Avoiding Generalized Genetic Mishap

"One of the greatest gifts to agriculture was the plow. Perfected by many, the plow turned the earth and gave way to farming as we know it. However, the plow also contributed to the great Dust Bowl of the 1930's. This illustrates that technology is only as good as those that implement it.

One of the most exciting technologies in the cattle industry today is the expanded use of genomics. The ability to explain a portion of an animal's genetic potential can lead to great leaps in selection and improvement of cattle genetics.

This technology can give breeders the ability to make genetic progress much more rapidly than in the past. However, with more speed comes less room for error. If the technology is not utilized to make advancement in the right direction, correcting mistakes may be more costly than ever.

Current trends for mature cow size and milk production in the Angus breed lead me to believe some producers are chasing percentile rank regardless of the meaning. After all, you never see anyone advertise "In the 50th percentile for milk"… huh, that's just breed average. However, bigger is not always better. In the case of mature cow size and milk production, these traits come with an economic price tag. That price tag is most easily explained by feed costs. In general, cows that weigh more and produce more milk require higher inputs and simply… more feed.

With heavy use of genomics in cattle selection on the horizon, cattlemen need to be aware that the best percentile rank may not equate to the most profit. Most breed EPDs are heavy on output traits. In the future more values will help quantify and select for better input traits. Once we have reliable values for intake, fertility, and longevity, profit can start to be more clearly represented and selected for.

Until these values are mainstream, producers must be intuitive and realize that traits such as milk production have an economic threshold. The ability for cattlemen to keep these traits within that threshold and still improve carcass, performance, and fertility will result in a more efficient, higher quality end product.

This new technology has the opportunity to take the cattle industry to new levels in efficiency, consistency, and profitability. Users of the technology have to approach its use with sound, common sense decision making. If used incorrectly or chasing percentiles regardless of meaning, beef cattle sustainability could just dry up and blow away."

I wrote the above portion in July, 2013. Overall, my feelings and thoughts still remain. Genomic testing is helping explain more of the variation in cattle breeding values. One of the best things to come of this is increased EPD accuracy on young and unproven animals. Another positive is these tests are pushing breed associations to develop input based EPDs. As a result, more EPD measures for input traits are present and can help give insight into the cost side. The American Angus Association now has a Dry Matter Intake (DMI) EPD which offers some prediction into the input side of things. They also have a dollar index that helps predict cow energy requirements alluding to a difference in feed energy expenses ($EN). Genomic tests and more input breeding values are available and being developed in numerous breeds, not just Angus.

I think many have come to the realization that feet, legs, functional soundness, and libido were taken for granted in cattle. Huge emphasis on a single trait or EPDs alone has given birth to some really lazy, bad footed cattle. Most seedstock breeders I talk with are watching these trait very closely and are guarding these must-have traits closely in their breeding decisions. There is much room for improvement, but the attention being given to the lower half of the bull is encouraging.

Now, there are a few things that make me nervous. I do have some reservations about what number will get taken too far next. For instance, DMI. What if we breed cattle to eat less and gain more? While this seems like a win-win in the feedyard, will the females be able to thrive on poor quality forage with longevity? What if too much selection pressure is put on cattle that eat less? Will that negatively impact the ability of cows to flesh and breed back? These are questions that are being asked as producers decide how to utilize new EPDs, genomic tests, and other input identifiers.

It is important to keep in perspective that cows were put on Earth to consume forages and they are equipped with a rumen for that purpose. Losing sight of this simple fact would result in a "Going out of Business" sign for sure. Above all, I would stress that breeders and commercial bull buyers need to purchase genetics that are adapted to their environment. The old adage "You can buy someone's genetics, but you cannot buy their management" is so very true.

In summary, the technology is readily available to assist cattle breeders in making quick, accurate change. As a cattle breeder myself, I am excited by the possibilities that exist. I hope that breeding decisions, based on these new numbers, will be made to make cattle better, not just marketable.


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