Years ago, fresh out of college as a 4-H Extension agent on a club tour, I asked a 4-H'er what she would do to get her market barrow ready for the county fair. She said she intended to clip his ears, the long hairs off his belly and flank and most of the hair off his tail to leave a trimmed switch.

“Whoa,” I thought to myself, “an educable moment.” Gingerly, I explained that we didn't trim the hair in that manner any more, and that (at that time) we liked to leave those coarse hairs to give a stouter appearance to the show pig.

I watched as horror spread over the faces of many of the parents on the tour. This was totally contrary to what the 4-H Swine Manual instructed.

One 4-H mother — one of those city-type people who lived on acreage so the kids could take advantage of the 4-H experience — spoke up. “What does this really have to do with the quality of pork this pig will produce?” she asked.

“Leave it to those city people,” I thought, “all they care about is the quality of the food in the grocery store.” I should have dwelled on that thought a lot longer.

Still Hung Up On Visual

It strikes me that compared to all the other livestock species, we in the beef business still hang on to visual appraisal as something that's very important. I think it's holding us back from making real progress on some important consumer issues.

  • The commercial dairyman buys semen based on proofs and watches his rolling herd average like a hawk.

  • It's difficult for me to imagine Joe Lutter III, CEO of Smithfield Foods, knocking off early some afternoon this past summer to catch the Yorkshire boar show at the county fair, much less letting what he saw impact the work of Smithfield's genetics team.

  • If I were a broiler geneticist with a new line and an audience with Tyson Foods, they'd be interested in my research results for gain, efficiency and white meat yield. They probably wouldn't even ask to see the bird much less ask about the feather color.

In this day of value-based market grids, we have the incentive to make the end-product better. With emerging efforts in traceback, the seedstock provider, cow-calf producer and feedlot manager all have a stake in combining genetics and management decisions that influence product quality.

In a recent conversation with representatives of a packing and branded-product concern, it became apparent to me that the cattle price spreads are going to widen even further in the future. In other words, more sophisticated marketing grids will emerge with greater premiums and deeper discounts.

My genetics teachers all agreed that the more traits we select for, the lower the selection pressure in any one trait. With real money riding on the end-product attributes, and still a need for a high level of fertility, milk, growth and a handful of convenience traits like sound udders, can we really afford to put a lot of emphasis on the old cow winning a beauty contest as well?

I've bounced across many producers' pastures to look at their cows and received a dissertation on the amount of purple in the pedigree of this cow and that cow. I sometimes would spot a cow we'd weaved around to avoid seeing but nursing a big strapping calf. Curious, I'd inquire about her story.

“That old cow weans the biggest calf every year,” would be the response, “calves like clockwork, but she's not much to look at.” After pressing for more details, I'd learn that she was the daughter of some long-forgotten A.I. bull, which came out of some performance program.

“After we saw her we decided we didn't need to use that bull anymore,” my host would explain. “Yup,” I sarcastically thought, “we sure wouldn't want many cows like that in seedstock herds.”

I'd be the first to admit we can't just ignore visual type, structure and a lot of traits connected with convenience and longevity. Our eye and a few cranial cavity cells can still do a better job of compiling that information than a Best Linear Unbiased Prediction (BLUP) analysis.

The bone that I have to pick is that the show ring has jerked this industry from one extreme to the next, and we never really get the signal to stay in the middle and concentrate on the traits of importance. Maybe I'm just now getting old enough to recognize these so-called pendulum swings.

The big, flat-muscled, shallow cattle of the past didn't make any sense to me at the time. Now, I look at breed magazines and see everyone starting to chase a club calf sire look.

For years, I've heard seedstock producers comment that the target is always shifting. From the show ring's perspective, they're right. But efficiently producing a 7- to 8-weight, Choice, Yield Grade 2 carcass would have been in vogue in the 1970s, the '80s, the '90s and today. And I'll bet it will be a long time into the future.

Wayne Vanderwert, PhD, is a partner in H-Squared Genetics near Madison, MO. He consults in the beef industry, helping seedstock and commercial producers identify future trends and prepare for the inevitable. E-mail him at vanderwert@aol.com.