Coordinated by Emme Troendle
Grace Erickson, AJSA member and high school student from Bolivar, MO, recently won an essay competition sponsored by BEEF magazine. The contest was hosted by Jered Decker, author of the blog A Steak in Genomics, and sponsored by BEEF magazine, Zoetis, and GeneSeek. The essay contest is part of the “Identifying Local Adaptation and Creating Region-Specific Genomic Predictions in Beef Cattle” funded by the USDA-NIFA.
Beef genetics extension specialists, breed association staff, and trade publication staff judged the essays, including ASA’s Director of Science and Education, Jackie Atkins. Atkins shares, “It was impressive to read the essays and to hear in their own words, how science and technology can improve animal breeding decisions. You could tell some of the participants really understood the benefits of using technology to make more informed decisions about beef cattle selection.”
The winning essay was recently published in one of BEEF magazine’s online newsletters. The 2nd through 5th place essays will be published on A Steak in Genomics, and cash prizes were awarded to the top five essay contest winners. (Click here for the runner-ups.)
Here is how Erickson answered the question, “What does it mean to be a beef breeder in the 21st century?”
Beef is the top of the human food chain. People love it, and if we producers do our homework, it should stay at the center of the plate for a growing global population. Back to Biblical times, owning and breeding “the cattle on a thousand hills” has been a respected role in society. Over the centuries, breeding and improving cattle became an art, with families passing their production systems, improved stock, and hard-earned knowledge from one generation to the next.
Lately though, change has come rapidly, with all the innovation of modern science and technology being used to produce better beef, more efficiently, in ecologically and economically sustainable ways. Here is what I believe for the future; breeding beef in the 21st century will be just like it always has been, except totally different.
Let me explain. Some things are not likely to change too much. Beef production, especially seedstock improvement operations, cost a lot of money to start and maintain. Generation turnover for genetic improvement in our herds is slow, with females not even weaning their first calf until they are almost three years of age.
Land ownership in the United States is dispersed and likely to become even more so. Profitable returns can be low and unpredictable. Feeding hay in the dead of winter in North Dakota is not for the unmotivated or lazy. Getting cows bred on endophyte-infected Missouri fescue or Florida summer heat and humidity is not work likely to be taken over by unskilled, hourly wage earners.
Part of the reason improvements in efficiency, uniformity, and carcass have come so fast in chickens and pigs is because they are all raised inside, at the same temperature, and eating the same feed. But it is hard to believe that environmental, climate, and feedstuff resources could ever be normalized across the geographic and environmental diversity inhabited by our nation’s cowherd.
The point is that 21st century genetic improvement in the beef business is likely still to be carried out by a diverse group of independent-minded, tough, family owner-operators whose strong opinions and daily “ways of doing things” have evolved from generations of working a specific herd on a given piece of land. They will continue to view their job as an almost sacred, time-honored trust of creating the best food source possible with the least inputs, in a way that ensures their own families’ futures. They will work long hours in sometimes extreme conditions and the habits and routines that have evolved on each farm and ranch will rightly continue to be respected. “Great Grandpa and Grandma always did it this way” really means something when you step back and realize that they often carved out and paid for these land bases from next to nothing.
Nobody knows the future, but seedstock and commercial breeders will honor the past while preparing themselves to survive and thrive long into the future if they follow these steps:
Embrace change. Honoring tradition and being bound by it are two different things. It is a competitive world, and raising protein for people to eat is not that different than other industries like developing and building cars, computers or TVs where smart people use sophisticated information and technology to upgrade their product every single year.
Observe, record, analyze, and utilize as much information as possible. If a trait can help you make money and it is measurable, then measure it, compare it, and use it to make future mating, management, and marketing decisions.
Crossbreed. I recently heard Chip Kemp of the American Simmental Association say that two-breed cross systems yield roughly 300 more pounds of calf than straight-bred over a cow’s lifetime, at almost no additional cost, while four breed crosses yield roughly 500 pounds more. That tells me that commercial breeders should be crossbreeding and that seedstock folks should be creating compatible purebreds as well as composites to allow one-stop shopping for their customers.
Use EPDs and selection/economic indexes to make important breeding decisions. I will be honest. I show cattle and I LOVE it! Even at home, looking at a well-constructed, good-footed, big bodied, easy-doing cow seems to stir emotions in me that can only have developed over the centuries that my family has tended livestock.
But performance systems have become so powerful, accurate, and meaningful over the past 40 years that not using them at least to select bulls is like leaving free money on the table. My great-great grandfather ran 15 or 20 beef cows on his small farm in northern Illinois about 100 years ago. If he could have opened a book just like the old Sears catalog and looked at a number (calving ease EPD) that would help him pick a bull that might let him wean an extra calf or two every year by being born easier, I am betting he would have waited by the mailbox for that book every spring. He would have probably been amazed to know that the information contained in the book was free for the taking and using.
Use genomic testing in the way that economically applies best to your operation. My family raises seedstock and for us that means a 50K DNA testing for all donors and possible sires is always performed. “Either/or” traits like polled, color, and genetic purity have obvious value.
It’s even better that these tests can improve the accuracy of EPDs as much as 10 or 12 calves would. The added accuracy might give us just enough knowledge to keep us from a calving difficulty “wreck” or help choose that one bull that might improve fescue tolerance, carcass traits, or whatever matters to us. A commercial operator might decide to always buy bulls for pasture use that have been gene tested, or test their own herds to sort cows into management or breeding groups.
Do what works for you. Using technology and information systems has to be simple enough to work in practice. It is amazingly easy to view a bull’s API before buying him. A DNA test is as easy as plucking a hair, or pulling a blood sample.
But I understand that sometimes decisions must be made based on labor efficiency, and not all data can be collected and recorded on every farm. In a large scale commercial operation, it might be difficult to measure each birth weight, but very simple to record calving ease scores, birth dates, and calf survivability on each and every birth on the farm.
Record data every year on every cow you own. The days of just recording the bull calves you plan to sell are over. Total herd enrollment has to be a part of improving fertility and longevity traits for seedstock as well as commercial operations. Calf birth dates, calving ease score, and noting when and why a calf or cow left the farm is simple and very inexpensive to track, but yields huge benefit to within-breed or across-breed databases and improve the value of EPDs.
Breed to proven sires through artificial insemination. A sire with a Terminal Index of $100 stands to bring in an added $40 per calf compared to a sire with a TI of $60. That’s a $4000 difference on each 100 calves, but that is the tip of the iceberg.
If genetic proofs help avoid the death of one calf per season due to dystocia, or keeps you from using a bull whose daughters leave the herd early, the benefit to the farm’s profitability and sustainability is hard to even figure. For a registered outfit like mine in the Midwest, we like to A.I. every heifer and cow, while more spread out, commercial herds might prefer to heat synchronize and time-breed replacement heifers only.
Find a way to be paid for the added genetic potential of your cattle. Let’s be honest, improving carcass traits and even daily gain after weaning does not add profit, efficiency, or sustainability to a commercial herd selling steers at weaning to a buyer who doesn’t understand their value. So, either through retained ownership or data/feedback-influenced marketing, cow-calf producers have to get paid more or pay less in feed and medicine to continue to take on cost to improve these traits.
PredicGen and GeneMax Focus are trademarked and commercially available products that allow selection for feedlot and carcass traits but also give buyers concrete evidence for better daily gains on feed and carcass quality. The first allows for selection of females with superior marbling, yield grade, tenderness, and value. A study found that when pre-selected and bred to Angus sires sorted for carcass by EPD resulted in a $113 carcass grid premium in one generation over non-selected mates. The other product is a gene-based test which seems to build on the first by allowing a group of feeder calves’ DNA to be screened for marbling and feedlot growth. Value is added because calves can then be sorted into the right feeding system and grid-based endpoint. As long as feedlot buyers understand the value of the tests, value flows to the breeder with or without retained ownership.
Use new technologies. My grandma talks about her childhood without indoor plumbing or electricity in the house. Today, I am a high school student and during the fall calf sale season, a friend of mine and I meet in study hall twice a week to look at pictures and videos of sale cattle on our smartphones, most with a link to their pedigree, cow family, and genetically-enhanced EPDs.
There is even a genomic test listed on most show steers to predict how much hair he is expected to grow! We track the progress of sales throughout the fall and Dad has bought me a heifer on an E-bid on the smartphone. I use the same phone to input birth dates and weights, calving ease scores, weaning weights, reproductive tract scores, etc. Technologies for beef improvement are getting cheaper, easier, and more effective every year and failing to utilize them makes about as much sense as not having lights in the house.
The last thing I think will be a critical use of technology and information for breeders but does not really involve genetics or production and carcass traits. My Dad told me about a store in Norway where a steak or package of ground beef can be barcode scanned by a shopper, which brings up a picture of the farm the steer was raised on along with his health and feeding history.
My great-great grandpa’s customers knew and trusted him. They drove their wagons past the calves in his fields almost every day. That’s not the way it is now, when folks are far removed from the farm and think that chocolate milk comes from the black cows. But people are still willing to buy more, and pay more for something they eat when they know where it came from and what it’s been through, and when they see that producers are working hard to raise them right. More and more information will be kept, stored, and made available to consumers as time goes on and we should lead the way, not fight it, when it can be done fairly and affordably.
It is an exciting time to be in the beef cattle business. Prices will go up and down, like we have seen this past year. Cities will get bigger, and they will eat up land along the way. But we have the honor of working with some of God’s greatest creatures to provide quality food for a growing world population, while at the same time making a living. Cattle breeders in the rest of this century will use information and technology together with our time-honored traditions to get the job done using less land and with less environmental impact than ever before. I look forward to learning more as I start college next year and to playing my part as a beef breeder in the 21st Century.