Use Information Extracted from Data to Breed a Better Calf Crop and Cow Herd
Here is a fun conversation starter on your next visit to the coffee shop or diner. What is the most important trait in cattle production? What trait do you think is most important? Another way to ask this question, how do you define a "good" cow?
In a typical group of cattle producers, you will get a lot of different answers. One person will say weaning weight and another will say marbling. A third may say calving ease, "Gotta have a live calf." A fourth may say fertility. But, why are these different traits important? Because they affect the profitability of beef operations! Profit is the most important trait in beef production. The profitability of a bull's or cow's calves should be our number one criterion when selecting breeding stock.
How many beef producers go to a bull sale to buy a load of soil or a bag of feed? In other words, do we go to a bull sale to buy the environment? No, of course not. We go to a bull sale to buy genetics for the next generation, for the next calf crop. But, when we make decisions based on the phenotype of the bull (his actual birth weight, his weaning weight or ratio, his ultrasound scan data, etc.) we are trying to buy environment and pass that on to the next generation. This doesn’t work well! When we are trying to buy genetics (DNA passed on to the next generation through sperm or egg), we should make our decision using genetic tools. Stop looking at actual performance, and focus on the EPDs and indexes. The performance data is included in the EPD. The EPD takes the performance data and extracts the genetic information. The genetic merit (EPD) is what is going to be passed on to the next generation. The bull’s genetics should be the most important factor when selecting a herd bull or AI sire.
Is there an EPD for profit? In other words, is there a genetic prediction of Profit? The answer is yes. Profit is predicted by economic selection indexes, which are combinations of EPDs. Selection indexes are proven to increase a calf crop's profitability.
For commercial producers, they should be minimizing their risk of making an unlucky decision. EPD Accuracy is a measure of that risk. If a bull has parent average EPDs (indicated by an I, P, or 0.05 depending on the breed) there is a large risk of his predicted genetic merit not matching his true genetic merit. If a bull has genomic-enhanced EPDs (the bull has been DNA tested through the breed association), the risk of making an unlucky decision is greatly reduced. The DNA data provides equivalent data as 10 to 20 calves for all of the predicted traits. The genomic-enhanced EPD increases the accuracy of selection, increasing the rate at which the herd is improved. However, a poor bull with high accuracy is not more valuable than a great bull with low accuracy. Higher accuracy is not the goal, genetic improvement through more profitable cattle is.
Commercial producers should find a seedstock producer who is data-driven. Are they reporting data to their breed association? Which traits are they reporting? Is the data complete or are they only reporting a portion of their calf crop? Is the seedstock producer providing extra customer service by selling bulls with genomic-enhanced EPDs?
Once a reputable seedstock producer is identified, the commercial producer should know if they are looking for a terminal bull (100% of his calves are headed to market) or a general-purpose bull (heifers will be retained, along with calves going to market). If a terminal bull is needed, use a terminal index ($Beef, CHB, TI, GridMaster, etc.) to rank the bulls. If replacements are kept, use a general-purpose index ($Composite, BMI, API, HerdBuilder, etc.) to select a bull.
The phenotype of a bull or cow is important only in as far as it makes or looses us money. Robert Everett, who was a professor of dairy genetics at Cornell University, said we need to find the cows who make us money and learn to like the way they look. Beef producers should always keep this concept in mind. Beef producers can select for cattle that look a certain way, but this should never come as a trade-off for selecting profitable cattle using genetic tools.
The phenotype of the bull or cow is important in terms of his individual performance. Cattle need to be structurally sound, so that they don’t break down quickly. An easy way to assess this is to watch the individual walk. Does he put his back foot in or near the print left by his front foot? If so, he is likely structurally sound. Regarding structural soundness, the American Angus Association has released two structure EPDs, Foot Angle and Claw Set. Lower values are favorable for both of these EPDs. Both traits are measured on a 1 to 9 score. Foot Angle assess the angle at the pastern joint, with 45 degrees being ideal. Claw Set assess the symmetry and spacing of the toes, and is used to avoid producing cattle with corkscrew claws. These EPDs will allow Angus breeders to make more rapid genetic progress for foot structure.
Finally, don’t forget the benefits of a planned crossbreeding program. The crossbreed calves will outperform the parentage average. Crossbreeding improves the health and fertility of calves and replacement females. But, crossbreeding needs to be practiced in a consistent manner (2 or 3 breeds used in a planned way) to create a consistent calf crop.
Selection indexes aren't perfect. Stayability and sustained cow fertility EPDs are a great first step in describing differences in cow fertility. However, we still need to better described differences in fertility and resilience to environmental stress. Luckily, scientists are actively working in these areas, including research on puberty and fertility, local adaptation, and hair shedding lead by my group.
A typical bull will sire 20 to 40 calves per year. A typical cow, has one calf per year. Because of this fact, bulls have a large influence on the genetics of a herd. It is important that we get bull buying decisions right more often than we get them wrong. Using information reaped from data (EPDs and Indexes from pedigree, DNA, performance and contemporary groups) is going to be more advantageous in the long run than any other method used to select cattle. Using Economic Indexes focused on profit to select your next bull (and where possible, replacement females) will help you improve your herd and reach your marketing goals.