I'm a self-proclaimed performance fanatic, have been for years. But too much performance can be as bad as not enough.
In years past, we called it optimization. The concept never really caught on, but it seems like we're not happy unless we're changing something in cattle breeding. The theory holds that profitability results when a lot of traits are at middle-of-the-road levels, where they can co-exist.
Having been involved with a breed association's performance programs in the early days of genetic evaluation, I remember all to well the struggle to get cattlemen to use expected progeny differences (EPDs) in their breeding programs.
I worked with a breed that needed to improve growth performance and milk production, so I had worthwhile goals in mind. I recognized that EPDs were a breeding decision tool, but the only way I could get breeders excited about using EPDs was in their advertising and sale catalogs.
As breeders jumped on the EPD bandwagon, I soon recognized that what had been intended as a breeding tool had become a marketing tool. A potential monster lurked in cattle breeding.
At the same time, the show ring was fueling a horse race for frame score. A few practical cattlemen warned the industry that single-trait selection for frame was dangerous; I sensed that EPDs could force the same type of competitive race, a race for the numbers, and someday we'd face the consequences.
Cattle breeding is full of antagonisms. Stretch performance and biological type too far in one direction, and you'll surely pay for it somewhere else.
Selection for frame was a good idea carried to an extreme. Bigger framed cattle tend to be later in their compositional maturity pattern. In other words, they are not as fat at a given weight.
That's just what the industry needed to improve lean yield in cattle and get away from some of the dumpy, overly fat cattle of the past. We postulated that bigger framed cattle grew faster; a delayed maturity pattern resulted in faster gains, some university specialists said. We convinced ourselves muscle growth was more efficient than fat deposition. But as we selected for frame, we started to see birth weights and gestation length increase.
Mature cow size jumped, and so did maintenance requirements.
Pregnancy rates dropped. Bigger framed cattle also tended to have delayed physiological maturity. Scrotal circumference was a problem with many of the big breeds.
Heifers didn't cycle as early; two-year-olds were still growing and not rebreeding. We rewrote the book on nutrition for developing breeding heifers.
Many of the things performance cattlemen started to measure were merely patches for problems we shouldn't have had in the first place. We started measuring pelvic areas to eliminate calving problems and found that bigger pelvic openings were associated with more frame and birth weight.
Breeds developed EPDs for scrotal circumference, gestation length, heifer pregnancy, stayability; all patches for problems we hadn't had in the past. Big heavy milking cows always looked thin, so we developed body condition scores.
We increased production costs on the cow side; carcass weights have climbed steadily since 1975. We decreased carcass quality and, most importantly, lost consumer acceptance of the product. It cost this industry billions.
But we came to our senses and renewed our interest in British cattle, Angus in particular. The timing was right for the Angus breed; a look at their genetic trend lines for growth indicates that Angus breeders in the meantime had made improvement as a result of using EPDs. These improvements were truly needed for the Angus breed to successfully lead an industry turnaround.
We backed off the frame size of all breeds of cattle to the point that we can't even easily recognize some of the European breeds that led the performance race. We improved carcass quality and may be witnessing the first blip upward in consumer acceptance in a long time. We came back to the middle of the road and are finally satisfied. Right?
Not quite. My prediction about a numbers race with ill consequences may be surfacing in the Angus breed. More and more Angus bulls have yearling weight EPDs more than 100 lbs. as we push the genetic trend lines to new heights.
When you look at the across-breed EPD adjustment factors, those bulls would rank with the high-growth cattle we shunned a decade ago in favor of Angus. Meanwhile, I've heard more than one savvy commercial cattleman remark, “Fertility ain't what it used to be in Angus cattle.”
Ultrasound technology provides a snapshot of carcass traits in live breeding animals. At the recent National Western Stock Show, a friend talked about a yearling Angus bull that scanned an 18-in. ribeye. Big numbers impress people.
Folks I've talked to say we only need a 1½-in. bigger ribeye in a yearling bull than a finished steer. The big ribeye breeds all yielded their popularity to Angus because extremes in muscling carry some undesirable baggage in muscle quality and fertility problems.
Genetic evaluation and ultrasound technology have had a big impact in this industry. But merely quantifying an animal in several individual traits isn't going to be enough to keep us in business.
In the future, seedstock and commercial producers will benefit from more sophisticated data analysis, modeling and information feedback. We'll develop new tools to fine tune production and balance biology and economics in beef production. We'll be more focused on specific targets for the end-product. The growing influence of grids and alliances will force us in that direction.
A gap will appear and widen between seedstock producers who are just playing a numbers game and those who are truly data-driven cattle breeders.
Wayne Vanderwert, PhD, is a partner in H-Squared Genetics near Madison, MO. He consults for Chrono-Logic Systems Inc., a data management company. E-mail him at email@example.com.