The Beef Quality Challenge Contest pens containing a mixture of British, Continental and Brahman-type genetics are typical of many cattle produced today.
The industry's two National Beef Quality Audits (1991 and 1995) identified and tracked a number of problems. Among those with a genetic basis were carcass size, composition, taste appeal and uniformity - there were too many carcasses that were too big, too fat, too unpalatable and/or too variable.
Can conventional genetics address these problems? Can excess size be genetically controlled? Yes, and in the process of moderating size, cow herd utility and adaptability will probably be improved.
Can fat be genetically reduced? Yes. But we know that easy fleshing is important for reproductive efficiency. We probably should not reduce inherent fattening ability in the herd. So, terminal crossing provides much of the opportunity to reduce fat through genetic selection where heifers are not retained for replacements.
Can palatability be improved by genetic selection? Certainly, but the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, NE, has identified at least 14 important tenderness determinants in beef, and only one is genetics. Some experts think there's more opportunity to improve palatability with non-genetic techniques, and new technology is sure to be developed. But genetic selection can definitely be part of the solution.
Can uniformity be improved through changes in genetic management? Yes, but that doesn't mean all cattle produced in this country are going to be alike.
For economic reasons, it's unlikely that beef cows will be managed under conditions as controlled as a poultry house or confinement swine facility. Instead, the basic cow-calf phase will be conducted under conditions ranging from marshes to high country meadows. The same beast won't fit all the various conditions, but we must reduce genetic variability while accommodating these differences in production conditions.
Genetic Management Programs A logical genetic strategy should include: (1) determination of production and marketing conditions, (2) matching applicable levels of animal performance to these conditions, (3) choosing a breeding system and (4) selection of genetic types, breeds and individuals within breeds for compatibility with the above.
* Matching Conditions and Performance. Some producers don't recognize the importance of non-genetic factors in a genetic strategy. For example, in forage-based livestock management, animals must be matched to production conditions, especially nutritional, or the animals' efficiency suffers. In general, for beef cows, as forage quantity and availability increases, and is less variable, larger body size is applicable. As forage quality increases, higher milking is beneficial.
Under restricted nutritional conditions, reproduction critically affects efficiency, favoring relatively small to medium size, lower milking, easy fleshing cows. But if nutrition is abundant, where body condition and reproduction are more easily sustained, weight production is more important and higher levels of both size and milk apply. Efficiency declines if nutrition is below or above requirements.
The number of production phases participated in also affects genetic considerations. For strictly cow-calf producers, larger size and (or) higher milk may be optimum to increase weaning weight, if reproduction is efficiently maintained. But retained ownership benefits from total system considerations, not from maximum efficiency in one specific phase.
* Breeding Systems. Understanding differences in breeding systems is crucial in genetic management. Commercial breeding systems are of two basic types: terminal and continuous. In terminal systems, herd females are not retained for breeding. Continuous systems (breed rotations, composites and most straightbreeding) do retain females. Terminal systems should use specialized sire and maternal types to match the desired market endpoint. Continuous systems should include types and breeds that are moderate in most production characteristics.
* Types And Breeds. There are currently about 75 cattle breeds in the U.S., as defined by the existence of a breed registry. They can be divided into functional groups based on genetic class - either Bos taurus, humpless cattle, or Bos indicus (Zebu) humped cattle - and on breed averages of body size, milking potential and body composition.
Only 15-20 breeds contribute significantly to the nation's cattle numbers, but there are many possible combinations, some good and some not so good. Many industry leaders have advanced the formula of not less than 1/2 British and not more than 1/2 Continental as an ideal blend. A small portion of dairy could be included. In much of the South and Southwest that should be modified to at least 1/4 British, not more that 1/2 Continental and not more than 1/4 Bos indicus.
* Individual Selection. Once conditions are assessed, breeding systems implemented and functional groups chosen, the final task is to select individuals within breeds. The following traits should receive selection emphasis: birthweight, calving ease, milking potential, rate and efficiency of gain, carcass merit, breeding soundness, structural soundness, fleshing ability and mature size. Selection criteria should be determined by the optimum level of performance required.
Value-Based Genetic Strategies Should "value" be emphasized in genetic programs? Yes, but what is valuable to one might not be to another. Beef production, particularly at the cow-calf level, is evolving into two segments, essentially distinguished by herd size. Herds large enough to deal in truckload lots have more market flexibility. And retained ownership also opens more possibilities, especially when going all the way to selling carcasses on the rail.
Large, integrated operations can implement genetic programs with little regard for industry biases. But the vast majority of producers still market on the basis of "eyeball" appraisal. In these situations, market discounts and bonuses often are applied, based on things such as color pattern and length of ear, which may not be valid. This was demonstrated in the Beef Quality Challenge Contest.
Nevertheless, these bonuses and discounts are real and they affect value. This is particularly true at the weaned calf level, where there is more difference in price than at any point in the production cycle.
Beef producers must "follow the money" to survive. This includes the number of animals you have to sell, lbs. per animal, price per lb. and total cost of production.