January 1967 marked an important beginning for the beef industry. Cattle producers and researchers gathered in Denver for a meeting during the National Western Stock Show to take a step toward the future — a step toward beef improvement. Those who came together began to discuss transformation of cattle selection from its historical focus on visual appraisal to a unified system of performance testing.

From that discussion came what many count as a “revolutionary performance movement” for the beef industry. The Beef Improvement Federation (BIF) was formed, and in the four decades since, has made great strides in creating awareness, acceptance and usage of beef cattle performance concepts.

“Forty years ago, a group of visionary cattle producers and scientists changed the industry by formalizing a plan to bring objective measurement to the selection of cattle,” says Tom Field, a Colorado State University animal sciences professor.

Of these early efforts, Willie Altenburg, associate vice president of beef marketing for Genex Cooperative and a current BIF board member, adds, “This group, still in its infancy, enabled producers to practically apply scientific efforts as a way of improving beef cattle globally, creating a more profitable product.”

Altenburg and Field are among the organizers of the 2007 BIF annual meeting and research symposium set for June 6-9 in Fort Collins, CO. The event will mark BIF's 40th anniversary.

The early years

At the time BIF was being formed in the late 1960s, the beef industry was experiencing a flush of new technology. In BIF historical documents, Frank Baker, one of the organization's forefathers, described the time in these terms: “Some features of the ferment [in the industry] were the new association of breeders of newly imported breeds of cattle, new research on germplasm evaluation in the new Meat Animal Research Center, new commercial production concepts based on crossbreeding, artificial insemination as a tool in purebred and commercial herds, relocation of the cattle-feeding and meatpacking facilities from the Midwest to the Southwest and challenges to the usefulness of the showing in cattle improvement.”

Baker added, “Traditionalists tried to stay in the middle of the road until probable outcomes became more clear, but innovators were saying, ‘Get the hell out of the middle of the road — you're blocking progress.’”

To that, Dave Nichols, an Iowa seedstock breeder and feeder, says, “This was an exciting time to be in the cattle business.” Nichols attended the first organizational meeting in 1967 and says, “One thing that came out of that first meeting was the need for a federation of organizations that would standardize the inputs we had in the commercial industry.”

Many milestones

Over the four decades since BIF began, the beef industry has seen monumental change in the evolution of cattle-performance testing and evaluation. In the beginning, great variation existed in the methods and procedures used to collect data for early, state-run beef improvement programs. The genetic progress BIF has helped implement since that time has included:

  • Standardized performance testing

    This was among the first milestones achieved by BIF. By developing uniformity in the terminology and methodology of performance measurements, data collected could be universally applicable. Early on, this process included development of 205-day weaning weights and ratios. Later, it grew to include additional growth and maternal traits.

    Of this process, Field says, “Standardization of performance testing was critical to assuring that the industry offered user-friendly tools to commercial producers.”

  • Development of EPDs

    The next step for the industry was the transition from within-herd ratios to Expected Progeny Difference (EPD) for several traits. This ultimately led to the development of national sire summaries for each breed.

    Ike Eller of Virginia served as BIF's executive director from 1983 to 1985. He recalls, “Sire summaries helped the industry go from records that could only be used in one herd to information that could be used in herds across the country as a selection tool.”

Over time, EPDs have evolved to include evaluation of more than just growth and maternal traits. EPDs for carcass traits, reproduction and stayability now exist. Across-breed EPD values also have been created.

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Additional BIF milestones have included:

  • Guidance for the standardization and incorporation of ultrasound data into performance evaluation.

  • Discussions about composites and crossbreeding.

  • Recommending Total Herd Reporting for all breed associations.

  • Use of DNA markers in genetic selection prediction.

  • Development of Economically Relevant Traits (ERT) and selection indexes.

An effort of committees

Ron Bolze, a former executive director of BIF now with the Red Angus Association of America, credits much of BIF's accomplishments to the work that takes place in its six standing committees.

Of BIF's contributions, Bolze says, “It's been a 40-year, think-tank session that's brought together some of the industry's deepest minds to ponder where the beef-cattle industry needed to evolve to from a genetic prediction perspective.”

Larry Corah, a former Kansas State University (KSU) Extension beef specialist now with Certified Angus Beef, adds, “We've modified many genetic predictors but done so as additional technologies and information came available. And, ultimately out of that, the beef industry has very sound guidelines based on a sound group of people who formulated those decisions.”

Corah concludes, “I don't believe we would have made the genetic progress as an industry had BIF not existed.”

The horizon ahead

As new technology continues to evolve, so will BIF's guidance for the benefit of the industry. One current issue is incorporation of DNA marker test results into genetic evaluation programs.

“Most breeds and most breeders are struggling with how to efficiently and effectively combine traditional performance testing programs with genomic tools to optimize accuracy of selection. The scientific community may present an array of options, but it will likely be BIF and its member organizations that ultimately shape the future of genetic evaluation,” says Twig Marston, BIF executive director.

KSU breeding and genetics professor Dan Moser identifies selection for reduced feed intake and multi-breed genetic evaluation as additional issues the industry has deemed important. He says, “It's difficult to project what issues are around the corner, but whatever they are, BIF will be one of the first places for breeders to learn about them and provide feedback.”

Producer perspectives

What has the Beef Improvement Federation (BIF) meant to beef producers? Two well-known seedstock breeders share the value to their operations.

Virginia seedstock operator James Bennett of Knoll Crest Farm, says, “BIF has had the most positive influence on my operation of any organization I belong to.”

Bennett served as president of BIF in 1979 and considers himself fortunate to have had the opportunity to work alongside researchers, beef specialists and producers from across the country. Bennett says, “There's no better means of education than direct exposure, and the ‘show and tell’ aspect of BIF has been effective.”

From his own experience, Bennett saw his first Gelbvieh cattle while touring the Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, NE, as part of the BIF meeting held in 1981. Shortly thereafter, he brought his first Gelbvieh to Virginia.

Of the many guidelines and standards BIF has helped establish for genetic selection and improvement, Bennett says, “I see BIF as putting a guard rail on either side of the road to keep us [the industry] out of the ditch.”

Steve Radakovich of Iowa says, “Had technology not been used or dispersed through a group like BIF, I think the beef industry would really miss the nucleus of people who have made significant changes in beef-cattle improvement. BIF has been very beneficial to family farms like my own because it gave us accessibility to performance data that we maybe wouldn't have had. Instead, it could have been controlled by large companies, as is the case in the poultry industry today.”

Radakovich, who was president of BIF in 1983, concludes, “BIF has really helped sustain the seedstock family farmer and made him competitive with everyone else in the business, which I think is a real attribute.”