As I was leaving the Range Beef Cow Symposium held in Casper, WY, this week, I asked quite a few people about their major take-home message from the meeting. I received a variety of replies, but feed efficiency seemed to be the area of primary focus

Feed efficiency is economically relevant and heritable, and the number of bulls with feed-efficiency data certainly is growing. However, it isn't without some consternation; there are wonderful data sets like the Circle A/ABS Sire Alliance, but they’re still rare, and testing for feed efficiency on a widespread basis remains cost-prohibitive.

In addition, there is some disagreement regarding some of the measures, such as residual feed intake (RFI), plus inherent problems with using ratios instead of their component parts from an animal breeding and selection standpoint. Still, feed efficiency is expected to be a trait that is increasingly being selected for and the benefits are expected to be real and significant.

But the use of DNA tests and marker-assisted selection also remains a top-of-mind concern. It continues to represent the area toward which research dollars are flowing and where there is the most excitement among the animal- breeding community. New and larger chips with larger gene profiles are expected to hit the market in the near future, and the American Angus Association has already begun incorporating genetic profile into its EPD calculations resulting in slight improvements in accuracy levels for some traits.

With the science moving forward rapidly, and with economically viable tests expected soon, the future certainly is exciting for this technology. And, recent tests for genetic defects have demonstrated a real-world use of the technology. The question is not if, but when, these DNA tools will begin to play a significant role in helping us improve our selection decisions.

In addition, the symposium provided lots of good data and new research on heifer development, fetal programming and ways to make sure that one's cost structure is competitive. This isn’t earth-shattering info, but it’s info that can help producers create incremental improvements.

It’s always invigorating to get to talk to so many progressive producers who are absolutely passionate about the cattle business. At the same time, the main sentiment expressed by attendees and speakers was one of mild pessimism.

While supplies in terms of cattle numbers remain historically low, the real driver of tonnage remains high. Overall meat demand continues to erode, still being affected by the difficulties of the global economy. Regulation is increasing, and the attack on modern agriculture seems to be strengthening. Losses in the feeding, dairy and pork segments coupled with still depressed outlooks for prices relative to breakevens certainly have people wary of the near future. Record deficits and spending have most concerned about future inflation. And, export growth continues to lag expectations despite the help of a devalued dollar.

The bottom line is that the other exporting countries have made tremendous inroads in capturing market share and they’re proving to be very effective in maintaining those gains. The reality is that we’ve failed to address the traceability issue in the global market, and it’s a disadvantage that we’re having difficulty overcoming.

The industry is still adjusting to the devastating blow delivered via the ethanol mandates and subsidies, and the risk for higher input costs yet seems likely. Certainly, the lack of numbers and the projections for a rapidly growing global population provide opportunities, but in the short term there’s not a whole lot of news to get really excited about.