Comparing the genetic information on bulls from different breeds shouldn't be akin to sifting through the entire tax code, but too often it is.

Different breeds use different base years to calculate expected progeny differences (EPDs). You can find EPDs for traits in some breeds that you can't find in others. And, woe to the producer looking for a genetic snapshot of hybrid bulls that could have their EPDs calculated by several breeds currently offering multi-breed genetic evaluation.

In fact, it's hard to argue that the confusion and frustration created by this reality hasn't prevented some producers from exploiting heterosis and breed complementarity to a greater degree.

“There's absolutely no way the industry can ignore crossbreeding. If you want to put commercial producers out of business, force them to use only half the genetic model and forget the other half,” says Tom Field, Colorado State University animal science professor. But, he adds, “Crossbreeding is best conducted when we have a good description of the biological types going into the system. One size does not fit all, so there's a need for reliable data describing the components used.”

Therein lies the rub.

As Don Schiefelbein of Schiefelbein Farms, Kimball, MN, explains, “It's a major issue when a commercial producer is trying to compare more than one breed, especially when breeds have been shifting their base years (the year at which the EPD within a breed is equal to zero) arbitrarily and from time to time. Producers can use conversion factors calculated by the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center to compare directly, but that's confusing, too. The conversion values change each year and that doesn't make sense to producers.” Schiefelbein Farms market Angus and Angus hybrid seedstock.

Kent Andersen, North American Limousin Foundation (NALF) executive vice president, concurs. “Commercial producers are struggling with how to make crossbreeding systems work,” he says. “Commercial producers should be able to compare bulls they're considering on a level playing field, based on profit potential in their specific situation.”

Common EPDs, better accuracy

That's the impetus behind what's been dubbed Joint Venture Performance Registry Services (JVPRS) during organization. JVPRS is a consortium of existing beef breed organizations formed in October to develop a national multi-breed genetic evaluation program and a common suite of economically important EPDs. Participating breeds will accomplish this by sharing their current genetic evaluation databases and adopting a common system for whole-herd performance reporting, data collection and data processing.

“If you live with the genetic analysis we've had historically, you'll be left behind,” says Lee Leachman of Leachman Cattle of Colorado in Wellington, which markets Angus, Red Angus, composite and Charolais seedstock. “The breeds participating are raising the bar and the rest will have to follow one way or the other.”

Bob Hough, executive secretary of the Red Angus Association of America (RAAA), a JVPRS charter member, says, “Accuracy will be increased because we'll have more data and more hybrid data, and we'll be able to put together more contemporary groups for the evaluation.”

It's a little like piecing together a puzzle, adds Wayne Vanderwert, executive secretary of the American Gelbvieh Association (AGA), which has also joined the JVPRS effort. Whereas the breeds involved in JPVRS have already established high levels of selection accuracy for their own breeds, Vanderwert says each only has a part of the total information about the breeds with which their cattle are crossed.

“This effort gives us a chance to combine more of these pieces so we have a more complete picture — more accuracy in predicting the genetic merit of hybrid animals,” Vanderwert says.

That's why Schiefelbein believes, “The selection accuracy for the hybrids that include these breeds should increase significantly.”

For perspective, Hough explains multi-breed genetic evaluations have been conducted by a few breed organizations for several years. But these evaluations are limited to the information reported by members of each breed organization.

More info on more cattle

With JVPRS, information reported from members of all participating breed associations will be included. This will allow producers to compare animals of different breeds and breed combinations directly with one another for the same traits with more accuracy. And, there will be more information on more animals.

The conversion factors Schiefelbein alluded to earlier account for breed differences in general and for differences in base years used for calculation. With JVPRS, the base year is the same and animal performance is compared directly rather than merely accounting for overall breed differences.

JVPRS also enhances accuracy because all breeds involved will adopt total herd reporting (THR). THR requires all performance data to be reported for all cows in a breeder's herd inventory each year, rather than choosing which performance information and calves to include in the evaluation.

Some breeds like Red Angus have utilized THR for years, but it's relatively new in a handful of other breeds. THR also means the common suite of EPDs adopted by JPVRS will include predictions for economically relevant traits such as heifer pregnancy.

“This will allow commercial producers to get a handle on breed complementarity, which until now we've really only been able to observe but not quantify,” says Dave Nichols, Nichols Farms, Bridgewater, IA.

Though Nichols doesn't have a dog in the JVPRS hunt — marketing Angus, Simmental and composite seedstock — he was one of the industry leaders the JVPRS group sought for advice before formalizing its effort.

“This represents a new gold standard in genetic evaluation,” Hough emphasizes. “The result of this joint venture will be the most sophisticated beef cattle genetic analysis in the world.”

So far, the breeds involved include RAAA, NALF, AGA, International Brangus Breeders Association, American Salers Association and the North American South Devon Association. It's open to any breed. JVPRS is aiming to begin offering genetic evaluation tools within the next 12 months.

Just the beginning

For JVPRS participating breeds, the icing on the cake is that collaboration should allow each of them to reduce expenditures for data processing, information services and genetic evaluation. Such costs are positioned to increase significantly as the primary universities that have provided statistical genetic evaluation analysis for breeds are beginning to refocus their animal breeding resources on research and teaching.

Spun differently, the publicly funded research the industry has relied upon to develop most of the genetic evaluation tools available today likely won't be as plentiful tomorrow. So, breeds are going to have to do more on their own, either individually or collectively.

“I think this will allow participating breed associations to develop some exciting tools that will enable their breeders to make more effective decisions. It allows them to develop tools they couldn't develop on their own, particularly at the speed of business,” Leachman says. His comment isn't a knock on any breed, it's firsthand knowledge of how costly it is to develop such tools.

Hough says the model is designed to support existing breed organizations, not replace them.

“This is a proactive step breed organizations are taking with their primary asset, which is cattle-pedigree information and performance data,” Hough says.

He emphasizes the process allows participating breeds to offer commercial producers more accurate and cost-effective genetic evaluation. At the same time, they can maintain the unique identities of their own breeds and the integrity of their respective databases.

Plus, Andersen points out the critical mass of the cooperative organization ensures each participating breed will have a sustainable performance and genetic-evaluation program for its breed.

Obviously, that has implications for commercial producers, too. It means producers using any breed participating in JVPRS have more assurance they will be able to continue getting a genetic evaluation for those genetics no matter what the future holds for the fortunes of the respective individual breeds.

Moreover, Field believes, “This positions the U.S. seedstock industry as the clear global leader for cutting-edge cattle data and genetic information services.”

For one thing, since JVPRS compares specific animals of specific biologic types, producers will have the opportunity to select for specific production environments. In fact, National Beef Cattle Evaluation Consortium is already developing decision-support tools that will help producers accomplish this.

“These tools involve using additive and non-additive information (heterosis) to begin to predict actual phenotype (performance) of an animal, which is what commercial producers are paid for,” Andersen explains.

Bottom line, Field believes, “This effort (JVPRS) takes genetic evaluation a quantum leap forward, similar to when the industry moved away from in-herd breeding ratios with the development of EPDs. This is the kind of forward thinking that changes industries.”