Management Topics

Dec 20, 2013

Shows must evolve or become irrelevant

I just attended the North American International Livestock Exposition in Louisville, and the National Western Stock Show will soon be upon us. I help conduct the National 4-H Livestock Judging Contest at Louisville, which is one of my highlights of the year. At the contest, youth are given four animals to judge and every class has a real-life market, management and feed scenario in which the breeding animals are to be used. Additionally, they are given each animal’s birth date and all relevant genetic predictions related to the scenario for a class. It is as close to real life as possible.

Today when we see breeds like Low Lines and Belted Galloway increasing and traditional breeds decreasing at shows, it is time to change the way shows are done. First, the problems.

Show cattle are taken out of their contemporary groups and shown as individuals, making their true genetic merit questionable. Feet are trimmed and everything possible is done by a good fitter to cover up an animal’s weaknesses and exaggerate its strengths. Even for the best judge, it is hard to tell if they are looking at genetics or environment. Here are my recommendations to make shows relevant based on my experience with 4-H:

• All commercially-viable breeds need to use genetic predictions in their shows. There is no reason a judge should guess about the genetics of an animal on traits that can be objectively quantified.

• Make all animals have gnomically-enhanced EPDs and only invite judges who will use these tools. Genomics adds years’ worth of calf crops to the accuracy to an animal’s genetic predictions. For the EPDs to be useful, they need more accuracy than an animal has that has been hand-fed in a single head contemporary group.

• The breed association should decide on a general market, commercially-oriented scenario for each major show for which the cattle are to be judged. For instance, I would have all shows have bulls as they would be used in a commercial setting or sire of bulls to be sold to commercial producers. This should reflect breed strengths, weaknesses and priorities. With Angus’ emphasis on CAB, they might want to have the commercial customer retaining ownership of steer progeny through the feedlot and onto rail through a grid pricing system while also retaining females. Red Angus might want to put more emphasis on reproductive traits. Some breeds might have a more terminal scenario.

• Judges should be given an environmental scenario in which the cattle will be used. For the Louisville show, breed associations might reflect feed resources and environment more likely to be found in the Midwest, while Denver should probably reflect a more Western, extensive ranching situation in terms of management and feed resources.

• Judges and scenarios should be approved by the breed improvement committee. Judges need to be able to understand the above, as well as a breed’s position and use in the industry. They must understand and use EPDs and/or indexes every bit as much or more than live animal evaluation.

The current “show and sale committee” structure that exists in most breed associations is self-defeating. It is my experience that these committees are set up to propagate and market only animals that are bred by the people showing, and their priorities can often be in conflict with breed-wide commercial viability. Soon, the show ring either becomes irrelevant for the breed, a huge distraction, or in the worst case, destroys the breed’s usefulness in the commercial industry. The latter has already happened in several major breeds, where the breed focus has literally become club calves and 4-H heifers. To me it is very sad that, for all practical purposes, we have lost the genetic resource of whole breeds for their use in the commercial industry because of the show ring.

I applaud the growth of Low Lines and Belted Galloways. These are breeds that are meant to be shown without any pretense. I defy anyone to attend the Belted Galloway show at Louisville and not enjoy the cattle for their sheer beauty. They have extremely long hair, so a good fitter can sculpt them like a sheep in full fleece. However, as the show ring is currently structured, I see shows as a detriment to those breeds wanting to compete in the commercial industry.

Let the breed associations learn what 4-Hers judging team contestants already know, which is that a few structural changes are desperately needed in these open shows. It involves: the use of gnomically enhanced EPDs; general scenarios in which the cattle will be used because without them EPDs have no context; and a new type of judge who understands all segments of the commercial cattle industry and will use all the selection tools available to them. — 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.]