Genetic Selection Requires Every Tool in the Bag

Building a cowherd, like any other skilled trade, requires discipline, patience and a tool belt full of resources. Some of those resources will be used or relied on heavily.  Others will play smaller roles; yet, they are no less important.  There is no magic bullet, or single tool that can adequately address every aspect of genetic selection. You wouldn’t build a house with just a saw or a fence with just a pair of pliers. The job of assembling well-rounded beef cattle requires every tool in the bag.  

Breeding cattle using only statistical tools, such as EPDs and indexes, might be a reality in the future. If the time comes when cattle can be bred and managed in total confinement, those tools will play an even greater role than they do today. As of now, we must still manage our herds under grazing conditions across a vast array of environments and climates. Most of those factors can’t be measured with statistical tools. 

Each breeder must critically analyze the factors related to fertility, longevity and soundness for their specific environment and production needs.

Reduced fitness in any of these areas will lead to inefficient production or open cows, which is one of the most costly factors in a cattle operation. The collection of resources related to ranch specific evaluations, EPDs, indexes and DNA profiles should collectively shape your decisions.  

Over-reliance on any single tool can create weaknesses in your foundation. The sole use of EPDs or an index system alone cannot account for all external variables, such as those related to environment. They are tools that should help guide your genetic decisions through the segregation and identification of higher value traits. They tend to have more reliable results within a single herd or animal group than across large, diverse populations or environments. However, that should not diminish their importance as a tool for genetic progression and economic improvement.  

Likewise, selecting cattle using physical evaluation or environment alone will most likely create deficiencies in traits that affect economic value. Worse yet, the magnitude of those deficits will be unknown. Degraded reliability and inconsistent results for feed efficiencies and carcass traits can leave you stranded in the basement of our industry’s value added chain.  
The largest concern with the over reliance of any one tool should be the consequences that could arise if your measurements are flawed. Imagine trying to frame in a house or build a new fence using a measuring tape you believe is accurate, yet it isn’t. All of your past, current and future measurements will be wrong—casting an ominous shadow over your herd. Resist putting too much selection pressure on tools that might not have universal acceptance in the industry.  
Remember this quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Common sense is genius in its working clothes.” Don’t over analyze or lose sight of the basics. Adopt a sensible, healthy balance of skepticism and cowmanship when developing your genetic management plan. Utilization of the full complement of tools in your “breeding belt” will keep you focused, efficient and profitable.