by: Clifford Mitchell

Finding ways to improve methods rather than re-invent the wheel has always been sound business. Using the tools available to make the right choices often makes a CEO look smart or become unemployed, depending on the result.

Gathering information is no longer “cutting edge” for some outfits, but a means for survival. As the rancher reaches into his toolbox today, data for many traits can be utilized to make informed decisions that was not available all that long ago. For some this could be a little overwhelming, for others this is a way to keep moving forward.

“There is information available to us today that will, hopefully, eliminate some of the mistakes we have made in the past,” says Mike Hall, Beef Cattle Specialist, Cal Poly State University.

“Data can be somewhat overwhelming, but from a risk management and profitability standpoint, the more information we have the better,” says Dr. Mark Allan, Associate Director Global Technical Services, Pfizer Animal Genetics.

“As a seedstock producer I need to stay on top of things and gather as much information as I can. Along with all of our sale bulls, we have tested the last two groups of heifers to try and learn more about our product,” says John Symens, Symens Brothers, Amherst, South Dakota.

New technology such as DNA markers, coupled with old standbys like Expected Progeny Differences (EPDs) and performance data could open doors in the future. Mating decisions could become more refined and value created through the use of more information.

“We are looking at DNA markers to try to find some genetic trends in our calf crop. As this information becomes more reliable, we can make better decisions earlier,” Symens says. “Gathering this data could help make the information we already have more useful in the decision making process. Hopefully, by testing for these DNA markers we can enhance our EPD accuracies.”

“Sometimes we have to evaluate our past decisions and see which bulls we used actually allowed us to make progress,” Hall says. “Since we can measure some things that we couldn't before, we can identify animals earlier in life that could make a tremendous impact. We can also sample new genetics with more reliability.”

“DNA is still in its infancy, but this information could add accuracy to some of the traits we already have EPDs for and help cattlemen adjust short and long term goals. Producers can feel more confident in what they're selecting for and better explain some of the underlying genetic variation in animal's at a younger age,” Allan says. “None of the selection tools we have are perfect, but if we can eliminate some of the risk, we can reach production goals. Most producers define profitability as a goal, but the exact set of traits to reach this is going to differ.”

The goal of most seedstock operations is to help commercial cattlemen succeed. These operations come with different levels of sophistication, which will lead to a learning curve for most to adapt to new selection protocols. Information is important, but it's a double edged sword for some commercial operations.

“Very few of my commercial customers are interested in any of the new technology except for the F94L (muscle gene), because they are producing a leaner, more muscular product as an end point goal,” Symens says. “Calving ease, actual birth weight, performance and specifically rib-eye numbers are pretty important when they make buying decisions. We have to provide a lot of information because some want certain data while others are interested in another data set. We have to be careful because we can overload them with too much information and they'll throw up their hands.”

“We're kind of at a point some bull buyers just throw up their hands with the amount of information we provide,” Hall says. “Others want that combination of good numbers, plus data and looks all in the same package.”

“It's interesting to look at the level of knowledge and interpretation some commercial producers have,” Allan says. “Knowing your customers, the environment they're in and how he runs his cows will help us present the data in a way that helps producers find the right genetics to compliment their goals. We're going to have to continually create new ways to look at information for all segments and regions of the commercial industry.”

Presenting data in an uncomplicated manner could satisfy a variety of customers. Indexes could become more important in the future as each piece of data finds it way into the selection process.

“Seedstock producers have to know as much about their customers as they can. The end product should be the economic driver in the selection process and each operation has a timeline to reach that goal,” Allan says. “Indexes will become very important and we may see operation or region specific-indexes in the future. We have to find different ways to present the data where commercial cattlemen can utilize it to meet their selection needs.”

“For several years we have broken down our bulls into primarily three groups in the catalog: calving ease, growth and maternal,” Symens says. “Some of our customers are on overload. They still want information, but they want it to be simple. It's pretty easy to help a customer if they have a plan and know how they want to market their cattle.”

“There is a bit of caution because some commercial cattlemen are on information overload. We have to provide guidance and make it simple. There is going to be some education and we have to develop consistent dialogue,” Hall says. “Birth weight is still the number one selection criteria for a lot of commercial cattlemen. If birth weight is not in an acceptable range most cattlemen don't want them. They are probably missing out on some really good genetics that fall out of the range; hopefully, this new information will help them utilize these bulls with confidence. We rank our bulls at the bull test one-third conformation, one-third test index and one-third EPD profile. This usually does a pretty good job ranking bulls according to commercial acceptance.”

Different goals will obviously dictate what information is important. The production scenario geared toward profitability could make great strides as cattlemen understand more about the females in the herd.

“Goals could be a little different in some operations today relative to 25 years ago when almost all selection was for growth. If you keep your own replacement females that have acceptable mature size and want to maintain weaning weight, you will not go out and pick the bull with the highest growth numbers. Today's genetic selection tools allow producers to select bulls with greater accuracy than they did 10 years ago,” Allan says. “However, one of the limiting factors with EPDs is the lack of accuracy on the female side of the equation. As DNA technology advances we will begin to take advantage of increased accuracies for EPDs from the female side of the pedigree.”

“Hopefully, we can educate our commercial cattlemen that we need a balance of traits because weight and frame have the industry behind the eight ball. We don't need these tools to select for the freak, just good cattle that do a lot of things well,” Hall says. “By utilizing this new information, we can help commercial cattlemen get heifers into production early and have increased stayability.”

“You have to find that balance and use reliable data to stack matings to reach a certain end point,” Symens says. “I don't want to be the last one on board. The last two years we have taken a lot of DNA samples. We don't know yet how much this data can help us, but the future could prove that this information was invaluable to the decisions we made.

Sometimes outside influences or other factors can help better utilize data or selection criteria. Disposition has long been a thorn in the side for a lot of producers, but has become increasingly important to commercial cattlemen. Some traits that make a difference in merchandising cattle could also be relevant on a larger scale for the ranching community.

“Disposition has really become important to commercial cattlemen. Common sense tells us there will be a correlation between good disposition and efficiency,” Allan says. “There has been limited data for disposition, early on it was just good old “cowboy sense” to identify families or sires associated with this. This has changed greatly over the last 10 years with some breeds establishing EPDs and others collecting data. Bottom line, it affects profitability in more ways than one and will impact the future.”

“Disposition has an economic impact. Certain parts of the industry are getting educated to the animal welfare and handling issues. In our situation at the bull test, cattle with poor dispositions eliminate themselves because they get hurt or don't perform,” Hall says. “Homozygous polled is one of the few DNA tests that will pay dividends with certain Continental breeds. There is also concern some welfare groups may get legislation passed where we can't dehorn animals.”

Often times, managing the middle end and adding value or profitability to this group separates the men from the boys. This group of females is the heart and soul of most operations, purebred or commercial.

“In the future, this could help eliminate some of the gray areas with the middle and bottom end,” Allan says. “Technology could allow us to better mate this portion of the cow herd for long term profitability.”

For some outfits the cost of gathering information is somewhat cost prohibitive. However, certain operations view this as a cost of doing business and need this information to stay one step ahead of the competition.

“It is extremely costly. By the time a person adds up registrations, day labor, ultrasound costs and health expense it can get expensive,” Allan says. “As margins get tighter, what we learn from the information we gather with technology; allows us to these overall costs related to feed and labor better.”

“I think whether to take advantage of the technology or not is up for each individual to decide. I know I have to have all the information I can to sell bulls to other purebred breeders,” Symens says. “You can get some dollars tied up in every animal you test, but if I can identify a homozygous polled female and mate her that way I don't have to test her offspring in the future, which will save some money because that is an expensive test.”

Defining specific markets should become increasingly important in the future. As more and more products will have to fit certain specifications, cattlemen will need all the tools available.

Maintaining profitability hinges on being able to meet production and end-point goals. Combining different data sets to make selection and mating decisions could prove to be a wise investment.

“These tools will help us breed cattle for a specific market. Today, the technology we have we can make cattle fit almost any market. Where the information is really valuable is when we can use it to improve the breed and provide cattle that will be consistent for the commercial cattlemen,” Hall says. “Decide what goals are important and break that information down into categories. Look at different production phases and how we can benefit from different selection scenarios. It's going to be really exciting the next three or four years as we use this information to produce protein as efficiently as we can.”

“As technology gets better there will be a lot of change. Data sets will grow and we will be able to make better selection indexes resulting in better selection decisions with greater levels of accuracy. I really think, to some extent, the commercial cattlemen will drive how quickly we progress,” Allan says. “We will have to identify core sets of traits and listen to our commercial customers to help them stay profitable.”

“We make decisions based on experience or reliable data. If we can use a combination of the two we can make better informed decisions,” Symens says. “Sometimes our ego tells us we can make a better decision and it's hard to break that habit.”


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