Tally Time – BIF meeting provides more evidence: you can’t manage what you don’t measure

By Sandy Johnson, extension beef specialist, Colby, KS

The recent Beef Improvement Federation (BIF) Conference marked the organization’s 50th meeting, and this landmark provided a good opportunity for reflection.  Over the years, BIF has sought industry cooperation in applying science to improve beef cattle genetics.   When the first performance data was collected, a hot topic was if anything other than visual phenotypic selection was appropriate for the industry.  While phenotypic evaluations for traits not easily measured are still part of selection, collection of data and development of EPDs have allowed the industry to make significant changes in animal performance. A key role that BIF has played is the standardization of performance records and procedures to do so.

At the meeting, Dorrin Garrick, Massey University, shared thoughts on current industry trends in selection.  Figure 1 shows the genetic trends of steady annual increases in the Angus breed for weaning, yearling and carcass weight.  Further evidence of progress on terminal traits can be observed by the genetic trend for the $Beef index (Figure 2) which is based on the value of feedlot animals at harvest. The average 2017-born steer earns $103 more than the 1980 steer.  These graphics would support that producers have used these tools to make genetic change.  For producers marketing cattle at harvest, these changes have returned greater profit than if these traits had not been emphasized.

Angus also has an index that measures cow energy savings, $EN.  If you market calves at weaning the genetic change represented by that index (Figure 2) may not be an improvement.  A 2017-born daughter eats $57 more feed per year than an average 1980 daughter.  This comes from heavier live weight, higher milk production and higher maintenance requirements.

John Pollak, professor emeritus from Cornell University, challenged meeting goers to think about what goal motivated selection practices the past 50 years and what should motivate selection in the next 50 years.   He reviewed these steps of a selection program: Establish a goal; create a breeding objective; collect data for traits defined in the objective; utilize the data to predict genetic merit; rank and select replacements; measure success.

One way to look at this data is that our selection efforts have targeted very tangible traits that are relatively easy to measure and moderately to highly heritable.  As an industry, we have considerably more information on calving traits and growth traits than on reproduction, mature cow weight and condition score.  Collecting more data on traits such as reproduction and longevity are more challenging and expensive to collect.  Purchasers of seedstock send economic signals to breeders with their purchases, however would there be a different signal if more information was available?

Technology and the ability to capture data present a great opportunity for the industry to collect more data and harness it towards shared goals.  There are private databases being developed that do not currently contribute to the national breeding program.   These are challenges BIF can help provide leadership for as the industry moves forward.

Use of available selection tools are effective in making genetic change.  Data and associated tools to improve reproductive efficiency are needed.  Use of whole-system indexes composed of economically relevant traits and genomic information can help producers reach defined breeding objectives and balance selection for a variety of traits.  Different segments of the beef industry receive different economic signals, and more balanced selection may be needed to improve system-wide efficiency.

Presentations by Garrick and Pollak provide great food for thought regarding future selection in the beef industry.  You can obtain more details from these presentations and online coverage of other speakers including proceedings, slides and audio at www.bifconference.com/bif2018/newsroom.html or watch Facebook live recordings on the Angus Journal Facebook page.  A short video on the first 50 years of BIF and ideas on what might be next is at beefimprovement.org.

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