix includes 7% outs, that means non-conformity robs $1.40/cwt. from every head, or about $10 per head. "If we could eliminate the outs, someone would get that $10 per head on the whole mix," says Schiefelbein.

The Payback On Consistency How would eliminating the industry's unwanted cattle impact market dynamics? If packers could get exactly the mix they wanted all of the time, would that make cattle worth more, or just set a new standard for the average?

"What's it worth? I have no idea because we've never had that before," says Allen. While increased efficiency through enhanced consistency could build a higher price floor, he says, "The market will always change, depending on what's not available... Everyone is chasing marbling today."

Ten years from now, Allen says, if 50% of the carcasses are modest marbling (upper two-thirds of Choice), he guarantees the premiums for Certified Angus Beef and Excel Sterling Silver won't exist as they do today. At some point, the market becomes saturated, decreasing premium potential.

Still, producers can reap more rewards by hitting targets more consistently. Aside from avoiding carcass discounts, Schiefelbein says producers who can document the ability of their cattle to fit the window of acceptability are positioned to at least earn all that is possible in a given market.

"Cattle that look like they will bring a discount in the sale ring or on a grid will bring less," says Schiefelbein.

Conversely, genetics that hit the mark may bring more in the future. While technology exists to enhance tenderness, Allen points out mechanical and chemical technologies change product appearance and flavor, and make some consumers skeptical. "For truly premium products, in the future, genetics will play the preeminent role."

In the meantime, Allen says the commercial producer target hasn't changed in 30 years: a Choice, Yield Grade 2 carcass, weighing 700-800 lb. with a 12-14 sq.-in. ribeye. For his money that will continue to be the industry ideal.

The Role Of Genetics In Profitable Production

An animal's genetics determine its potential. This is a simple assertion with big ramifications.

They're big because we can apply management practices to influence an animal's growth, carcass quality and reproductive performance. But, regardless of what we do, a particular animal won't outperform another animal that has better genetics if the two are managed the same way.

That's why the objective is to apply our knowledge of genetics in a way that ensures we have the best possible potential in each conception. In other words, actively determine best potential through genetics.

What are the tools, or genetic "arrows," we can use to achieve this? What are the obstacles? Let's look at some of the genetic arrows in a systematic way, then relate them to obstacles we face in applying them to traits.

Animal Breeding Conventional animal breeding tools can be divided into two components: selection and mating systems. Each component has a very precise objective. We use selection to change frequencies of beneficial genes in the population. We use mating systems to optimize gene combinations.

The two are not mutually exclusive. The outcome of a mating system can be enhanced by the selection of superior animals going into the program. Likewise, the potential impact of superior animals can be enhanced by a well-designed mating system.

Once we define objectives of our breeding program, then the search begins for animals that best meet the criteria set in those objectives. First, we need data and a system to transform that data into information. Although we lack data on many traits, we can rank animals based on the information we have. We can then choose individuals closest to our breeding objectives.

Breeding objectives can be simple or complex. For simple objectives, such as single trait selection, EPDs are important information. EPDs represent a synthesis of data from a wide range of sources. That is why they're valuable.

Consider the weaning weight EPD of a bull. Data supporting that EPD can consist of pedigree information, individual performance and progeny data, all combined in an optimum way. In many of the evaluation systems used today, an EPD also contains information derived from correlated traits.

For complex breeding objectives, such as multiple-trait selection, we can combine EPDs into selection indices. Accuracy numbers help our decision making by conveying EPD reliability.

Mating systems exist to optimize gene combinations, either by increasing or decreasing heterozygosity. In increasing homozygosity, inbreeding makes progeny more uniform - a production goal in some species.

On the other hand, crossbreeding increases heterozygosity in progeny. This gives progeny the advantage of hybrid vigor, especially in characteristics like viability and reproductive performance.

Carcass Merit Carcass merit characteristics have attracted much attention the last several years. In his article on page 4, Harlan Ritchie cites a survey of feedyard operators, ranking their top three traits of interest: quality grade, yield grade and muscling.

But, while some data are available through carcass data collection programs, the genetic programs to improve these characteristics have suffered from lack of data. The total number of animals with the required information is limited, as is the accuracy of genetic evaluations achieved from use of existing information.

To address the problem, several breed associations are now running carcass data collection programs. These programs are designed to provide information for use in genetic evaluation systems.

Strict attention needs to be paid to creating and sustaining contemporary groups and generating enough progeny to achieve reasonable accuracy in the evaluation. The programs are expensive, time consuming and limited in the number of animals impacted. As such, they're only a substitute for open, industry-wide programs of routine data collection on large numbers of animals.

An expansive, open program can use measures of traits correlated to those of direct interest. For carcass traits, the use of ultrasound is one such measure. Ultrasound has the distinct advantage of providing the opportunity to take measures directly on breeding animals as well as their progeny in slaughter programs.

The American Angus Association will publish ultrasound evaluations in the near future. The real value of ultrasound information lies not in producing ultrasound evaluations themselves, but combining that data with the carcass data in multiple trait evaluations to enhance the carcass merit EPDs.

In his article, Dr. Ritchie also comments that beef for the upscale domestic market must have exceptional eating qualities reflecting tenderness, juiciness and flavor. Data retrieval systems for routinely measuring these characteristics currently don't exist.

We do have, however, a program that will help the industry measurably in this area: the National Cattlemen's Beef Association Carcass Merit Program (CMP). Data collected in this project will consist not only of carcass measurements but also shear force measurements and sensory panel assessments on bulls from several breeds.

In this project, EPDs will be produced for all traits measured. For the first time there will be EPDs for tenderness and sensory panel data on a small number of bulls in each breed.

An exciting opportunity also exists in the carcass merit area: the use of DNA information to aid selection decisions. As part of the CMP, biological material from 10 sires in each breed and their progeny are assessed for segregation of important genes. If successful, DNA testing for segregation of these genes is on the very near horizon.

Maternal Ability And Reproductive Performance Currently, we have no program for direct selection against bulls whose daughters have poor reproductive performance. The obstacle is lack of information.

The solution is to move data recording systems to a total herd enrollment (recording) program, as some breeds already have done. Total herd enrollment, linked with documented reasons for removing breeding animals from the herd, can provide the data-collection framework needed to establish evaluations for reproductive performance.

>From the perspective of cow productivity, there are evaluations on >maternal ability, perhaps the most misunderstood and most often debated >genetic evaluations published. How good and how useful are these?

First, we must recognize that maternal ability is a prediction of how much growth (occurring in the progeny of a bull's daughters) will differ from expected, given her growth genes.

Two females with identical total maternal evaluations can be quite different in how each achieves the total. Consideration of how growth was achieved may be important in environments where higher yield cannot be adequately supported, and might translate into lower subsequent reproductive success.

However, in an environment where that is not the case, it can be argued that most attention should be placed on the total evaluation, not the component.

Growth Traits Very successful programs for selection for growth characteristics exist. As Dr. Ritchie notes, Colorado State University's Tom Field asks, "How many pounds can we generate at what cost?" Two factors influence the answer: growth potential and efficiency.

Data on growth traits to yearling age are abundant. Evaluation systems exist for all breeds. Successful selection for changing growth is well documented in the genetic trends published by breed associations.

These trends show the occurrence of very sophisticated selection. Substantial trends for increased postnatal growth have resulted in marginal corresponding increases in birth weight in several breeds.

This demonstrates sophisticated selection in that birth weight is positively correlated to weaning and yearling weights. For such an event to occur, parents that break the rule (higher growth equal larger birth weights) must be found. Unfortunately, efficiency - a factor determining cost - is not a trait for which we have the same luxury of data.

Multibreed evaluations are a new tool now available for calculations of growth EPDs. The American Simmental Association's (ASA) multibreed system allows joint evaluation of animals from different breeds simultaneously in one system.

The evaluation provides reliable genetic information on composite breeds and on crossbred breeding stock. Predictive models can be constructed from these evaluations to choose sires for matings to particular breeds of females.

These selection aids may enhance the sophistication of our crossbreeding programs in the commercial sector. Other breed associations are planning for the development of similar programs for growth. Similar evaluations for other traits will follow.

Selection Indices Thus far, I haven't distinguished between breeding programs that emphasize one trait as compared to those emphasizing two or more traits. For multiple trait selection, we may use selection indices.

Selection indices provide a vehicle for multiple trait selection that maximizes progress, given relative economic values of the traits in the index. For many years, the dairy industry has provided producers with an index of evaluations for net dollar value of production based on a combination of yield and composition of milk.

The prediction reflects the difference in income generating potential in the lactation of daughters of different bulls. The dairy industry also calculates a total performance index (TPI) that includes production characteristics along with type characteristics.

Selection index theory has been around for over 50 years, but it has found little use in the beef industry. This may be due to the difficulty in accurately assessing the relative economic weights or to the segmented nature of the beef industry. In production systems where there is integration, indices including growth and carcass characteristics seem possible and reasonable. In the last few years, there has been increased discussion of index selection in beef cattle, but not much has occurred. This may be a missed opportunity.

What Is Systematic Crossbreeding?

To remain competitive with alternative meat products, particularly pork and poultry, the beef industry must reduce cost of production and fat while maintaining tenderness and palatability of its products. Producers have two powerful breeding tools - systematic crossbreeding programs and composite populations - to assist in this mission.

Both tools offer the benefits of heterosis, breed differences and complementarity to help producers match genetic potential with market preferences, the climatic environment and available feed resources.

Heterosis Heterosis can have substantial effect on profitability. Defined as the difference between the average of reciprocal F1 crosses (A x B and B x A) and the average of the two parental breeds (A and B) mated to produce the reciprocal crosses, heterosis was found in one study to increase weaning weight per cow exposed 23%.

The increase came from the favorable effects heterosis has on survival and growth of crossbred calves, and also on reproduction rate and weaning weight of calves from crossbred cows (Figure 1). More than half the advantage depended on the use of crossbred cows.

The performance of each cross usually exceeds that of either parent breed, especially for comprehensive traits like lifetime production and herd life. For example, lifetime production and longevity of Hereford x Angus cows (3,258 lbs. of calf weaned over a herd life of 11 years) and Angus x Hereford cows (3,514 lbs. weaned over 10.6 years) was significantly greater than that of either straightbred Angus (2,837 lbs. weaned over 9.4 years) or Herefords (2,405 lbs. weaned over 8.4 years) in the Fort Robinson heterosis experiment.

Bos indicus x Bos taurus crosses (i.e., Brahman x Hereford) yield even higher levels of heterosis, averaging double the pounds of calf weaned as those reported for corresponding traits among straightbred Bos taurus breeds.

Over a number of generations, about 68% of F1 heterosis is maintained in two-breed rotations, 86% in three-breed rotations, 50% in two-breed composite populations and 75% in four-breed composite populations.

Breed Differences For most traits, the breeding value range of differences between breeds is comparable to the breeding value range of individuals within breeds (Figures 2 and 3). No single breed excels in all important beef production traits. When carcass and meat traits are considered, breeds that excel in retail product percentage produce carcasses with marbling levels below optimum and carcass weights above optimum. Moderately sized breeds with higher genetic potential for marbling produce carcasses frequently discounted for unacceptably high numbers of Yield Grade 4 carcasses.

Our research shows that 50:50 Continental and British crosses perform well. In fact, if discounts for yield grade differences are similar to those for USDA quality grade, in temperate environments, cattle that are half-Continental and half-British have a much better chance of hitting profitable targets for retail product percentage, marbling and carcass weight.

Matching Genetics To Environment To optimize reproductive rate in the cow herd, genetic potential for environmental stress, mature size and milk production should be matched with both actual environment and economical, available feed resources. Because preferred feed resources vary by area, breeds chosen for the cowherd should be well adapted to feed resources within a given area. Remember, reproduction potential of cows with large size and high milk declines if environment and feed can't meet the higher requirements for maintenance and lactation.

Producers in the subtropical regions of the U.S. favor Bos indicus x Bos taurus crosses. In one study, weaning weight per cow exposed was significantly greater for the Bos indicus x Bos taurus F1 crosses (Brahman x Hereford, Brahman x Angus, Sahiwal x Hereford, Sahiwal x Angus) than for the Bos taurus x Bos taurus F1 crosses (Hereford x Angus, Angus x Hereford, Pinzgauer x Hereford, Pinzgauer x Angus) in both Florida and Nebraska.

The advantage was especially large in Florida (Figure 4). In the hot, humid Gulf Coast, 50:50 ratios of Bos indicus to Bos taurus inheritance may be optimal. A little further north (i.e., Southeast Oklahoma, central Arkansas, Tennessee and parts of North Carolina), 25:75 ratios of Bos indicus:Bos taurus inheritance may better suit needs.

Complementarity Complementarity is defined as crossing breeds to combine direct and maternal breed and heterosis effects to optimize performance levels. Complementarity also helps match genetic potential for growth rate, mature size, reproduction and maternal ability, and carcass and meat characteristics with the climatic environment, feed resources and market preferences. Crossing specialized male breeds with crossbred females maximizes the impact of desired characteristics and minimizes the impact of undesired characteristics of each breed.

Alternative Crossbreeding Systems Alternative crossbreeding systems use genetic differences among breeds, heterosis and complementarity, with differing degrees of effectiveness (Figure 5). No single system is suited for all herds. In choosing a system, it's important to consider herd size, labor, facilities and breeds that match genetic potential to the market target, climate, feed and other production resources.

Static-terminal sire crossing systems. In a static terminal sire crossing system (Figure 5), straightbred females of breed A are mated to straightbred males of breed A to produce straightbred replacement females. Straightbred females of breed A are also mated to bulls of breed B to produce F1 crossbred females (BA).

All crossbred BA females are mated to breed C, a terminal sire breed. Static crossing systems work well in species with high reproductive rates (poultry, swine) but less well in species with lower reproductive rates (cattle).

A high percentage of straightbreds are needed to produce straightbred and F1 replacement females, sacrificing the benefits of individual and maternal heterosis.

Rotational crossing systems. In a two-breed rotation, females sired by breed A are always mated to males of breed B. Females sired by breed B are always mated to breed A (Figure 5). In a three-breed rotation, a third breed is added to the sequence.

In rotational crossbreeding systems, heterosis is retained at high levels. On the other hand, intergenerational variation can be quite large in rotational crossing systems, especially if breeds that differ greatly are used.

In a three-breed rotation, 57% of the cows' genes are of the breed of their sire, 29% are of the breed of their maternal grandsire and 14% are of the breed of their maternal great-grandsire (which is the same as the breed to which the females are to be mated).

Because of this variation, rotational systems using comparable breeds work best. In cow herds, producers need to keep an eye on breed compatibility for traits such as birth weight to minimize calving difficulty, size and milk production to stabilize feed requirements. In market animals, breed compatibility for production traits is most important.

Using F1 bulls or composite bulls in rotational crossing systems can significantly reduce intergenerational variance, especially if breeds chosen to produce F1 bulls optimize performance levels in their crosses (i.e., 50:50 Continental/British inheritance, or 50:50 Bos indicus/ Bos taurus inheritance). For the commercial producer, there's little difference between use of F1 bull rotational crossing systems and use of bulls from composite populations.

Seedstock producers have only recently begun to produce F1 bulls in significant numbers for use in commercial production.

Composite populations. Composite populations developed by mating like animals resulting from two or more breed crosses provide an alternative to more complex crossbreeding systems. Management requirements in these composite herds are similar to straightbred herds (see Figure 5), yet substantial heterosis can be maintained in composite populations, so long as adequate numbers of sires are used in each generation to avoid re-inbreeding. Heterosis increases as number of foundation breeds increases.

Producers can take better advantage of genetic differences among breeds in composite populations than with alternative crossbreeding systems by keeping breed percentages at optimum levels. For example, if the optimum level of Bos indicus germplasm is 25% for a specific environment, the contribution of Bos indicus can be maintained at 25% in a composite population. Intergenerational variation is not a problem in composite populations, after the initial population formation.

Cattle breeders already have developed a significant number of composite populations in diverse geographic regions around the U.S.

Terminal crossing. In terminal crossing systems, crossbred females excelling in maternal performance are mated to sires of a different breed that excels in growth traits, ensuring excellence in carcass and meat characteristics in the resulting progeny. All progeny, both male and female, are produced for slaughter. Regardless of whether females are produced in a static crossing system, rotational crossing systems or composite populations, breeders can take advantage of complementarity among breeds (Figure 5) by terminal crossing.

General Considerations * Rotational systems generally make more effective use of heterosis.

* Genetic potential for USDA quality and yield grades can be optimized more precisely in cattle with 50:50 ratios of Continental to British inheritance than in cattle with higher or lower ratios of Continental to British inheritance.

* Composite populations maintain significant levels of heterosis, but less than rotational crossing of any specific number of contributing breeds.

In general, EPDs available for bulls from purebreds used in rotational systems tend to be more accurate than EPDs for bulls used in a composite population because they're based on a larger number of records.

Stress Helpline

Many agriculturists are experiencing stress levels they haven't dealt with since the 1980s. The National Farm Medicine Center (NFMC) wants to help.

The Marshfield, WI-based non-profit program is providing an Internet crisis hotline listing to help farmers deal with stressful economic times. The listing is a compilation of farm crisis hotline resources in the Upper Midwest and Plains states. The list can be found on NFMC's Internet web site at www.marsh or by calling one of the phone numbers below.

"We wanted to place crisis hotline information in the hands of farmers in hopes they will contact counselors," says director Paul Gunderson. "Our goal is to have people talk to someone."

Check Out These Numbers Users can consult the NFMC Internet address listed above, or call one of the following telephone numbers:

Illinois - Farm Resource Center: 800/851-4719.

Iowa - Iowa Concern Hotline: 800/447-1985.

Minnesota - Minnesota Farm Advocate Program: 800/967-2474 (in state), 651/296-1484 (out of state).

Nebraska - Nebraska Farm Hotline: 800/464-0258 (in state).

North Dakota - Mental Health Association in ND: 800/472-2911.

South Dakota - Farm Crisis Program: 800/691-4336.

Wisconsin - Wisconsin Farm Center: 800/942-2474.

Look For Symptoms Stress, says Sereanna Dresbach, an Ohio State University health education specialist, is a physical and mental reaction to change.

"It's a normal reaction and we have coping skills to deal with it. But when does it get to be too much?" she asks.

Here are some indicators: --- Change in sleeping patterns (e.g., insomnia or inability to get out of bed).

--- Change in eating patterns. Some people begin eating more. Some can't eat at all.

--- Sliding back into old, bad habits such as smoking, chewing tobacco or drinking alcohol.

--- Impaired decision making skills.

Often, people in rural areas tend not to seek help for problems, Dresbach says.

"It's seen as a sign of weakness, but actually it takes strength to reach out and ask for help," says Dresbach. And often, she adds, the coping mechanisms people have relied upon in the past just don't work.

She suggests looking for local mental health resources. Marriage or family therapy is often helpful, as well. And, don't forget ministers or other clergy.

Wired --Communications advances are revolutionizing the feedlot business.

Before there was a postal service, telephone or e-mail, people talked face to face. If separated by much distance, they sent a courier and hoped he survived to deliver the message.

By contrast, communications today move at light speed. Machines are changing the way feedlots do business the same way the Wright Brothers revolutionized transportation and warfare.

Even the routine of driving a feed truck has been transformed. At some yards, the Global Positioning Satellite network sets off an alarm if the feed truck is about to deliver rations to the wrong feed bunk.

But communications technology promises to do much more than change routine tasks. Advanced communication devices promise to create a technological upheaval in beef genetics by allowing the industry to track the performance of individual animals from ranch to feedlot to packing plant.

The implications are amazing. Ranchers could use beef quality data from packers to improveherd genetics. Feedlots could use the data to decide which ranches they want to deal with.

The cattle industry could shift from a commodity business to one that rewards quality with higher prices. And the industry could reverse the long decline in consumer demand by offering a consistently better tasting product.

Though in its infancy, there are signs the revolution is gathering momentum. More cattlemen, feeders and packers are now managing cattle as individuals rather than groups.

"It used to be that when you brought it up, people would give you a big yawn and a glazed look," says Kathy Cornett, president of McCormick Advertising, an agency that provides Internet and other communications services to the industry. "They want to talk about it now."

Just 10 years ago, tracking individual animals involved a blizzard of paper and a lot of manpower. Today, with computers, electronic ID tags, high-speed data transmission networks and specialized software, the job is much less daunting.

Computers sort the data. Electronic tags allow easy tracking of the animal. Software makes the system work. But it is communications devices and data transmission networks that tie the system together by allowing managers to easily collect and access data and share it with other segments, and vice-versa.

One example is Micro Chemical Inc., of Amarillo, TX. It developed its Accu Trac Electronic Cattle Management System to allow individual animal tracking with little extra work. It begins at the ranch where genetic background, birth and weaning weights and health history are recorded for each animal, preferably on a computer file. Each animal also gets an electronic ID tag.

At the feedyard, size, weight, health and performance data are added. For instance, when the animal arrives, video cameras capture an image and send the image data to a computer, which automatically calculates external measurements. Then the animal enters an automatic weighing station.

Next, backfat is measured at the ultrasound chute. At the final stop - a modified squeeze chute - the measurements are combined with other data including the animal's health history. When reimplants are done, the process is repeated. All this data is merged with the genetic data supplied by ranchers.

Some benefits materialize before the animal leaves the feedlot. For instance, feedlot measurement data allows feeders to sort animals by projected marketing date. Thus, animals that will finish faster are grouped, as are animals that require longer feeding.

This allows feeders to avoid overfeeding animals, or selling them before they're ready. That, in turn, avoids packer discounts for underweight or overweight cattle.

"It takes you from managing groups of animals for an average sale date to managing individual animals for optimum economic sale date," says Glen Pratt, Micro Chemical co-owner.

At the slaughter plant, packers can record carcass performance data, though they probably will use a carcass ID number different than the electronic ear tag number. However, Micro Chemical offers a service to reconcile the two numbers to keep records straight.

If such systems take a wide hold, the cattle industry will never be the same. It may sound like Buck Rogers stuff, but the computers, software and data transmission lines to make it happen already exist. For a vanguard of ranchers, feeders and packers who are already on board, the future is now.

The communications revolution has created thousands of devices that help machines communicate with computers. One example is the Lantronix universal thin server, used by potato chip makers and Sea World. It can be connected to thousands of machines, sensors or measurement devices, such as scales, bar code readers, video cameras, thermometers and the calipers used to measure the thickness of potato chips.

How would it help feedlots? The company says the universal thin server could be combined with sensors that record moisture and temperatures in manure composting operations.

The thin server functions like a small computer. It can be set to send information back to the front office computer whenever heat or moisture levels in the manure drop too low. This would save feedlot personnel the time it takes to take regular measurements.

There are thousands of other devices on the market. Here's how to find them:

--- Read the technology ads that appear in trade magazines such as BEEF.

--- Tell cattle industry technology firms what you want automated.

--- Ask other feeders what works.

--- Invite computer and communications experts to speak to cattle industry gatherings about their latest products.

--- Read business equipment and computer catalogs.

--- Use the Internet to search for the latest computer, communications and automation advances.

--- Use the Internet to check Extension Service web sites for technology tips.

Before you spend big on the latest communications advances, take a look at older, less expensive devices.

--- More feeders are using the Internet to gather business information. If your modem is slow, consider a new one. A slow modem wastes time.

If you buy a faster modem, it may work slowly if your computer is old. If your computer and modem are up to speed, but Internet access is still slow, the problem may be your phone company. Some rural exchanges need new service improvements before modems will work at or near their rated speeds.

--- Don't forget about the phone bill. Telephone companies have cut long-distance prices as they've computerized their networks and turned to fiber optic cables. The trick is to find the company that offers the lowest prices. Even a penny-a-minute cut in price will save a lot of money over time.

Ask phone companies to examine your last long distance bill and tell you how much they would charge for the same service. AT&T, for example, says it will do this.

If a company won't do this, ask for its rate schedule and compute the charges yourself. But be sure to ask about the fine print. For example, some companies may raise the per-minute charge if your call lasts more than a specified number of minutes. Other companies may charge a monthly fee for obtaining their low per-minute rate. Some companies offer more than one pricing plan, so ask if they have more than one.

Sound out other feeders about what they pay. Ask about the quality of service. Check the format for each company's phone bill to make sure it won't cause problems obtaining a business tax deduction for business phone calls.

Shop for group rates. The Texas Cattle Feeders Association, for instance, obtained a favorable group rate from MCI for members who wanted to take advantage of a group plan.

If you find a plan you like, check periodically to make sure you can't get a better deal down the line with some other supplier

--- If you do a lot of phone time, using a headset frees up your hands. A wireless headset will allow you to move around the office as you talk.

A Whirlwind In New Genetics

To address the problems affecting demand and market share, the beef industry must develop some coordination from seedstock to retail.

This doesn't mean the beef industry should vertically integrate like poultry. But, it is possible to function like them by cooperating to deliver a better product while still retaining segment independence.

Some of these arrangements already exist, evolving in different forms - partnerships, cooperatives, alliances, networks and marketing pools are a few. Various names used to characterize this move towards industry coordination include functional integration, vertical coordination and vertical alignment.

While some highly respected people in the beef industry oppose such structural change, this coordination can be a good thing. Other industries using such coordination have shown that this arrangement can build increased responsiveness to consumer demand, improve quality control, increase efficiency and reduce operational risk.

Noel Estenson, Cenex/Harvest States CEO, predicts that in the future a producer not participating in a coordinated production system may become a producer without a market - except for a low-priced, negative-return commodity market. The major question is "how and where will price discovery occur as the industry becomes more concentrated and coordinated?"

This movement toward industry coordination is bringing about the evolution of a value-based marketing system. As this system matures, several factors become increasingly important.

* A clear definition of specific market targets for live cattle.

* A carcass ID and data transfer system from packer back to producer.

* Accurate characterization of biological types for specific targets.

* A cattle sorting procedure with a specific target every time cattle are sold, rather than selling on the average.

Market Targets There will be four primary market targets for U.S. beef:

* Mid-Choice or higher beef (with a maximum yield grade of 3.9) for upscale domestic trade and export. This product must have exceptional eating qualities including tenderness, juiciness and flavor. Future demand for this product will be 25-30% of the market.

* High Select to low Choice for super markets and mid-scale restaurants (with a maximum yield grade of 2.9). Product must have acceptable eating qualities, and will be 50-55% of the market.

* Young, extremely lean, high-yielding beef with acceptable tenderness - 15-20% of the market.

* Other niche products will garner 5-10% of the market.

Over the past 18 months, support has been building for a universal target for U.S.-fed cattle - called the "70-70-0" target. This means the following: 70% of U.S. beef will grade low Choice or higher, and 70% will be yield grade (YG) 1 or 2. The 0% refers to 0% tolerance for Standard quality, YG 4 or 5, dark cutters, underweights, overweights or other misfits. This universal target comes close to fulfilling the needs of the four market targets described above.

Target Is A Long Way Off The most recent Beef Quality Audit indicates the industry is a long way from hitting such a target. I've seen a significant number of closeouts on pens of cattle this past year, however, that meet or exceed these specifications. This suggests we already have the genetics and management.

Kent Anderson of the North American Limousin Foundation recently predicted that in the future, high-value reputation feeder cattle will have several years of feedyard and carcass data behind them. They'll have been sired by a known bull battery with proven performance and carcass traits, and will be predesigned and managed for specific targeted markets.

To ready themselves for this future, individual cow/calf producers should retain ownership on a representative sample of their calf crop. Feed them out to determine if your genetics are up to speed in feedlot performance and carcass traits. If your cash flow won't permit retaining ownership, work out an arrangement with your buyers to obtain performance and carcass data.

While planning this, remember that year-to-year variation can be influenced by lots of non-genetic factors. These include health, feedyard management, weather, time on feed, implant strategy, packing plants and other factors.

Food marketers say an increase in branded beef products is coming. Developing a brand, however, takes a huge investment in money, time and talent. It also takes a great deal of coordination throughout the beef production and marketing chain.

Of the nation's fed cattle, 10-12% channel through a branded program, but many of these programs brand only the middle meats (loin and rib). The rest is marketed as generic commodity beef. This can be a problem in the high-quality, upscale steak programs that call for a modest or higher degree of marbling because the end meats may be discounted for carrying too much fat.

Profit Drivers For Ranchers Much attention is currently focused on improving our end product. But, we can't forget other critical profitability factors.

SPA (Standardized Performance Analysis) data indicate that high-profit cow/calf herds consistently control costs without jeopardizing cowherd productivity or gross income. They also have consistently lower feed costs, especially harvested feeds. They purchase good bulls and have sound herd health programs.

In contrast, most low-profit herds have consistently higher costs (especially feed), lower weaning percentages and weights.

Genetic selection is a major factor in profitable management. A 1995 analysis by Bryan Melton on the economic importance of various selection criteria concluded that for cow/calf herds selling calves at weaning time, the relative weighting should be 50% emphasis on reproduction traits, 25% on growth and 25% on end-product traits.

Interestingly, Australian researchers conducting a separate analysis gave nearly identical weightings for these three groups of traits. But these weightings are subject to change as consumer and industry needs change.

Profit Drivers For Feedlots Dallas Horton owns and operates a commercial feedyard near Greeley, CO. He says cattle that invariably make the most money in his yard are those that gain the most weight in the shortest period of time and on the least feed.

Thus far, carcass characteristics haven't been as influential because there's been less variation in carcass value than in gain and feed conversion. But, in a recent analysis of closeouts, Horton found that a 20% change in feed conversion, average daily gain and quality grade affected profit/head by $62, $10 and $7, respectively.

Colorado State University's (CSU) Tom Field agrees. He says the industry cannot dwell on carcass premiums and discounts and lose sight of the primary contributor to feedlot profitability: How many pounds can we generate at what cost?

Sick costs can have a significant effect on profit, especially among calf-feds. An analysis of factors affecting calf profitability in Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas shows that sick costs significantly affect profitability in the feedyard.

In an Oklahoma State University survey, High Plains commercial feedyard operators were asked to rate the future importance of feeder cattle traits on a 1-to-10 scale. Interestingly, they ranked carcass traits at the top.

Profit Drivers In Overall Production A 1998 analysis of Cattle-Fax and Gelbvieh Alliance data sorted each production sector - cow/calf, feedlot and carcass - into the highest 25% and lowest 25% in profitability. The range in profitability within each of these sectors was $173, $84 and $40 for cow/calf, feedlot and carcass, respectively.

This suggests that the cow/calf sector currently has the greatest opportunity for changing industry profitability, and the carcass sector has the least. However, if carcass premiums and discounts increase over time, opportunities in the carcass sector will increase.

CSU's Daryl Tatum predicts muscling will become increasingly important due to its influence on red-meat yield. He suggests that instrument grading will increase the focus on muscling, and muscling will become a more powerful pricing tool.

Similarly, Excel's Marcine Moldenauer predicts that discounts for upper YG 3 cattle will increase from the current spread of $1-3 to $8-10/cwt., and that YG 4 discounts could be as high as $30/cwt. in the future.

Cattle Breeding Technologies in Perspective

Within this special genetics issue, experts from around the country discuss many different breeding technologies. Here's a list, in no particular order:

* Cloning

* Marker-assisted selection (MAS)

* Genetic prediction

* Gene transfer

* Sex control

* Systematic crossbreeding and composites

* Animal identification (DNA and biometric methods)

* In vitro fertilization and embryo transfer

* Marker-assisted mating

* Ultrasound

* Multibreed evaluation

* Selection indexes

These tools can be categorized in a number of ways. They could, for instance, be categorized by field of research - conventional (statistical/mathematical) animal breeding, molecular genetics or reproductive physiology.

In terms of their impact on genetic improvement, however, it's more revealing to group the technologies by what they might accomplish. These are my three general categories (note that some technologies fit in more than one category):

1. Technologies designed to improve selection (to increase the rate of genetic change through more efficient selection of sires and replacement females);

2. Technologies designed to improve mating (to help us decide which males to breed to which females and in so doing manage both complementarity and hybrid vigor);

3. Technologies designed to evaluate the relative importance of traits.

Technologies To Improve Selection * Cloning - Clones provide breeders easy access to the best, most thoroughly evaluated animals, increasing accuracy and intensity of selection.

* Marker-assisted selection (for both simply inherited and polygenic traits).

* Genetic prediction (statistical models, new traits, etc.).

* Gene transfer - A long shot perhaps, but infusion of new genes could increase genetic variation, producing more radical genotypes than are available today.

* Sex control - Consistent production of daughters out of two-year-old dams, themselves out of two-year-old dams, is a clever way to decrease female generation interval.

* Animal identification - DNA fingerprinting allows more information to be harvested from multiple-sire pasture data. In combination with other identification technologies like retinal imaging, it could increase the amount of data available from commercial animals, most notably for carcass traits.

* In vitro fertilization and embryo transfer - These technologies could put females on a par with males in terms of number of offspring.

* Ultrasound - This technology gives us more information on hard-to-measure carcass traits.

* Multi-breed evaluation - With multi-breed evaluation, we get better genetic prediction for crossbred seedstock and composite breeds.

Technologies To Improve Mating * Cloning - F1 (terminal breed terminal breed) market clones raised by F1 maternal cloned females - could it be the ultimate mating system?

* Genetic prediction - Researchers are developing methods for predicting non-additive or gene combination value. This may allow us to better predict progeny performance for specific matings.

* Sex control - Maternal/terminal crossbreeding systems are more attractive with a practical method of sex control. Fewer cows are needed to produce replacements so more cows are available to produce market steers.

* Systematic crossbreeding and composites.

* Animal identification - DNA fingerprinting techniques have the potential to identify breed composition, allowing breeders to more closely manage heterozygosity and hybrid vigor.

* Marker-assisted mating - Marker information does not add much to selection accuracy if accuracy is already high (as it is for growth traits for popular AI sires), but knowing what major genes an individual carries could be helpful in designing matings.

Technologies Designed To Evaluate The Relative Importance Of Traits * Selection indexes

Most of the technologies discussed help us select animals, typically by increasing the accuracy of selection, sometimes by increasing selection response in other ways. A number of technologies, however, help us make mating decisions. Just one technology helps us determine which traits are most important. More on that later.

Rating Breeding Technologies To rate breeding technologies, we need information on each technology's effectiveness, practicality, cost and availability.

Effectiveness simply means the technology's potential to increase income or decrease costs. Practicality refers to the "pain" factor. Some technologies may be effective but involve such intense management that few will use them. Cost and availability are likely to change over time, so we must know not only how available and costly a technology is today but how available and costly it is likely to be in the future.

A truly organized thinker would rate technologies with a table like the following one (Table 1). We can't fill in the table at this point because there are too many unknowns, particularly in the cost and availability columns. Instead, let's consider a couple of informative examples.

* Marker-assisted selection for polygenic traits is a practical technology. It's no more difficult for a commercial producer to use than a sire summary, and no more expensive for the commercial producer, either.

It's also quite practical for the seedstock producer. He'll need to collect some tissue on his animals and send it to a laboratory. The cost to him may not be too great on a per head basis but, with many animals being tested, can add up. Remember, the cost of research to develop the technology is considerable.

The effectiveness of marker-assisted selection isn't immediately clear. Effectiveness depends on whether consistently important major genes are segregating for traits of economic importance, whether reliable markers or direct tests for these genes are found, and whether alternative sources of information are available in quantity. The jury is out, but evidence suggests marker-assisted selection will be useful for traits related to disease resistance and carcass quality.

* Cloning. The availability and cost of cloning are in question, but there's no doubt about its effectiveness in commercial production - at least short term. The "genetic lift" created by the use of superior clones is substantial.

Cloning is especially interesting from the standpoint of practicality. In most cases, the higher tech a technology is, the more intensive management must be to make the technology effective.

Take artificial insemination, for example. For most commercial operations, the inconvenience of concentrating cattle, heat detecting, and breeding artificially outweigh (at least in the minds of commercial producers) the advantages of AI.

The same is true of embryo transfer, only the effect is multiplied. And cloning, when it involves large-scale embryo transfer, fits the same pattern. But what about cloned bulls?

It is not inconceivable that commercial producers will soon be able to buy, at $2,000 to $3,000, a copy of a highly superior, high-accuracy herd sire in the form of an embryo in a test tube, a fetus in a recipient cow or a yearling bull in the flesh.

Packaged in the latter form, this technology is the ultimate in convenience - just turn the bull out with the cows. Cloned bulls represent a rare commodity - a high-tech solution that doesn't require intensive production practices to implement.

The Importance Of Trait Evaluation The third category in the list of breeding technologies is for technologies designed to evaluate the relative importance of traits. Just one technology is listed in this category, selection indexes, and that suggests, perhaps, that this is not an important category.

I think it suggests something quite different: that we are not paying enough attention to evaluating the relative importance of traits. By using the technologies in the other categories we can create rapid genetic change in the national cowherd. But there is no guarantee that we will change the cowherd for the better.

Charging ahead with new selection and mating technologies without evaluating traits is like building a new jet, complete with the most powerful and fuel-efficient engines, but without a navigation system. Trait evaluation technology is that navigation system.

In truth, there are more technologies in the trait evaluation category than selection indexes. I like to lump them under the heading of multiple-trait selection technologies.

Selection index technology is a start. Having general indexes for terminal sires and maternal breeds would be instructive. More useful, however, are customized multiple-trait selection technologies, techniques that allow individual commercial producers to derive indexes (or alternatives to indexes like sire sequences) specific to their environment, management practices and market.

Bioeconomic simulation has great potential in this respect and has the advantage of helping producers make not only breeding decisions but management decisions of all kinds.

As we learn more about new and changing breeding technologies, we will begin to fill in the table on page 43. It will become clear which technologies to get excited about, which to dismiss, and which to watch closely. And, (I hope) we will see more technologies, particularly multiple-trait selection technologies, appearing in the table, catching people's imaginations, and finding success.

Know The Business, Know The Customer

Bulls only serve two purposes in a cow herd - get cows pregnant and make genetic changes that enhance herd profitability, says Burke Teichert.

It's important then, that a bull have the ability and development to breed a high number of cows as a yearling, recover well after the breeding season and last a long time. He should also have EPDs for economically important traits.

Teichert is general manager of Rex Ranch in Nebraska and the Deseret Ranches and Sheridan Ranches in Wyoming. He says a full service genetic provider:

* Understands the industry, its needs and its direction; and knows his customers and the customer's method of operation and objectives.

* Understands genetics - selection, selection differential, heritability, generation interval, crossbreeding, heterosis, EPDs, accuracy, etc.; and knows everything there is to know about each of his cows and herd sires individually.

* Makes matings to fit the needs of his customer and the industry; and monitors the customers' results.

At his ranches Teichert wants genetics to effect four areas.

1. "We want the cow to fit the environment rather than having to modify the environment to fit the cow," he says.

That means a low input cow that survives, breeds back and weans a healthy, good-sized calf. The ideal is a 1,000- to 1,200-lb. cow with a frame size below 6. She will never have to be handled by man apart from the whole herd - not for first calving, doctoring, etc. She will have a good disposition.

"In buying bulls we want to know about the mother of that bull and other closely related females. Do they require calving assistance - ever, even first calf? Do they nurse and take care of their calves? Have they ever been doctored? Have they calved every year starting at age two?" he asks.

Except for records, Teichert believes seedstock cows should be run just like commercials - maybe tougher. "The commercial producer wants to know that heifers born in his herd and kept as replacements will require no pampering and very little fed feed," he says.

He adds that several traits are involved in selection for this kind of cow: maintenance efficiency, calving ease, health, fertility and disposition.

2. Teichert wants good yearling growth rates on grass. Most producers have good EPDs for growth, he says, but he wonders if EPDs for yearling grass gain and/or feedlot gain aren't needed.

3. He expects excellent feed conversion in the feedlot. It's more important than average daily gain. He also wishes there were a method to measure feed efficiency accurately for use in EPDs.

4. Teichert believes value-based marketing will come. He shoots to produce a high proportion of yield grade 1 and 2, Choice and Prime carcasses with no Select 3s or "out" carcasses. It's a plan that would benefit the overall industry, he says, but it will take persistence on the part of seedstock producers and more bulls with carcass EPDs.

In addition, he has these concerns:

* Maternal ability is more than just milk. It includes conception, unassisted live birth, encouraging the calf to nurse, good bonding and adequate milk. Teichert feels the industry as a whole is selecting for too much milk, which in turn can have a negative effect on rebreeding rate and stocking rate.

* There's too much embryo transfer work. How do you really know the cow is good enough, especially in traits with no EPDs? He also worries about excessive narrowing of the genetic base. What if the climate slowly changes or the market changes? Will we still have the genetics to fit the circumstances?

* As the industry continues to select for high growth, limits on birth weight and mature size are needed, especially in maternal lines. For most commercial situations the upper end of frame 5 is big enough, he says.