The golden age of beef genetics: We are just getting started!

May 2, 2014
by WLJ

EPDs changed our world 30 years ago. Brainpower, computer power and clear vision converged. Scientists in the land grant university system figured out the math, computers advanced far enough to do the equations on tens of thousands of animals simultaneously, and breed association leaders had the wisdom and courage to embrace the new methodology. Tip your hat to the scientists, the computer geeks and the association leaders. The beef industry would be immeasurably smaller and weaker if they hadn’t done what they did.

Simply stated, EPDs have given cattle breeders the tools needed to make significant genetic improvement, without which beef would be much less competitive. Some wonder if EPDs remain relevant in the age of DNA testing. They are more relevant than ever! Information gained from a DNA test can be added to the EPD equation, thus improving accuracy at an earlier age for tested animals.

Did you ever stop to think that the use of EPDs comes to a screeching halt at the ranch gate? It’s a bit mindboggling that producers use sophisticated science to pursue their genetic objectives and then describe their feeder cattle as “black” or “red,” as if that’s an adequate description of genetics for the person bidding on the calves. Does it make it any better to say, well, “they’re really nice black ones”?

Isn’t it time that we describe feeder cattle with a little more precision than to say what color and how “nice” they are?

Think about it. If a producer is buying registered bulls with EPDs, the basic genetic merit of his calf crop is an extension of the genetic merit of the bulls he buys. There’s some not-sosimple math involved in computing the actual numbers, but the concept falls under the category of Cowboy Common Sense.

Describing genetic merit in dollars and cents is the next gap to bridge. Namely, economic values must be applied to each trait using current data. Not all traits have equal economic importance, so there’s another intricate math problem to solve in order to estimate the relative value of a set of calves that are for sale right now, in the current market.

Folks from the Greatest Generation had a slogan: “All good things will come in time.” This is the epitome of patience and optimism rolled into a seven-word nugget of wisdom. And one more time, they are proven right.

Recently, some thinkers in the beef industry put their heads together, sharpened their pencils, tuned up their computers and solved the math problems mentioned above. They created the Genetic Merit Scorecard that predicts, with one number, whether a set of calves is worth more or less than the average, and by how much and why. It’s a breakthrough of the best kind—a merger of solid science, common sense, good timing and practical application. The most brilliant innovations in the history of mankind have solved real problems. This is one of them. It has never been done before. The methods are unique and original.

So much so that the U.S. Patent Office issued a patent for it.

The use of EPDs is moving to the next level. The Genetic Merit Scorecard, which is the heart of the Reputation Feeder Cattle program, has enabled a new form of value-based marketing. Producers who are buying good registered bulls with solid EPDs have a whole new world of opportunity. Professional marketing agents who broker the deals between producers and feeders have a new tool to help discover a fair price. Feedlots have a new tool to zero in on the calves that work best for them. The original users of EPDs, seedstock breeders, have a new opportunity to demonstrate their dedication to their bull customers.

Everybody wins.

As with any new idea or innovation, lots of people talk about it but only a few stick their necks out and try it. Steve Harrison plunged in as soon as he heard about it.

“We encouraged some of our bull customers to score their cattle on the Reputation Feeder Cattle program when it first became available in 2013. We were confident that their cattle would score well because we have confidence in our genetics. There were no surprises. Our customers’ cattle scored well and sold extremely well on the video sales. We were prepared to buy the calves ourselves, but it turned out that there were plenty of buyers looking for feeder calves with proven and documented genetics,” Harrison said.

“At Riverbend Ranch, we believe that successful cattle producers will need to document virtually everything they can about their calves, including genetics—particularly genetics. There is no doubt that seedstock producers can use EPDs to build bulls that add value to every calf they sire. We focus on that every day, as do our toughest seedstock competitors. The Reputation Feeder Cattle program and the Genetic Merit Scorecard that is key to it will put even more pressure on us. We welcome it. We’ll be paid for the better genetics and, most importantly, our bull customers will too.”

“We’ve waited a long time for a system that objectively scores a set of feeder calves based on genetics. It’s here. We’re ready for it,” Harrison concluded.

The beef industry has spent 30 years building a rock solid foundation of genetic prediction. Here comes the pay-off pitch! — Darrell L. Wilkes, Ph.D.