Management topics

Oct 24, 2011

Genotype vs phenotype in shows

We are q u i c k l y coming up on show season with Louisville in November and Denver after the first of the year. Many breeds have stubbornly held on to the show ring as their major points of selection while other more successful breeds have moved beyond this more traditional form of selection. I must admit I enjoy the show ring and think it still has its promotion. I grew up showing, made my way through graduate school coaching judging teams, judged numerous shows around the world earlier in my career, and I have been on the management committee of the National 4-H Livestock Judging Contest for over 20 years. However, to remain relevant, shows must be updated for the times. This means incorporating expected progeny differences (EPDs), and using judges who truly believe in EPDs and don’t just give them lip service at the microphone. It is all part of keeping up with times. However, some people don’t think you can have cattle with good phenotype and genotype, or in some way they are contradictory.

The equation for phenotype is:


With this said, judges should always be looking to evaluate the genotype of cattle shows no matter what the trait. EPDs just happen to be an unbiased measure of the genotype of some of the traits evaluated at shows.

No matter what changes with shows, cattle first and foremost must be sound. To me, there is nothing more pleasing than to see a good bull or heifer striding out and placing its rear hoof in the same print it had left from where it had picked its front foot. There have been many judges over the years who have been masters at evaluating good structure, from one of my mentors, Herman Purdy, to contemporary judges like Randy Daniels and John Edwards. It does bother me when I go to a show and I watch a judge who really doesn’t understand structure very well place classes, even though he/she sometimes talks structure on the microphone throughout the show.

I worry about the steer show influence where it has become a fad to have cattle too straight on their rear leg (post-legged, a severe structural fault). In fact, they clip them tight against the back of a steer’s cannon bone and fill the area above the hock with hair to make them look this way. When this bleeds over into breeding shows, there is a problem because cattle need a good set to their hock to remain sound. In fact, I often find there is a disconnect between good show ring structure and “real life” commercial structure. This is a problem and can only be solved through proper judge selection.

Feet are another thing that can be evaluated visually. The depth of heel and size of hoof can be seen, but, unfortunately, most show cattle have had their feet trimmed (environment), so the toes cannot be evaluated.

Volume is another thing that can be visually appraised. Depth and spring of rib are important for good doing cattle. The amount of fat, hair and fill can all enhance the appearance of capacity, especially in the hands of an experienced fitter, but a good judge can see through all that.

The show ring is a poor place to visually evaluate growth except with the most obvious cases or with older heifers as it is hard to make a 1,300-pound cow out to be a 1,600- to 1,700-pound heifer. The reason is show cattle are individually fed outside their contemporary groups by owners and herdsman of varying skills in varying climates. Growth EPDs give a much truer picture of an animal’s genotype.

Muscling can be evaluated in the show ring quite well, but fat and hair can have a big impact on an animal’s natural thickness. When I judged, I always viewed the cattle walking away from me looking for counterfeits. Of course, today, we have the Ribeye Area EPD which is an objective measure that can be weighed into a judge’s decision-making process along with visual appraisal.

Of course scrotal circumference and shape, etc., are easily evaluated on bulls, but transmitting ability can also be evaluated on heifers with the Scrotal EPD.

There are certain traits like femininity that can only be evaluated visually, but by the same token, we get to the traits that can not be seen like birth weight, milk, docility and marbling. To evaluate the genotypes for these traits, a judge must use EPDs. Obviously, these unseen traits are all vitally important to any breeding program and must be considered.

The show ring is above all about marketing one’s program and the breed. Phenotype and genotype are not antagonistic, but all part of an equation where judges are always looking to find the animals with the best genotype and fitters are always trying to environmentally fill in the holes where an animal doesn’t have the best genotype. At the end of the day, breeds should strive to have animals winning their shows that their best seedstock operations and most progressive commercial producers would all be proud to own and use from both a visual and EPD perspective. — Dr. Bob Hough [Dr. Bob Hough has served as the executive vice president of the Red Angus Association of America and more recently as executive vice president of the North American Limousin Foundation from 2009 to early 2011. He is now a consultant, freelance writer and semi-retired.]