NEW TECHNOLOGIES MAKE BEEF PRODUCTION EASIER

by: Joe C. Paschal. PhD.
Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Livestock Specialist

Introduction

It seems like there is a modern technology introduced for use in the beef industry almost every day. Sometimes it is just an app for your phone or a new product or delivery system for parasite control. With the advancement in genomics new expected progeny differences (EPDs) and selection indices are introduced. I wonder what the adoption rate is for many of those as well as some of the older technology.

One time I recall reading an article that stated that the poultry industry used about 90 percent of the technology available to it, that dairy and swine production utilized about 70 percent, cattle feeding about 50 percent, and cow/calf production only about 10 percent. I doubt that that is accurate, but it does indicate that the fewer people or operations involved in the production process, the more likely they are to utilize as much of the technology that can make them more profitable.

For the purposes of this paper, technology will include knowledge, techniques, methods or processes used in the production of goods or services, in this case beef and beef cattle. Not all technology is adopted. There are many reasons for this; it may not be beneficial to the production system, it might be too expensive, there is a lack of expertise or knowledge of the technology, or there is a lack of access or equipment or facilities, or even time.

In 2013, BEEF magazine, a beef production publication in the U.S., asked its readers to rank what they considered the top 10 new technologies in the beef industry at that time.

The results were:
1. Round/square bales
2. Artificial insemination
3. Knowing consumer attitudes
4. Pour-on insecticides
5. Video feeder markets
6. Grain co-products
7. Real time market data
8. Tagging and ID systems
9. Food safety interventions at packing plants
10. Low stress cattle handling. (BEEF 2013)

This was before genomic-enhanced EPDs (GE-EPDs) were offered, but not before genetic tests for marbling and tenderness as well as other traits were available. In reviewing this list, it is obvious that many, but not all, of these were commercial cow/calf producers who raise non-purebred or registered cattle. I would have put the internet or world wide web near the top, as well as cell phones that are more than phones now, but they didn't make the list. On the other hand, I can see why round bales did.

Although I have travelled widely, I don't represent myself to know how beef cattle are produced in every country of the world. My list of technologies used by beef cattle producers, including dual-purpose, is a general one and will vary from location to location, climate to climate, and operation to operation.

There are many technologies in use in beef cattle around the world today, but for the purposes of this paper, I will touch on those I consider important for reproduction and genetic improvement. I know I have left many other valuable technologies out, including those associated with health, nutrition and marketing.

Technologies

Animal Identification. National animal identification (NAID) in beef cattle is used by nearly every country in the world except the U.S. In most countries, it is used as a method of identifying animals in disease eradication and control programs, but is also useful in identifying individual animals by producers. Most use a combination of either a radio frequency and/ or a bar code using a unique number including a three-digit number code assigned to the country plus nine or more numbers to create an animal identification. Most countries require NAID, and in many, only animals with NAID can be moved or sold. In the U.S., it is not required, but most beef cattle are identified by their owners using numbers on tags or brands, for use in selection and ownership. However, these numbers are not unique across the country or even state to state, making potential disease tracebacks difficult.

Weight Scales. The simplest, most necessary technology for beef production is a scale to weigh cattle. There is no linear measurement that accurately estimates the weight of an animal, only scales can fulfill that function. Weights are valuable for several reasons: to measure progress in genetic selection, to determine weights for sale or breeding, and even to measure shrink or weight loss in cattle movements from remote locations. Load cells to place under a squeeze chute or an area designed to weigh several head of cattle were a significant technological advance.

Pregnancy Testing. Pregnancy testing is one of the most important technologies that should be adopted by cattle producers everywhere. It is one of the few technologies that hadn't seen much change until recently. In the 1940s, pregnancy was determined by rectal palpation by hand; then in the 1980s, the use of rectal ultrasound was introduced. Rectal palpation could determine early pregnancy at around 45 days with an experienced palpator, relative size of the fetus, length or month of gestation, and even twins. Ultrasound reduced the age at pregnancy detection to around 35 days and added the benefits of measuring fetal size accurately and sexing the fetus. Ultrasound can also be used to evaluate ovarian structures and aid in embryo transfer (ET). It does not increase pregnancy loss because of its use.

In recent years, blood tests determining the presence of placental-forming hormones have been introduced, which are very accurate in heifers, as there is no placental-forming hormone circulating unless they are bred. The accuracy is less so in cows, but still very useful. The advantages are that the producer can collect whole blood in a red-top tube and either send it off unrefrigerated to be analyzed or have their veterinarian conduct the analysis if he or she has the equipment. The disadvantage of this is that it only indicates if the female is pregnant not how long, nor does it give any indication as to why she is not bred. A follow-up visit by the veterinarian would be needed. The value of pregnancy testing declines over time; it's one of the few technologies that do. The reason for the loss of value is that less-fertile, or open, females are culled quickly and can be replaced by more fertile females.

Breeding Soundness Examination. Breeding soundness examinations (BSE) of bulls have been conducted since the early 1950S. For beef producers to get the most of the high value genetics of their bulls, they should be used to breed as many cows as possible. Young, fertile bulls can often breed many more cows than they are assigned; older bulls can exhibit a reduction in semen quality. Unless bulls are tested well before breeding season (60 days), their fertility level is unknown. A BSE can also detect other problems that might impair a bull's ability to mount and breed cows successfully the first time. A BSE is not a libido test, it is a fertility test. Bulls passing a BSE should still be observed at breeding to ensure they are checking heat and breeding females.

Reproductive Tract Scoring. Although there is not a similar test in females, the reproductive tract scoring (RTS) of heifers prior to breeding (around 14 months) is a valuable tool. The tract is palpated through the rectum to evaluate its relative size and then assigned a score from one, meaning infertile, to five, meaning cycling. First introduced in the early 1990s, it was slow to be incorporated but is gaining acceptance. In my own experience, about 20 percent of heifers have a score of one or two, meaning underdeveloped. RTS of heifers can be improved somewhat by good nutrition, but not totally.

Body Condition Scoring. Completing the basic reproduction technologies is body condition scoring (BCS) to measure the fat level or condition of cows and heifers 60 days prebreeding. In the U.S., a BCS system was created in the 1960s using a simple three-point system: thin, average or fat. Cows that were average or higher in BCS had significantly greater pregnancy rates. This was later developed into a nine-point system, with one meaning emaciated and nine meaning obese, for use in the U.S. beef industry, a five-point system is used in other countries and in dairy. A cow with a BCS of four (U.S.) or two (international) has less fat cover over the last two or three ribs, and they can be easily seen. Those ribs are fully covered in a cow with a BCS of five (U.S.) or two and a half (international).

Usually a prebreeding BCS of five (U.S.) or two and a half (international) is recommended for cows while a BCS of six (U.S.) or three (international) is recommended for heifers. Cows in better BCS have healthier calves at birth, produce more and higher quality colostrum, and return to estrus and get rebred more quickly in the breeding season. BCS can be used in bulls to assess their level of fatness or condition. In both bulls and females, a change in BCS represents an eight percent change in body weight between two scores. BCS score can be learned and applied by any beef producer.

Artificial Insemination. Artificial insemination (AI) is not used as much by commercial beef producers as by purebred producers, regardless of location. As a tool for genetic improvement it does require additional training, labor and cost; but when used for genetic improvement, its benefits greatly outweigh those factors. A single collection, properly packaged, transported and inseminated, can create many offspring either from AI on natural heat or with estrus synchronization at a fraction of the cost of purchasing, and possibly importing, the same genetics in a live bull. Beef producers interested in genetic improvement all over the world understand the value of AI.

Estrus Synchronization. Estrus synchronization (ES) attempts to adjust the natural estrus cycle of the cow with hormones to have a majority ovulate and express estrus, or heat, with a short period of time. Depending on the ES protocol and the type of the cattle, ES can result in an 80 percent average response rate. Most ES protocols were developed for Bos taurus cattle, and results for Bos indicus cattle can be lower due to difference in the levels of hormones, physiological size of ovaries and ova, and seasonal effects. Used with AI, most of these females can be inseminated and become pregnant within a single day, making calving easier to manage and providing a more uniform calf crop in weight and age. ES can also be used with natural service by bulls to create a shorter breeding season, but more bulls will be needed to service the larger number of cows in estrus, but for a shorter period.

Embryo Transfer. ET currently has the greatest potential to improve genetics world-wide at the least cost. Embryos or eggs later fertilized externally collected from superior dams and sired by genetically-superior, or desirable, bulls can be transferred into native cows or surrogate mothers where their adaptability improves the likelihood of a successful pregnancy. The resulting calves are all full-siblings if from the same sire and same dam, and on average are related by 50 percent to each other - meaning on average, they have 50 percent of the same genes. Care should be taken to collect a large sample of unrelated donor parents for ET to avoid inbreeding, which can reduce adaptability, including reproduction, growth, and resistance to parasites, to the local environment. Donor animals should have a desirable genetic background of proven genetics when selected.

Sexed Semen. Sexed semen is a relatively recent technology that has had wide acceptance by producers already engaged in AI and ET. The possibility of having a single sex to increase the number of females of a desirable genotype or to produce male progeny for slaughter has been a goal for many. Although the technology is costly to access and is best used in heifers, the potential for even a 30 to 40 percent success rate is acceptable. Actual use of sexed semen is no more difficult than using conventional or unsexed semen. Improvements in sexing technologies will increase its use worldwide.

Crossbreeding. It is difficult to consider that slightly more than 50 years ago, crossbreeding was undesirable to most cattlemen. The movement, especially in the U.S., to "stamp out" or eliminate the "scrub" or indiscriminately crossbred animal to improve beef production had been highly successful. Today, the benefits of a well-designed crossbreeding system for commercial cattle producers are well known. Several breeds and production systems around the world are beneficiaries of breeders who understood the need for combining two or more breeds to fit an environment or a market. Several new breeds were created. These new breeds, many - but not all - with Bas indicus genetics, provided stable production and some level of retained hybrid vigor from the earlier cross. It is well known that crossbreeding benefits traits that are most affected by the environment including adaptability, fertility, growth, milk production, and longevity. Carcass and later-in-life traits are less affected. The breeds, and individual animals selected within those breeds, are more important than the effect of hybrid vigor overall and should be emphasized in any crossbreeding program.

Record Keeping. Record keeping is often overlooked as an important technology. Knowing what was done, or happened, to a given animal or animals, and when, can be vital. Individual records are important for day to day operations, even in small herds. In the past, purebred registries relied on records for parentage, many currently require specific records for registration, some require records on the whole herd, including some genetic information. Records can be kept on paper or on a computer spreadsheet, but to be useful they need to be used.

Ultrasound. Ultrasound was previously mentioned in pregnancy testing, but in beef cattle its initial use in the 1970S was in determining loin eye, or ribeye, size and fatness either in finished beef cattle for slaughter or to select breeding animals, particularly young bulls. In the early 1990s, software was developed to estimate percent intramuscular fat which was associated with USDA marbling score in the U.S. Ultrasound for carcass merit has many advantages over feeding and slaughtering progeny of selected bulls. For instance, less time and expense. Ultrasound has had wide acceptance in the purebred sectors. Some breeds have EPD-based ultrasound measures for ribeye area, fat thickness, rump fat thickness, and percent intramuscular fat.

Expected Progeny Difference. EPD is not a modern technology; it evolved from a slightly older one, estimated breeding value, and has been around since the 1970s. EPD is defined as a prediction of how future progeny of an animal are expected to perform, relative to the progeny of other animals it is compared against. Most purebred breed associations, or other groups, calculate them at least annually for all animals in their registry some monthly and publish the results online or on paper in a summary. All EPDs have an associated accuracy (ACC). ACC is a measure of the reliability that can be placed on the EPD. ACC close to 1.0, which is possible only in animals with many progeny, indicates higher reliability. ACC is affected by the number of progeny and records of relatives included in the analysis. EPD cannot be compared directly across breeds, but there are adjustments that can be used to create across-breed EPD (AB-EPD). The accuracies of these adjustments are not known. Several breeds are using combined databases, where the performance of specific crosses is well-documented, to create EPD for their crosses. Initially, most EPDs included growth traits and one or two maternal traits. Later, carcass merit traits were added, and then many other traits followed as records were kept on calving ease, age at first calving, and even stayability. To aid breeders and buyers, the purebred associations began to combine some trait EPD into specific selection index EPD, weighted by economic importance of the traits included in the index. For example, in a maternal or cow index, calving ease would be more important and therefore have more emphasis than weaning weight. In breeds that have these indices, they have been generally widely-accepted once it is proven they accurately represent the overall performance of the animals for those combined EPD.

Recently, the use of breed-specific genetic markers has been used to improve the ACC of young animals with no or few progeny as well as improve the genetic relationships of close relatives. These are called GE-EPDs. With past EPD calculations, average genetic relationships between relatives were used. For example, half-sibs and full-sibs share, on average, 25 percent and 50 percent of their genes due to one or two parents, respectively. In reality, but rarely, the range in relationship can vary from zero to 50 percent for half-sibs and zero to 100 percent for full-sibs. GE-EPD includes thousands of genetic markers to identify a much closer relationship than that average and will increase the ACC as a result.

Genomic Tests. Although in use before GE-EPDs, genomic tests for genetic markers - either actual genes or pieces of DNA on a chromosome inherited with the gene of interest - have been available commercially since the 1990s. Some of these have been incorporated into GEEPDs, and some purebred breed associations offer them singly or in packages along with several commercial companies conducting the tests. Some genetic markers have been shown to have large effects, others less, and few traits of interest are affected by a single gene, except for the deleterious or lethal recessives and polledness or black hair coat color. Most of the validation of the tests were conducted in Bos taurus breeds, and research has indicated that some are not well represented in the Bos indicus breeds.

Whole Genome Sequencing. Whole genome sequencing (WGS), the process of identifying the exact sequence or order of an animal's DNA on every chromosome, offers great promise for discovering genes that affect the animal throughout its life. Most genes have more than one variant, so dozens of animals need to be sequenced so that every possible genetic variant will be known. This will take time. Even though the human genome map was first completed in 2003 (begun in 1990) and the cattle genome a Hereford cow completed in 2009 (Holstein was sequenced in 2018), they represent a small fraction of all the animals and their gene frequencies in their respective populations. WGS offers an exciting insight to all the genetic effects on reproductive, growth and nutritional health in beef cattle production.

Summary

There are many technologies available to beef producers, some require very little training or expertise to yield significant economic returns. Of the 16 reviewed here, most are available to any producer in the world. The application of them will depend on the profitability of their use.

About the Author: Joe Paschal, PhD. has been the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension livestock specialist for South Texas and the Gulf Coast Regions since 1988. He works with county agents and purebred and commercial producers, feeders and processors within the beef cattle industry to provide practical information to improve production efficiency and profitability.







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