Citing the ideas of contemporary American philosopher Malcolm Gladwell, Barry Dunn has a suggestion for you: rather than think of breeding decisions as pieces of a puzzle to be solved, consider breeding a mystery to be unraveled.

Doing so, he says, will change your view of how to run a ranch.

Puzzles vs. mysteries

Historically, Dunn says, the beef industry’s approach to genetic improvement has been an elaborate attempt to solve a complex puzzle by searching for missing puzzle pieces. “I think we approach beef improvement as a puzzle to be solved; we’ve waited for a constant flow of technologies, and then we’ve adopted them,” he suggests.

The problem is that puzzles are transmitter dependent; they turn on what we’re told, says Dunn, former executive director of the King Ranch Institute of Ranch Management and now dean of South Dakota State University’s College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences. Mysteries, on the other hand, are receiver dependent; they turn on the skills of the listener. “It’s about our ability to synthesize information,” Dunn says.

According to Gladwell, many of us are puzzle people, waiting to have things handed to us. Here’s how that works when we turn bulls out with the cows or thaw a straw of semen.

“The most popular strategies for beef improvement have focused on ways to increase gene frequency of economically relevant traits, and then once identified, to seek their diffusion through cattle populations with multiple approaches,” he says.

When Dunn started in the industry, those tools were largely quantitative genetics, like EPDs. Now it’s molecular genetics. “Those tools allow us to identify the outliers that permit us to create the change we want.”

We look at EPDs, or the information supplied via DNA markers, and move the puzzle pieces around until we find the bulls we think will complete the jigsaw picture, he says.

Looking at beef improvement as a mystery, on the other hand, requires that both cattlemen, and the academicians who serve them, look at the world a little differently. Viewing the beef improvement landscape from that angle depends on our ability to view the world around us as a complex system rather than a series of events, Dunn says.

“It’s not ranch-feedlot-packer-consumer; it’s an interconnected system. It’s our ability to collect and synthesize and make sense of a wide array of data and information and then move that up to knowledge, understanding and wisdom.”

That’s not a new way of thinking for ranchers, Dunn says. The concept of optimization vs. maximization is an example; so is the adoption of economic relevancy into EPDs.

And viewing a ranch as a complex system isn’t a difficult stretch for most ranchers. In fact, one of the pioneer thought leaders in the study of complex systems, Jay Forrester of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), grew up on a Nebraska ranch, and credits that upbringing for his ability to see and understand complexity.

Forrester and others at MIT determined that complex systems have these characteristics:
• They’re tightly coupled; everything influences everything else.
• They’re dynamic; change occurs on many scales.
• They’re policy resistant; obvious solutions to problems fail or actually make things worse.
• They’re counterintuitive; cause and effect are distant in time and space.
• They exhibit trade-offs; advantageous short-term behavior is often different or even antagonistic to advantageous long-term behavior.

Sound familiar? You probably experience these nearly every day with nearly every management decision you make. Certainly, anybody who has ever paged through a bull-sale catalog understands, at some level, that genetic selection is a complex system.

Complex systems behave the way they do because of some equally complex factors:
• The nature of feedback tends to mislead people into taking ineffective, even counterproductive, action.
• People don’t understand the complex interactions in a system and can’t correctly predict the outcome of their actions.
• Most difficulties are internally caused, even though there’s an overwhelming tendency to blame outside forces.
• The actions people take, usually with the belief that these actions are a solution, are often the cause of the problems.

Enter epigenetics

An example of looking at genetic improvement as a mystery rather than a puzzle is epigenetics – the mechanism by which an organism responds to its environment through changes in gene expression. The idea of epigenetics got its start in data collected on people imprisoned by the Nazis in a Dutch ghetto during World War II, and the effect of the resulting starvation on pregnant women.

“That experience impacted them, as you can imagine,” Dunn says. “But it also impacted their unborn children; that starvation experience changed the health and mature characteristics of those children differently, depending on the trimester of pregnancy during this time in the ghetto.”

So what does this mean to you? Work at the University of Nebraska is revealing that it means a lot. In fact, protein supplementation of pregnant cows during the winter has many long-term benefits beyond just maintaining cow condition.

“It improves weaning weight of calves, increases fertility of the female progeny two years later, and improves carcass characteristics of male progeny. And, it improves the health characteristics of all progeny,” Dunn says.

It’s long been known that interactions between management and genetics are huge, and that management and environment have a profound effect on gene expression. But what if you turned the dial to the right instead of the left when you contemplate those interactions and trade-offs on your ranch?
The challenge in beef improvement is this: is it more cost-effective to increase gene frequency, which is the standard way the industry has approached it in the past, or to find an optimum level of gene frequency and turn it on and off with management?

“Another way of saying that is, what is the marginal cost of changing a phenotype by increasing gene frequency vs. the marginal cost of applying epigenetic strategies? It might be a lot cheaper to turn the switch on and off than it is to change generations and adopt technology to speed diffusion of genes,” Dunn says. Problem is, we don’t know what the optimum level of genes are in a dynamic economy.

Nor does it mean that EPDs and DNA marker tests will no longer be relevant. Quite the contrary, Dunn says. But it does mean that cattlemen and academicians will have to look at the application of those technologies differently.

It’s a change in thinking that Dunn is convinced will be necessary. Over the past 40-50 years, the beef industry has made mind-bending improvement in its ability to efficiently produce beef, so much so that cattlemen are producing the same or more beef with the fewest cattle since 1958.
But profitability hasn’t followed. And Dunn has a problem with that.

“We’re going to have to move beyond passively waiting for the next new thing. We’re going to have to go beyond parochial interests of breeds and careers. And I know there are great examples of that happening,” he says. “But I think we have to do more. We have to be broader and deeper than generally acknowledged. And that will give us a chance to synthesize existing data and information into knowledge, understanding and wisdom.”