When John Edwards was a boy, he took his father at his word, especially when it came to cattle. Then, Edwards went and got himself one of those college educations.
"We'd always just keep the biggest and strongest heifers," remembers Edwards. "One day, I came home from college and told my dad, 'We can't really do that, you see, because I've been learning about adjusted weaning weights, and if we don't adjust for age, we're putting the younger heifers at a disadvantage to the older ones.'"
As all good dads do, John's listened intently, then quickly explained, "What we're doing is culling out the calves whose mothers either had them later because they bred later or because they're not raising as good a calf as the others. What's wrong with that?"
Indeed, for the merits of technology and objective measure, Edwards learned early on that common sense visual observation possesses a power no machine or calculator can replace, even today. For more than four decades, he has evaluated thousands of cattle in the pasture and the show ring and taught thousands of young people how to see cattle. Today, he's managing partner of the Key Bar Ranch in Glendo, WY.
"I think what we've done with all of this genetic evaluation data, which is such a valuable tool, is made it too easy for some to sit down with the numbers, the math and what seems like objective data, and neglect visual evaluation in putting it all together. And there are those who do the opposite and neglect putting the objective measures with their visual evaluation," says Edwards.
Bill Mies, professor of Animal Science at Texas A&M University (TAMU) and one of the nation's foremost cattle feeding experts, feels likewise. He says, "This would be a difficult business for a blind man to run. Over 400 years ago, a man by the name of Lemon said the eye of the master fattens his cattle, and that hasn't changed."
What We Can See In the breeding herd, Edwards says, "I think the whole question of form following function, or the relationship between form and function, is the underlying principle of what we can do with our eyes."
Specifically, Edwards says, "With our eyes we can evaluate the skeletal design of the animal, and a trained evaluator can do a good job of estimating subcutaneous fat and muscle. To a lesser degree, we can evaluate reproductive potential to the extent that we can detect dramatic imbalances in the hormone profile."
So, the estrogen that drives female reproductive promise is the same reason heifers should look feminine, rather than masculine.
Of course, Edwards points out there's a sure way to evaluate reproductive merit without discussing phenotype. He explains, "Typically, we keep the ones that are bred and cull the ones that aren't. That's how we determine fertility."
Even so, Edwards says, at least subconsciously, veteran cattle producers exploit their vision by sorting out stock that fits the same mold of predecessors who have flourished in the same pastures.
"Some guys may not be able to see specific differences, but they can tell whether or not the cattle fit their mental pattern of what has proven to work for them," says Edwards. "In most herds of cattle, if a rancher will study the most productive females in terms of those that breed and calve on time, they'll begin to see similarities in design and pattern for that particular environment."
As for other specifics that lend themselves to visual appraisal, Edwards says the easiest difference for people to see is size. He explains, "One advantage to frame size is that most people do a pretty good job of sorting the shortest cattle from the tallest." That's why, Edwards says, so many "master breeders" flash on to the scene when the industry gets caught up in a frenzy to chase frame up then back down.
With that in mind, the eye is sometimes more accurate than the logic people use to interpret what they see. Edwards wishes he had a nickel for every time a breeder poked him in the ribs and said, "You know she has milk, just look at the udder." But, he'd rather have a dime for each time he responded, "I don't have any idea how much milk she has, but that's a swell delivery system for it."
Climb over the feedlot fence, Mies says, and managers can see plenty, too. "We can accurately see fat, muscle and frame size, and, depending on our ability, weight. All those are associated with end points that we need to manage cattle toward."
In short, trained eyes can run with technology when it comes to estimating yield, at least on an average basis.
"The thing we're learning is that more people in this industry understand cutability well enough to estimate pen yields, but fewer understand the relationship between fat and muscle well enough to estimate yield grades on individual cattle," explains Mies. Thus, different cattle with different potential continue to be managed toward a common endpoint, wasting time and money along the way.
The Blind Leading The Hopeful "Having said all of that, what we've learned is that beyond the hide we are able to gauge much less with our eyes than we thought we could," explains Mies. "We have looked at the outside and thought we knew what was on the inside. We have discovered that fat cover and days on feed have little to do with how cattle marble and how they will eat. On quality, we have given our eyes more credit than they deserve."
Edwards emphasizes, "We know that trained evaluators can be very accurate at estimating muscularity and fat cover. We also know those same evaluators are virtually unable to estimate marbling in the live animal, other than the fact that we assume fatter animals and black are more highly marbled, which are poor assumptions."
For perspective, Mies and Edwards participated in a TAMU study several years ago that compared the accuracy of their trained eyes to the most current ultrasound technology. Across thousands of fed steers and heifers their eyes proved as accurate as the machine for estimating fat and muscle.
When it came to marbling though, Mies says they would have scored higher by flipping a coin. He explains, "We were each standing there with 30 years of prejudices behind us about the type of cattle we thought could never grade and those we thought had to grade."
Moreover, Mies says, "One of the places our eyes get us into trouble the most is on feeder cattle. We buy based on management mistakes and the potential for compensatory gain, and we may be selecting against quality in the process."
The same shrunk, green calves traditionally coveted by some buyers are also the most likely calves to get sick and under-perform. This, of course, can drag quality grades into the gutter.
Conversely, if an order buyer wanted to identify a calf that would qualify for a program like Certified Angus Beef, for instance, Mies explains it might very well be a lighter, smaller framed, fatter, earlier maturing calf than tradition regards as the most valuable. Rather than bid those types up, he says eye-logic tells the buyer to get them bought for $6 back of the market.
"We don't have enough people writing the checks for feeder cattle who are also standing there when fed cattle are loaded on to the truck, or when those same cattle are hanging on the rail," says Mies. "The biggest challenge in the beef industry is that after we improve this value-based marketing of fed cattle, how do we improve value-based marketing in feeder cattle to match those fed targets?"
Seeing The Potential Oddly enough, eyes may be part of the solution. For instance, Mies worked with a value-added beef system looking to buy calves that fit inside a narrow window of specifications when they're finished. At first, buyers were sending too many cattle that fell short of the mark.
"The hardest thing for those buyers to do was not to buy the cattle their eyes traditionally told them had to be the great ones," says Mies. In order to see the world differently, Mies evaluated every head purchased with each buyer, explaining why this one would work and that one wouldn't.
Then, he took buyers into the packing house to illustrate how visual traits translated on the rail. Soon enough, those buyers were hitting the mark with 92% of their purchases.
"I had to do the same thing when I was feeding young bulls," says Mies. "Every order buyer thought he knew how to buy bulls. What he knew was how to buy cutter bulls, and in true niche systems every individual has to work, not just on the average."