Would you like to get paid to use some of the most promising herd sire prospects in the industry? Consider becoming a Carcass Merit Program(CMP) Cooperator
As a Carcass Merit Program cooperator herd, ASA tests a number of young, unproven, high prospect sires through artificial insemination on the cattle within the cooperator’s herd. The purpose of this is to obtain data on the progeny of the sires in order to improve accuracy on the sires EPD’s and adjust the EPD’s according to how the progeny perform. This allows bull owners and genetic companies to identify the high prospect sires and high-quality genetics early on in the sire’s life. Also, by improving the accuracy of the EPD’s, the sires become more predictable and marketable.
Cow Herd DNA Roundup (CHR) is a research project with GeneSeek
Animal breeding is entering a new era. As demonstrated in the pig and dairy industries, gathering and incorporating vast amounts of genomic data into the genetic evaluation accelerates progress. Holsteins, for example, have genotyped 1.6 million cattle and subsequently doubled their genetic improvement rate.
Female genotypes are rare and valuable, especially to predict maternal traits such as stayability and maternal calving ease. Furthermore, genotyping entire herds improves genomic evaluations by reducing bias created when only the best cattle are genotyped. Therefore, gathering massive amounts of genotypes on entire cow herds will significantly improve the genomic predictions and rate of genetic progress.
In August, the ASA Board of Trustees voted to offer a $20 genomic profile (50K including parentage) to members who test their entire cow herd (a $30 savings). Wait, there’s more! Breeders who submit cow weights with either body conditions scores or hip heights receive an additional $5 off per test — an amazing price of $15/sample for something breeders currently pay $50 per test for. This offer is for a limited time only — samples must be submitted to ASA by December 15, 2018. Don’t wait until next December 2018 to join this movement, there is a capped budget for this project so breeders need to submit samples early to ensure these discounts.
International Genetic Solutions Feeder Profit Calculator (FPC)
Total Herd Enrollment (THE) is a cow inventory-based program.
The new genetic evaluation, Multi-breed Genetic Evaluation powered by BOLT, offers groundbreaking advances in the prediction of EPDs for the IGS group. Here are some frequently asked questions and answers to help you better understand Multi-breed Single-step.
1. What are the key features of the Multi-breed Genetic Evaluation powered by BOLT?
• Faster and more automated system allowing for frequent genetic evaluations.
• Improved use of genomic data.
• Improved methodology for predictions of all traits.
• More accurate accuracy.
• More flexibility to add additional traits or change methods for future improvements.
2. How is ASA’s single-step approach different from blending for genomic evaluation?
The blending approach uses separate steps to calculate genomically enhanced EPDs. This approach requires two steps. The first step is to estimate the effects of DNA markers through a process called “training” or “calibration”. These effects are then used to calculate molecular breeding values (MBVs) on genotyped animals. The MBVs are then combined with traditionally calculated EPDs to enhance the accuracy of the traditionally calculated EPDs. The blending process is only performed on genotyped animals.
Befitting its name, the single-step approach calculates genomically enhanced EPDs in one step — using DNA, pedigree information, and phenotypes simultaneously. As a result, the DNA information not only improves the accuracy of prediction on genotyped animals, but also on the relatives and contemporaries of the genotyped animals. In a sense, all animals are genomically enhanced under the single-step approach.
There are also issues inherent in the blending process that are solved with single-step. Similar to the fact that only reporting phenotypes on a selected group of animals in your herd can lead to less informative (and more biased) EPDs with traditional evaluation, problems can exist with blending as it only involves genotyped animals — and genotyped animals tend to be highly selected. However, because single-step includes information from non-genotyped as well as genotyped animals, the issues are corrected.
3. How is the Multi-breed Genetic Evaluation powered by BOLT different than other single-step models used in other genetic evaluations?
It is well established that DNA markers vary greatly in their effect on traits — ranging from a large to no impact. To leverage this biological fact in a statistically advantageous manner, the BOLT single-step method only utilizes markers that have a meaningful impact on the traits of interest, while ignoring those that have little to no effect. By using this approach, BOLT reduces the statistical “noise” and thereby increases the accuracy of prediction. By circumventing the “noise,” BOLT-generated EPDs tend to be more accurate than EPDs generated by organizations that are relegated to using all markers in their single-step evaluation.
4. How many DNA markers are being used?
The Multi-breed Genetic Evaluation powered by BOLT uses a subset of weighted markers based on a research study performed by Drs. Mahdi Saatchi and Dorian Garrick, while they were scientists at Iowa State University. Drs. Saatchi and Garrick first used the 50,000 markers to determine a subset of weighted markers that are highly associated with economically relevant traits in beef cattle with consistent effects across breeds. Because the IGS evaluation is for multiple breeds, it is important to remove markers with inconsistent effects or no effects in different breeds.
The Saatchi and Garrick research also found that utilizing genotypes on animals of multiple breeds consistently increased the accuracy of prediction within a particular breed when compared to limiting DNA utilization to only animals of a particular breed.
5. Why are some traits influenced by markers and others are not?
The genetic architectures of various traits are different. Some are controlled by few genes with large effects and some are controlled by many small effects genes. In the current DNA profilers, there are some markers with high correlations with corresponding genes for some traits and low correlations with others. That’s why we see the different DNA added values for different traits. It is hard to change the genetic architecture of a trait. But, new DNA profilers or future technologies may help to improve the value of DNA information for such traits. Furthermore, some maternal traits, like Maternal Calving Ease and Milk, are difficult to predict with genomics because there are so few females genotyped. Increasing the number of cows and heifers genotyped will improve the ability to use genomics to predict maternal traits.
6. Will genomic testing replace the need to submit phenotype records?
No, reporting actual records is critical. The value of genomic predictions increases as the amount of phenotypic information increases. Furthermore, at this point, animals cannot achieve high accuracy with genomic data alone. High accuracy EPDs are only achievable by collecting many phenotypic records on offspring.
7. How do we know predictions via BOLT are better than the previous system (Cornell software)?
The IGS evaluation team has conducted a series of validations to compare the BOLT system to the Cornell system. BOLT-derived EPDs had higher correlations to birth, weaning and yearling weights (0.34, 0.29, and 0.26, respectively) than the Cornell derived EPDs (0.27, 0.19, and 0.20, respectively). Furthermore, there was a larger difference in average progeny performance (birth, weaning, and yearling) of the top 1% compared to the bottom 1% animals in the BOLT derived EPDs compared to the Cornell calculated EPDs. Both validations suggest the BOLT EPDs align better with the actual phenotypes than the Cornell EPDs.
8. Why do some animals have substantial changes in their indexes?
Though the correlations between the previous (Cornell derived) EPDs/indexes and the BOLT derived EPDs/indexes are relatively strong, there will be some animals that happen to move in a consistently favorable or unfavorable direction in a number of EPDs. Because indexes are comprised of several EPDs, even though movement in individual EPDs may be considered small, movement in the same direction across EPDs may yield sizable movements in the index value. This is particularly true for animals that have consistent movement in traits that are drivers of a particular index. Though in a large population like ours we would expect to see several animals with substantial index movement, these animals will be the exception to the rule.
9. How does BOLT improve our calculation of accuracy?
“True” accuracy can be thought of as the gold standard of accuracy. It is statistically unbiased, and therefore the ultimate measure of accuracy. True accuracy is the accuracy resulting from direct calculation. Unfortunately, even with the massively powerful computing capacity now in existence, the direct calculation of accuracy is not possible on datasets the size of ours. Because we cannot calculate accuracy directly, other approaches to accuracy calculation have been developed.
In our Cornell evaluation platform and all others in existence other than BOLT, the calculation of the accuracy associated with each EPD is achieved through “approximation” methods. It has long been known these methods are a very crude approach to the calculation of accuracy — tending to overestimate accuracy.
Another approach to the calculation of accuracy is via “sampling” methodology. Sampling is shown to be a more accurate predictor of accuracy. In fact, the results of this method were reported to be virtually identical to true accuracy. Unfortunately, due to its computationally intense nature, sampling has long been thought an infeasible approach to the calculation of accuracy on large databases.
BOLT, however, has changed the landscape in this area. By employing unique computing strategies that leverage both software and hardware efficiencies, BOLT performs what was previously unthinkable — utilizing a sampling methodology to calculate what is essentially true accuracy.
Because BOLT can calculate true accuracy, we can put more confidence in our accuracy metrics. Put another way, unlike with approximation, we can count on the predicted movements associated with possible change holding true over time. This was not the case with our Cornell system nor any other system in existence.
10. Why do the carcass EPDs generally have an increase in accuracy with BOLT while this is not a case for other traits?
You will notice that while the Multi-breed Genetic Evaluation powered by BOLT will generally produce lower accuracies than the Cornell system for growth and calving ease traits, the opposite is true for carcass traits.
One reason behind the differing accuracy outcomes is several years ago ASA staff developed a way to temper inflated accuracies in the Cornell carcass evaluation. Unfortunately, this was not possible for growth traits.
Another reason is that the Cornell system only used the carcass and its corresponding ultrasound trait (e.g., marbling score and IMF) to predict carcass EPDs, while records on several additional correlated traits are leveraged with the BOLT system.
A new feature of the BOLT evaluation is a new approach to the calculation of Carcass Weight EPDs. Due to limitations, our previous Carcass Weight EPDs did not incorporate actual carcass weights. They were predicted through an index of birth, weaning, and yearling weights. Besides using prior growth records (weaning, post weaning), the new approach also includes actual carcass weights. This feature will undoubtedly lead to a more accurate prediction of carcass weight.
11. What can I do to improve the predictions on my herd?
Whole Herd Reporting — If you haven’t already, you should consider enrolling your entire herd with a breed association total herd reporting program as it offers the most complete picture of the genetics involved in your herd.
Proper contemporary groups — It is important for the genetic evaluation that you group, to the best of your ability, animals that were treated uniformly. Proper reporting of contemporary groups ensures better predictions for all.
Take data collection and reporting seriously — Phenotypes are the fuel that drives the genetic evaluation. Take pride in collecting accurate data. If possible, try to collect additional phenotypes like mature cow weight, cow body condition score, feed intake, and carcass data.
Use genomics — DNA testing adds more information to what we know about an animal. The more genotypes we collect, the better we can predict DNA-tested animals in the future. Also, the more relatives genotyped, the better we can predict their relatives in future generations. Therefore, to ensure your bloodlines are well represented in the predictions, genotype your animals.
Visit www.internationalgeneticsolutions.com for more information.
Multi-breed Evaluation Powered by BOLT
Feeder Profit Calculator
Article: Pathway to Profit, Chip Kemp
Total Herd Enrollment
Cow Herd DNA Roundup
Promo Video: In this time of rapid technological advancement, animal breeding is entering a new era. As demonstrated in the pig and dairy industries, gathering and incorporating vast amounts of genomic data into the genetic evaluation accelerates progress.
Video: Turning in the Sample
International Genetics Solutions
Video: Wade Shafer
Video: Understanding the Genetic Model EPDs in Cowboy Language - Wade Shafer, Ph.D.
Video: Cattlemen's Webinar: Fake News- EPDs Don’t Work - Matt Spangler, Ph.D. and Alison Van Eenennaam, Ph.D.
Video: Cattlemen's Webinar: Understanding Advancements in Beef Cattle Selection Tools - Craig Uden
Video: Cattlemen's Webinar: Utilization of Heterosis in the Beef Value Chain - Bob Weaber, Ph.D.
BROWN BAGGER SERIES
Video: NBCEC hosts "Brown Baggers" covering a variety of beef genetics topics for Extension and collegiate educators, breed associations and industry representatives. View the collection of slide sets here, and feel free to use them at your next producer meeting.
Seedstock and commercial producers share their firsthand experience with ASA’s new and innovative feeder calf value prediction.
By Emme Troendle and Lilly Platts
Historically, the primary limitation of valuing feeder calves has been accurately gauging the profit potential of the largest genetic group within the industry — the crossbred calf. International Genetic Solutions (IGS), a collaborative effort of numerous breed associations, has developed a tool to assist in determining feeder calf value, called the Feeder Profit CalculatorTM (FPC).
“The FPC offers an objective way of describing the genetic merit on a set of calves,” comments John Irvine of Irvine Ranch, owner and manager of a 225-head operation of registered Simmental located outside of Manhattan, Kansas. “To date, there has not been a more accurate way to quantify calf value. Many producers try to do the right things in terms of management such as weaning, and using sound vaccination practices, to prepare calves for the challenges they will face in the feedlot. The FPC offers a common language to bridge communication between those selling and purchasing feeder cattle.”
The FPC incorporates genetic knowledge of mainstream sires, regardless of breed, preconditioning and vaccination information, and weaning management and responsible health programs to evaluate the value on a set of calves. “As this tool gains traction and becomes commonplace for cattle buyers to use, producers will be better rewarded for their efforts, in respect to their investments in better genetics as well as improved efforts in preconditioning calves to offer a better product for the next link in the industry chain,” says Mike Forman, owner and operator of Trinity Farms, a 700-head ranch of registered SimAngusTM cows in Ellensburg, WA.
The finished product is a certificate that highlights the genetic and management predictions on calves along with certain carcass and growth traits. All producer-provided information is highlighted on the official certificate, and an additional page is included, indicating all the genetic information provided. “Our hope is that with a certificate in hand, our customers who are already making investments in quality genetics, making further commitments to provide better health and management of their calves, will be rewarded,” Forman continues.
As seedstock producers, Irvine and Forman share their insight on the FPC:
Q: Why is having this information valuable to those supplying feeder calves?
Forman: FPC is a well-designed third-party validation that helps to provide structured reasoning to establish value relative to the average feeder calf price dependent upon the producer inputs in regard to the genetic selection, health, and management. It helps to reinforce what our position has been for years – producers have three things to sell – genetics, health and the management the cattle are under.
Irvine: The FPC provides a great metric to gauge value for producers that have routinely invested in quality genetics as well as practice good management. Additionally, by scoring their calves, FPC provides the cow-calf producer a benchmark to make measurable progress moving forward, whether it be on the management or genetics side.
Q: What would you say to someone hesitant about using the Feeder Profit Calculator?
Forman: What do you have to lose? It is currently provided at no cost to the producer. I guess if the results happen to not be favorable, they can choose not to share them with their prospective buyers, but most importantly, this is a chance to find out specifically how your calves should be valued in relation to the average.
Information is power and what gets measured can get done – so even if you are not receiving the premium that you think you should, we feel this can be an extremely informative tool to the producer to be sure that they are adding as much value as possible to their calves for the next owner in the process. Buyers are directed to get the cattle that have worked for the lot and/or processor – even if you are not seeing a direct premium today, avoiding reverse discrimination by not knowing if your calves are average or below, will pay dividends in the future as the new generation of buyers look for tools such as this to help them procure the more profitable cattle.
Irvine: In talking with many producers about FPC, everyone I have encountered is excited about the FPC. There are clear, tangible benefits to both those selling and buying calves. Considering the FPC is a free service provided by IGS, this tool provides a great opportunity for both cow-calf producers and feeders.
Q: How can you, as a seedstock provider, use the FPC as a customer service tool?
Forman: Last October, we offered a “Cattlemen's Gathering.” Speakers from all across the country led an active discussion on the most pertinent issues facing the commercial cattle industry today. Focused on the value of genetic selection, the latest advancements in herd health and pre-conditioning protocols, the use and benefits of low-stress livestock handling, financial planning through the use of Cowman Benchmarking Metrics, and the introduction of the IGS Feeder Profit Calculator.
We have seen this to be an educational opportunity for producers to show them the value of adding health and management component since many calves are weaned on a truck.
Irvine: As a seedstock provider what is it we are really selling? First and foremost, a seedstock provider’s customers buy bulls with the expectation that they are investing in the genetic progress of their herd. The FPC offers a way for these producers to document the genetic value of the calves they produce, and to hopefully realize a greater return on their investment in genetics. By helping customers get the calves scored, and promoting the FPC certificates to potential buyers, seedstock producers are endeavoring to enhance their customer’s success and profitability.
Commercial producers, who have used FPC, offered these remarks:
Kent Anderson, A3 Land & Cattle LLC
A3 Land & Cattle, LLC and Plus Bar Inc., is a partnership operation located in the northern edge of the Platte Valley of Central Nebraska. They run 700 cows, 300 are SimAngus seedstock and the remainder are predominantly commercial Angus. The ranch raises seedstock for bull and bred heifer customers, as well as fed cattle (and carcasses) through retained ownership. Darr Feedlot Inc. has partnered since 1990 to custom feed their cattle, with individual animal carcass data collected and submitted to ASA.
“I have long thought that authenticated genetic and health information should be more readily available to help inform feeder cattle price discovery. We were anxious to put the Feeder Profit Calculator to the test by comparing the predicted-to-expressed performance of our retained ownership cattle. If performance and health risks associated with feeder cattle purchase price or decisions to retain ownership can be better mitigated through the Calculator, it’s a win-win for bull customers as well as feeder and fed cattle buyers.
“We experienced a very nice alignment between the predicted and actual feedlot and carcass performance, providing first-hand confidence that the FPC effectively predicts pen-based performance. The Calculator also serves as an informative benchmarking tool to help cow-calf producers understand connections between bull purchase decisions and resulting relative impact across predicted feedlot and carcass traits. In cases where evaluated post-weaning genetic merit may have been neglected, the Calculator also helps inform areas of needed emphasis for future bull buying decisions.”
“The value to commercial bull customers is that the Calculator can be used to help them become better price-makers, as opposed to historically being price-takers at the mercy of the market. It also enables bull customers to more effectively get paid for the investment they’ve made in superior genetics for post-weaning / carcass performance, without necessarily having to assume the risk of retained ownership.”
“Beyond genetics, the Calculator indirectly underscores the economic importance of continuously consulting with your veterinarian to execute the most bullet-proof overall health program possible for the cow and replacement heifer inventory, as well as feeder cattle mates. It’s free and results are confidential — all that’s needed are registration numbers for your current and historic bull battery. As the Spring bull sale season unfolds, ask your seedstock supplier to transfer ownership of bulls to help make it easy to use the Calculator.”
Dennis Ankeny, Ankeny Ranch, Arlington, Washington
Ankeny Ranch, located in western Washington, is a 38-head commercial operation that has been in business since the 1980s. In 2009, Dennis Ankney, owner and manager purchased his first SimAngus bull.
“My objective with cattle, like any other business, is to meet or exceed my customers' needs by producing the best quality product genetically as well as proper preconditioning.
“I attended the Cattlemen's Gathering at Trinity Farms in hope of getting an answer to a key question: How can you quantify genetic value -- I can provide preconditioning data and treatment history, as well as specific feeder calf information. But how can genetic value be quantified so potential buyers can understand how they would benefit when purchasing my calves?
“My question was answered by Chip Kemp, Director of Commercial and Industry Relations for the ASA. The answer is the IGS Feeder Profit Calculator. Over the years I can see what adding great genetics has done for my calves, but I would get a sinking feeling at sale time when my calves sell for the same price or less than the average calf.
“Now, Cattle producers can get a certificate for their calves that quantifies genetics, giving them a distinct advantage over the average calf at sale time. From my perspective, the FPC is the missing tool that gives feedlot owners a better understanding of how genetically superior calves perform in the feedlot, while giving the cattle rancher a feeling of reassurance that feedlot owners have a greater understanding and appreciation of genetics, contributing to the bottom line of both the buyer and seller.”
Enos Grauerholz, Beloit, Kansas
Enos Grauerholz and his sons run a 500-head commercial Simmental operation in north-central Kansas. “John Irvine introduced me to the Feeder Profit Calculator, and their Simmental composite bulls have proven themselves by delivering moderate birth weight and fast growth.
“The Calculator was easy to use and drew positive attention at our last auction. We sold calves after weaning at Farmers and Ranchers Livestock Commission Co, in Salina. The auction displayed our IGS FPC certificate on the video screens during the auction. When the certificate was displayed, it seemed very quiet. This was the first time many people had seen this. The bidding was rapid and at least 8 to 11 dollars/cwt premium--I was pleasantly surprised.
“I know we add value through improved genetics and backgrounding. The calculator is a simple tool to quantify and promote genetic awareness and our management. The Feeder Profit Calculator gives us another leg of credibility and helps prove our investment in genetics.”
Austin Olma, Olma Cattle Company, Tonasket, WA
Olma Cattle Company is a 1,200-head commercial Simmental ranch located in north-central Washington, 20 miles from the Canadian border. The operation weans and backgrounds calves between 700 and 900 pounds, and is focused on retaining moderate framed females that can handle the northern climate and terrain.
“I became familiar with the FPC this last fall. Curiosity was my main driver for using the FPC. I always wanted to know how our cattle stack up, and I wanted to know what our cattle are lacking so I can improve our herd.
“We don’t have the ability to utilize AI, so being able to see how my calves score by calculating all my bulls EPDs, helped me shift the direction of my bull selection.
“The FPC provided more information and confirmed our suspicions. We have really focused on growth, selecting bulls that rank in the top 25% for YW and WW. We didn’t pay a lot of attention to carcass EPDs, with the mindset of we don’t finish our own calves, and there hadn’t been any incentives from our buyers to really focus on carcass traits. We need cattle to perform for us in pounds gained.
“FPC gave me an idea of where my cattle stand as feeders compared to others across the nation. This year when buying bulls I am focusing a little more on carcass EPDs to help improve our future calf crops. FPC takes only a little time. It doesn’t cost you anything -- it is great information that you can use. I’ll keep trying different bull groups I own, also run bulls that I am considering buying to see how they will impact my herd.
“I really enjoy seeing the American Simmental Association putting time and money into creating a tool for commercial ranchers. Technology is only going to become a bigger part of what we do. It’s great to have an association working to help us create the best products for our consumers.”
There are some great new programs coming out of the American Simmental Association. The Cap'n visits with the Membership and Industry Operations Director to find out all the details. And how well can YOU do on our next cattle quiz? Tune in to find out all the answers, the latest news and everything in between.
True, commercial cow/calf operators are beneficiaries of this progress when they make savvy bull decisions. But still, that commercial rancher is left without a meaningful metric to make selection decisions on replacement females. At the ground level, producers are using much the same approach that has been used for generations to populate and grow their cow herd. We are surrounded by major technological advancements, from our phone to our tractor, and yet heifer selection is often left to the strengths and weaknesses of the eyeball test.
Multiple organizations have stepped in to try and offset this commercial disadvantage. Firms have developed various DNA tests that give an added glimpse to the genetic prowess of females. This has been a huge step forward, however, this glimpse can be a bit too superficial and vague and what is more leaves out two major components of genetic awareness – pedigree knowledge and individual performance.
By Wade Shafer, Ph.D., ASA Executive Vice President |
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in March 2008 issue of the SimTalk
written by Wade Shafer, Ph.D. Drs. Lauren Hyde and Jackie Atkins provided updates for reprint. |
A beef cow’s job is not an easy one. She is expected to conceive at slightly over one year of age, to calve by the time she is two, and rebreed shortly after that while weaning a healthy, viable calf. Furthermore, we demand that she consistently repeats this cycle for the rest of her life — one stumble and, hasta la vista, baby!
To be sure, producers are best served when the cow successfully performs her task for many years, as the longer her productive life, the more profitable she is to the enterprise. Is there anything that can be done to help her out? Certainly, there are environmental factors we can manage that will give her a leg up. For example, by providing adequate nutrition and a proper vaccination regimen and mating her to easy-calving sires (particularly when she is young), we increase the odds of her success. While a cow’s environment has a substantial impact on her reproductive performance, her genetic makeup can too. This article explores the genetics of female reproduction and offers suggestions on how to improve the reproductive performance of your cow herd via genetics.
The obvious place to start a discussion about the genetics of female reproduction is the factor that far and away has the greatest affect on it — crossbreeding. It has long been recognized that crossbreeding enhances virtually all aspects of reproductive performance. Studies too numerous to list here have established the reproductive superiority of crossbred over straightbred cows.
In one of an abundance of studies with similar findings, scientists at the Meat Animal Research Center (MARC) concluded that two-breed rotational cross cows produced 20% more calves over their lifetime than straightbreds due to the favorable impact of heterosis on dam fertility/longevity and calf survivability brought about by the improved calving and mothering ability of the dam (Cundiff et al., 1992). Furthermore, they estimated that when mated to a bull of another breed, the two-breed cross cows would wean 36% more weight over their lifespan than straightbred cows raising straightbred calves. The dramatic increase is attributable to the positive influence of heterosis on reproduction and production in the dam and well as increased growth and survivability in their calves.
Given the overwhelming evidence of the crossbred cow’s reproductive supremacy and the fact that reproduction is a major piece of the profitability puzzle (by most accounts exceeding all other functions by a wide margin of relative importance), it is difficult to conceive of a situation where a commercial enterprise would not benefit financially from a crossbred cow herd.
Are we implying that selecting animals within a breed for reproductive performance is not a worthwhile endeavor? No! Reproductive progress can be made via selection (which we will address later); however, it would take years of intense selection within a breed to yield the kind of improvement that can be achieved in one fell swoop by simply crossbreeding.
Therefore, crossbreeding makes a logical cornerstone in any effort to enhance cow herd reproductive performance. With crossbreeding as the foundation, the selection of superior animals of multiple breeds as inputs to the crossbreeding system can be considered a supplemental means of further boosting reproductive function; however, identifying reproductively superior animals has its challenges, as we will explain.
Because the assessment of a cow’s reproductive performance is generally determined later in her life, it seems logical to look for early indicators to hasten the process. For example, it is a commonly held belief that females with a propensity toward fatness will excel reproductively.
Though research has shown that increased fatness, to a point, is strongly and favorably associated with reproductive performance on a phenotypic scale, the few attempts to assess the relationship on a genetic level shows an unfavorable, though weak, relationship. Using data from the Red Angus Association of America (RAAA), researchers at Colorado State University (CSU; Beckman et al., 2006) derived genetic correlations ranging from -.12 to -.22 between body condition at various ages and Stayability (by industry convention, the probability of a cow remaining in the herd through 6 years of age). At the American Simmental Association (ASA), we have found a correlation of -.19 between an animal’s genetic propensity for backfat in the feedlot and their inherent Stayability. We (ASA) have also calculated a -.11 genetic correlation between backfat and heifer pregnancy (the likelihood of a heifer being pregnant at the end of the breeding season) using RAAA data.
Admittedly, these unfavorable correlations between fatness and reproduction may seem illogical. We have all seen a higher proportion of thin cows open at pregnancy test time. Keep in mind, however, that the aforementioned correlations are genetic correlations. The relationships we actually observe, i.e., phenotypic correlations, are influenced by a combination of underlying environmental and genetic relationships. There is little question that females within a herd lucky enough to experience an environment for increased body condition (e.g., extra energy intake) are likely to have better reproductive performance than their herd mates. Furthermore, this strong and positive environmental relationship between fat and reproduction apparently overwhelms what appears to be a slightly negative genetic relationship — yielding the strong, favorable phenotypic relationship we typically observe.
Frankly, there is not enough evidence about the genetic relationship between fatness and reproductive function to make recommendations based on it at this time; however, though it may fly in the face of conventional wisdom, it appears that selecting “easy-fleshing” genotypes will not gain us ground reproductively.
Scrotal circumference has been considered as a predictor of female reproductive performance. Though the preponderance of evidence indicates a strong to a moderately favorable relationship between scrotal circumference and age at puberty in related females, research is less clear on the relationship between scrotal circumference and subsequent measures of reproduction. In a study based on a large population involving several breeds at the MARC, Martinez-Velazquez et al. (2003) found a slightly unfavorable (.15) relationship between scrotal circumference and age at first calving and no relationship between scrotal circumference and first pregnancy, first calving, and first weaning rates. Their conclusion was that selection on scrotal circumference would not be effective in improving female reproduction. These findings are in agreement with some studies and contradicted by others. For those interested, Martinez-Velazquez et al. (2003) provides an excellent literature review on the subject. Given the conflicting evidence, it may not be advisable to base selection decisions on scrotal circumference with the intent of enhancing maternal reproduction.
As for other traits that may be related to reproductive function, Rogers et al. (2004) found that increased levels of milk EPD increased the risk of females being culled. This finding is consistent with ASA data showing an unfavorable (-.15) genetic correlation between milk and Stayability. Other ASA genetic correlations of note are -.26, .40, and -.19 between Stayability and mature weight, maternal calving ease and marbling, respectively. Based on these findings, we would expect females that are inherently lower milking, smaller at maturity, easier calving, and less marbled to stay in the herd longer; however, none of these relationships is strong enough to make a sizable impact on Stayability by selecting for them. Furthermore, other than mature weight, because of its strong relationship to early growth, determining the genetic level of a young heifer for these traits by simply observing them (which is what most commercial producers are limited to) is not possible. Therefore, a different tactic will be required if we wish to improve reproductive performance via selection. Namely, select for it directly — which, as we will point out, is not a trivial task.
A well-entrenched view of both commercial and seedstock producers is that the “cows left standing” after culling on the components of reproduction (e.g., pregnancy status and calf loss) are genetically superior. By extension, it is presumed that a great deal of progress in reproduction is made through rigorous culling and the retention of heifers out of dams making it to advanced ages. Though this may seem like a reasonable eduction, it is generally not the case.
Unfortunately, little genetic headway is made by simply culling cows that do not achieve reproductive thresholds. This may seem counterintuitive. Why wouldn’t getting rid of the offenders improve your genetics for reproduction? The main reason lies in the fact that measures of reproduction tend to be lowly heritable (estimates typically run between 5-20%). And, with lowly heritable traits, an animal’s own performance is not a good indicator of its genetic level for the trait. Therefore, many open culls may be genetically above average or even superior for reproduction. By the same token, several cows kept because they are bred may be genetically inferior for it — certainly not an outcome that will yield much improvement.
So, how do we directly select for reproduction? Because a cow’s reproductive performance is expressed later in life, and even then it only provides a very cloudy picture of her genetic merit, are we relegated to making little to no selection progress for reproduction? Heck, no! We can clear the clouds with reproductive EPDs.
Though EPDs always provide the best estimate of an animal’s genetic merit, they are especially valuable when applied to low-heritability traits. This is because, when an animal’s own record is a poor indicator of its genetic makeup, gathering information
on its relatives is the only means we currently have of getting a clear picture of the animal.
You may ask yourself, “If an animal’s own performance does not tell us much, what can be gained by records on its relatives?” It is not that a single relative record brings much to the mix (obviously it adds even less than the animal’s own record); it is that there is strength in numbers — an animal can have many relatives with records, but only one record on itself. Through the use of EPDs, we utilize information on all of an animal’s relatives and, in doing so, chip away at the cloud with each record that flows in.
With a low-heritability trait expressed later in life, like reproductive function, the cloud clears slowly — but it will clear. In fact, if an animal has enough progeny records, we can see its genetic merit for reproduction as clear as a bell.
Fortunately, the seedstock industry now has EPDs that are, for the most part, direct measures of reproductive function: Stayability (STAY) and heifer pregnancy (HP). Researchers at CSU developed STAY (Snelling et al., 1995) and HP (Doyle et al., 2000) EPDs, and the RAAA implemented them into the association’s national cattle evaluation a few years later. Since its development, STAY has undergone several revisions. Most recently, the ASA released the industry’s first multi-breed STAY evaluation, which incorporated genomic data in a single-step random regression model.
Though STAY and HP have potential shortcomings (e.g., seedstock breeders’ culling practices are probably not in step with the commercial industry’s, and breed association culling records tend to be sketchy), they are the most effective selection tools available for improving reproductive function. What’s more, based on computer simulation efforts by retired USDA scientist M.D. MacNeil, the economic impact of Stayability when selecting a sire for female replacement is nearly twice that of the next closest trait, while the relative importance of heifer pregnancy is on par with the most important carcass or growth traits (personal communication) — so these reproductive EPDs certainly warrant a great deal of attention in the selection process.
Most commercial producers do not have the luxury of using STAY or HP EPDs to select replacement females; however, if you select sires with superior EPDs in these areas, the reproductive function of your cow herd is likely to improve over time. Given their relationship to Stayability, you may also gain some reproductive ground by selecting sires with lower milk, smaller mature size and better maternal calving ease EPDs. Another option to consider for commercial producers is the commercial option of the American Simmental’s Total Herd Enrollment. The commercial option predicts EPDs on commercial females and coupled with the Cow Herd DNA Roundup provides genomically enhanced EPDs to commercial females.
In closing, we must reiterate that crossbreeding needs to be at the center of any effort to improve the reproductive function of your cow herd. The dramatic impact of heterosis on reproductive performance is crystal clear — no herd should be without it! Though reproductive improvement through selection is possible, it is generally limited to utilizing reproductive EPDs when selecting your herd sires. By combining crossbreeding with the selection of superior sires you will position your enterprise to excel in the most vital area of beef cattle production — cow herd reproduction.
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