Genetics Matter in Beef: Driving Profit through Genetics on the Ranch

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Source: Canadian Angus Association

It has been said that it is getting harder and harder to make money in the cattle business – expenses too often outweigh revenue resulting in limited profit potential. Whether you agree or not, consequently many ranchers are very cautious about making additional investments to their management systems. To many it feels as though mounting demands on how beef is being produced are becoming increasingly burdensome while at the same time technology advancements through innovation are occurring at an increasing pace with return on investment not always well-defined making implementation decisions at the ranch level challenging.

Though cattle production is steeped in tradition it has also seen remarkable advancements in production and management practices in recent decades. Some of these advancement benefits have been clear-cut and have been readily adopted with immediate and direct impacts on the bottom line, others have been questioned about their value and impact so have therefore been a point of debate. Progressions in genetic information and selection tools is one of the areas where many have been skeptical. As a result, considerable opportunities and profit potential are being left on the table.

As a beef cattle producer you are continually making genetic selection decisions in your breeding programs. Some may find these decisions challenging and difficult, some may find them quite easy but all know the significant implications that poor genetic selection decisions can have on their business. Some may use all the tools available and some may not. Some may feel confident in their decisions, some may not. For decades, there has been increasing amounts of genetic information made available to those trying to make breeding decisions – fertility, growth, feed efficiency, disposition, calving ease and carcass measures to name a few. Utilization and interpretation of this information can feel overwhelming as variations and shifts in the tools continue to evolve faster than we can adapt in some cases. This has added to the uncertainty and skepticism of the tools and information.

As animal breeders you undoubtedly know that the observable physical properties of an animal (phenotype) are determined by its genetic potential (genotype) and how that animal is managed (environment), or as geneticists say phenotype equals genotype plus environment. This is the key concept to understand when considering genetic decisions within your herd. While an animal may have the genetic potential, whether that potential is fully realized will depend on the environment and management strategies that is experienced by the animal. Therefore, while the genetics you choose are important; optimizing those genetic choices is heavily influenced by your management. Evaluating those decisions must be done through individual animal record keeping and benchmarking or comparing the data over time. Only then can genetic decisions be monetized or translated into profit.

All beef breeds capture individual data on economically important traits for beef production and conduct genetic evaluations in order to estimate the genetic breeding potential of animals within the breed which are then reported in the form of EPDs. As data is captured on the animal and its offspring the accuracy of the estimate of its performance (EPDs) increases. In other words, the EPD will be more accurate in predicting the resulting expression of traits. Genetic evaluations and resulting EPDs for the various breeds have evolved as the economically important traits for the specific breeds and the entire beef industry have shifted. The days of pushing for maximum performance are past and we now understand that optimum and balance is a more desirable goal. Thus, the breed associations’ genetic evaluations have shifted over time. Most of the beef breeds report EPDs on very similar traits (birth weight, calving ease, weaning weight, yearling weight, etc.) however because these tools were developed to compare and advance the trait within the breed, the EPDs are not necessarily comparable across all breeds.

While genetic evaluations and the EPD model are one of the available tools that can assist in genetic decisions, it is critical to remember that EPDs, while adding valuable information, are an estimate calculated using large amounts of data across many herds. As the science and calculations improve so too do the models change and evolve to more accurately estimate genetic potential. It is not an exact science but it is extremely helpful in choosing genetics that will help you reach your business’s production and profit goals.

The advancement of genomic technology to interpret genotypes from DNA within beef cattle has further improved the accuracy of genetic evaluations, particularly on young animals with limited or no data available on offspring. The genotypic data is commonly integrated into the genetic evaluation to increase the accuracy of the prediction or the EPD. Therefore, an animal’s DNA or genotype helps to further predict the potential of the animal and the resulting offspring. Another necessary tool to help you reach your business’s production and profit goals.

The genetic selection tools available to ranchers today are all cumulative and help to make better breeding decisions. No one tool is a silver bullet and none should be used in isolation. Used correctly and collectively they will move you closer to your business’s goals and help drive profit on the ranch. Continuous improvement and advancements in beef cattle genetics is a reality at both the ranch level and the industry level and so tools will continue to improve and evolve and so too will our breeding strategies. Therefore, change is a constant we must get comfortable with and we will never complete our job of genetic selection as continuous improvement drives our success.

So what does this all mean for your business? It is clear that genetic selection decisions have significant implications on your production and the resulting profit of your business. Every operation has specific areas for improvement and goals – the genetics you choose is the foundation required to achieve these goals combined with optimum management. Thus, considerable gains (or losses) in profit can be realized through your genetic decisions and so it is worth your time and investment to:

  1. define the goals within your operation that will increase profit potential and the impact breeding decisions have on those goals (i.e. improved fertility, increased weaning rate, increased weaning weight, etc.)
  2. understand the tools available and how to accurately interpret and utilize them in your operation, and
  3. measure the traits of importance to achieving your goals within your herd and compare them over time (benchmark) to ensure advancements are in the direction you desire.

There is no doubt that genetic improvements have improved production and added value to the Canadian beef industry. There is also no doubt that further genetic improvements can be made and that access to premium genetics is not the limiting factor. The question is: Are you utilizing the optimal genetics within your business to drive increased profit? Implementation, application and continuous progress of innovative genetic improvement tools can achieve our production and profit goals, whether at the individual business level or across the entire industry. We have the resources; we need to translate them into value.

If you would like to better understand genetic selection tools or have questions please contact one of the beef breed associations, we would be happy to discuss how you can drive profit through genetics on your ranch

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