Time to Implement Single Trait Selection

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Time to Implement Single Trait Selection

Sometimes the obvious hides in plain sight. And it is obvious that our beloved bovine is often at the core of plain truths.  |   

By Chip Kemp     

Meat, of which we are confident beef is the most appealing version, has clearly impacted the development of the human brain, physical well-being, psychological health, and the economic stability of various societies. You don’t need to take my word for these things. Do your own homework. I’d encourage you to explore voices who operate in other arenas and may not be fully in philosophical alignment with us on every issue. But we can find commonality on this topic. Explore the works of anthropologist Dr. Leslie Aiello to consider the relationship between animal protein consumption and brain size and function. Or consider Dr. Drew Ramsey’s article “Do Happy, Healthy Brains Need Meat?”. Parts of this short essay will enrage you, but those can’t take away from the fact that he still states with certainty that people need to consume meat. Or check out the meat consumption vs. Gross Domestic Product chart at ourworldindata. org. All confirm what you and I know. Beef is overwhelmingly a positive for individuals and societies. 

Another example of the cow’s influence on modern society is in a word we hear all too often today — “vaccine”. The rise and fal of personalities, policies, parties, and people seem to hinge on this simple little word. Vaccine is derived from the Latin “vacca”or “vacci”. Meaning cow. Vaccination translates roughly to “pertaining to the cow”. All this derives from the work of Dr. Edward Jenner who, in the 18th century, used exposure to cowpox to provide immunity for smallpox.

Or maybe we should discuss the most plain of truths. You and I need the cow to be profitable. To generate more revenue than she costs to acquire, raise, and maintain. Again, this is obvious and in plain sight. But is it really?  

Efficient growth performance is crucial to a profitable beef complex. Cost-effective feedlot gain is a major decider of a terminal animal’s profitability.

I can recall, as an undergrad, having a certain professor drive home the reality that was quite evident in the beef business in the early 90s. Single trait selection was dangerous. He could back this up with facts, charts, and various glimpses of profit and loss within beef operations. He could drive this home with basic visual appraisal as we studied the physical implications of solely focusing on a leaner, larger animal. Or he could take us to a feedlot and listen to the “colorful” commentary by yard leadership and their local cattle buyer. This professor, you’ve probably heard of him — Dr. Jerry Lipsey, essentially had the full arsenal of tools to highlight to his students why this model of animal agriculture simply couldn’t sustain itself. The long and short of it – it was not profitable.

You probably even remember ads from the day. I bet a printed pachyderm still resides in the memory bank of some. And yet . . .

We all know the story. Carcass weights have increased aggressively for many years. Packers have incentivized this progression as they continue to move the heavy weight and yield grade discounts to allow for this trend to garner higher and higher grading percentages. Neither good nor bad. Just an observation of what is.

As the genetics have been developed to allow for this shift, one would then assume with confidence we’ve also seen a significant uptick in weaning weights. But, ironically, that hasn’t come to pass. Dr. Dave Lalman’s work at Oklahoma State University has shown this time and again. We’ve seen essentially no measurable increase in industry-wide average weaning weights over the last three decades. Many have speculated this is a result of management and nutritional factors limiting on-ranch genetic expression.

Many believe that weaning weight and yearling weight EPDs are amongst the most important selection criteria for a bull buyer and hence, amongst the most important factors when identifying sale-day value of a bull. For those commercial customers retaining ownership on their terminal calves, this would make perfect sense. If you sell at weaning, is it as clear-cut? You need to generate a calf that has market appeal to the next owner. But cow size. But feed costs.

Some might make this same line of argument regarding the modern-day emphasis on marbling. Though it should be said, it doesn’t appear that the antagonisms (or negative impacts) associated with heavy selection pressure for marbling are very dramatic. Maybe not even negative at all. Certainly not as obvious as the antagonisms associated with heavy pressure for growth traits.

Regardless, many would state growth and marbling EPDs have been the most heavily selected for in recent years. And this clearly seems to be the case. So, have we devolved or reverted back to the 90s? Are we single trait selecting again? In some cases, likely so. As a commercial bull buyer what to do? Clearly, you need growth. And marbling. And cow longevity. And lower feed costs.

The answer lies in plain sight. You need a tool that can appropriately balance the various revenue streams and expense centers within your business. If such a tool existed, it would allow you to appropriately allocate your selection pressure for terminal merit AND cow longevity. It would allow you to avoid sacrificing all growth, as some would suggest, to get the ultimately low input cow (and the resulting calf that offers very little to the industry at large). Again, such a tool would be less about maximizing one trait while hemorrhaging cash to cover up the deficiencies in another. And believe it or not, this tool would actually single trait select for the only metric worthy of single trait selection – PROFIT.

These tools do exist. And fortunately, they are readily available. You know them as INDEXES. And they appear all the rage. And as a result, can be confusing if one isn’t careful. Every week it appears a new index gets crafted to appease another segment of the industry. It seems the more indexes there are the more folks can find a way to rationalize what they are already doing and avoid considering the tough questions that might require change. I like simple. The older I get the more I realize the importance of simple, thoughtful, well-crafted tools. They do what they are meant to do. No glamour, fancy powerpoints, or falling glitter. No fast talk or wordy definitions. They just work.

As I see it, two tools address almost every approach in the business. You either 1) buy your replacement females or 2) make your replacements. If you do the first, then you are buying maternal merit and hence you can focus your breeding decisions to bring as much terminal merit to the table as possible. In this case, you need the Terminal Index ($TI) which focuses on the genetics that is profitable in the feedyard and on the chain, while still accounting for the appropriate on-farm economically relevant traits. If you are making your replacements, you have a more sensitive dance. With AI and sexed semen, this conversation can get a bit more complex. But, the long and the short of it is you need an all-around, all-purpose genetic package. The All Purpose Index ($API) provides a clearer path to pursuing profit.

One strategy that works for some is to use $API or $TI as an initial gate cut. Know how your potential bull targets fall in the index that best aligns with your management approach and operational style. Then, emphasize those particular EPD and physical traits that are of great importance at this time within your herd. Keep profit at the forefront of your decision process and it will help you find the plain and obvious truth — that maybe there is a place for single trait selection when appropriately applied. 




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