Predicting a stronger cattle industry
January 4, 2019
In today's world, it is more common for cattlemen to be seen struggling with the cord of a computer mouse rather than an actual lasso. With the help of modern technology, both seedstock and commercial cattlemen in the beef industry have been able to improve their herds through the use of genetic prediction.
Mark Johnson, associate professor and faculty supervisor of the Purebred Beef Cattle Center at Oklahoma State University, says genetic prediction is the use of collected data and statistical analysis in beef cattle to predict how future offspring will perform for a specific trait.
Through the accumulation of data of quantitative traits (yearling weights, weaning weights, marbling scores, etc.), Johnson says cattlemen are able to predict the traits of future calf crops based on the sire chosen. He claims genetic prediction is one of the reasons the cattle industry has been able to become more efficient over the years.
Dr. Robert Weaber, professor and cow-calf extension specialist at Kansas State University, says studying animals on a genotypical level through the use of indexes was far from normal before the early 2000s. EPDs became popular in the early 1980s, and before then, ranchers used to make breeding decisions on phenotypical traits alone.
Nowadays, ranchers utilize a "sophisticated approach for optimization," Weaber says. With this approach, he says producers aim to breed for progeny with the ability to hit peak levels of performance in their environment.
As the technology of today is constantly improving, Johnson says so is genetic prediction. He says ranchers are now able to incorporate practices like DNA-typing and DNA markers to find specific genes in animals to create calves with desirable traits.
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"DNA markers have recently changed the game and taught us to think more broadly about genetic improvement," Weaber says.
Weaber says tools like genetic prediction are becoming more and more valuable on an industry-wide level every day. Selection indexes are becoming generalized across the breed spectrum, a move Weaber believes is helping cattle producers see improved rates of progress in identifying desirable genes in livestock.
But this movement to join as an industry for the betterment of an overall product is not just happening at the breed level. With genetic prediction, all types of cattle operations are striving to breed for more efficient livestock.
Johnson says seedstock producers have to "think bigger picture" when it comes to genetic prediction. He believes these breeders have a responsibility to the entire industry compared to commercial operations, as genetics from seedstock producers reach a broader audience.
On the other hand, Weaber says commercial producers are learning to look at their selection decisions based on how their choices will impact the rest of the production chain.
In an industry formerly focused on the end product, Weaber says beef producers are learning to find the happy medium between both end products and cow performance. This new-found strategy is resulting in an overall more efficient industry made up of higher performing cattle.
Even as the industry is seeing high-quality livestock today, Johnson says time will only help improve cattle producers' abilities to predict the genotype of future generations of cattle.
"I believe as we look ahead to the future, we will identify more and more genes that influence quantitative traits and DNA-typing will become even more significant to our generated EPDs," Johnson says. "Continue to learn more and more about the beef genome and identify more polygenic genetic traits, and that will be a part of the genetic picture as we look ahead."
Johnson says utilizing information provided through EPDs and the technology available in today's world is allowing cattle producers to "build a cow herd as productive as possible."
With this heavy emphasis on genetic data, Weaber warns producers the information itself is useless without a solid repository of phenotypical data. He says good genetic evaluation is a delicate balance of studying animals from the ground up and on paper.
When looking to statistical evidence on performance through the use of EPDs, Weaber says each cattle operation will approach genetic prediction with their own strategy, depending on their own personal goals.
Certain EPDs are more economically significant to some operations than others, and Johnson says genetic prediction allows ranchers to breed for cattle fitting to the goals of their individual operations.
"I believe if we take a look at our program and take a look at things like when we're going to market our calves, it helps us to identify traits that are of primary importance to us and our herd," he says.
Weaber says ranchers should strive to breed for calves capable of showing genetic improvement from the previous generation. By studying genetic information and using that knowledge, Weaber says ranchers are able to select for specific genetic traits in cattle to help reach a specific endpoint.
Each operation is different, from their management styles to breeding decisions. All these varying opinions and strategies have helped created the vast and incredibly diverse beef industry of today.
But with this diversity comes some challenges. According to Johnson, the sheer amount of genetic data collected in the cattle industry can be overwhelming, especially when comparing the total amount of data to the actual percentage useful to the individual producer.
And collecting the wealth of data quite the process. Johnson says the gathering and analyzation of genetic data takes both time and money, inputs not always available in large quantities to ranchers.
With this large amount of data, Weaber says the sad reality is only a small subset of the information is needed for each specific trait. He believes if the industry can expand the number of meaningful genetic markers available, producers will gain a better understanding of how to actually apply genetic prediction to their management decisions.
Weaber admits learning to interpret genetic information to predict the traits of future progeny is a challenge all in its own. He likens the process of genetic prediction to starting a vehicle.
"You know when you turn the key, the engine starts, but not necessarily how it starts," he says. He says cattle producers know EPDs work and can be used to genetically improve cattle, but don't always know how to use this knowledge to better their operations.
Despite these obstacles, Johnson describes genetic prediction as a tool capable of helping make the beef industry more efficient and assisting producers in putting better products on the table. As cattle producers across begin to use genetic prediction on a more frequent basis, Johnson says the industry will be better able to satisfy the wants and needs of both customers and consumers.