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Understanding and Utilizing Genetics for Efficient Profitable Beef Production

Understanding and Utilizing Genetics for Efficient Profitable Beef Production

By: John Dhuyvetter

Understanding and applying the principles of genetics through cattle breeding has and continues to make productivity and product improvements. The basis for beef improvement lies in the genetic diversity that exists and harnessing it through selection, heterosis, and complementarity.

Huge differences can be seen amongst cattle associated with their health and nutritional status in their ability to reproduce, grow, finish, and the resulting product. Even when raised under like conditions, significant differences between animals exist, arising in part from differing genetic makeup. These differences are heritable and can in part be passed to offspring through selection and mating systems.

Genetic variation exists as both breed differences and differences amongst individuals in a breed. The ability to use this variation for improving both productivity and profitability rests with the ability to most accurately evaluate and predict genetic difference and then align genetic targets with profit maximizing breeding objectives.

In a segmented beef industry, it is the cow-calf producer who makes the genetic decisions of which breeds, bulls, and cows will be mated to produce the animals which are developed and processed for beef. Through market price, the kind of beef consumers want, the characteristics of value to processors, and what are in the feeders interests, are signaled back to him. This weighs in on his genetic decisions for animals that function and produce well for his resources and situation.  He often makes some tradeoffs in producing the most, or for the least, or of the greatest value.

Some have suggested differential production might target highly marbled meat and more economical beef markets from breeding through feeding management. Premiums for high marbled beef vary with available supply and have been favorable with expanding exports and higher feed costs but diminish when it is over produced.  It appears most breeding decisions are directed toward quality end points by the breeds and mating systems that prevail.

The Angus breed, characterized with the highest average marbling ability, associated with higher valued beef brands, and recognized to receive market premiums, has grown to be the predominant breed of beef genetics. As the largest breed association with the most comprehensive data base and resources it has been able to offer genetic evaluations of greater accuracy and with more innovations. Good genetic predictions coupled with selection intensity has also resulted in Angus cattle with more growth and size than in the past and comparable to what had been considered “growth breeds”.

From a selection point of view, selected Angus offer the best alternative for high marbling and have the prediction tools to achieve high growth coupled with calving ease. From a management and marketing perspective, Angus are polled, pigmented, with good market demand. Over 65% of the cattle genetic base is now Angus.  A number of producers now are straight breeding Angus for the simplicity in an enterprise often secondary to other enterprises and their recognized strengths.

This does however leave genetic tools and efficiencies on the table. In addition to within breed selection we should consider what across breed complementarily offers and if the value of crossbreeding and heterosis can be ignored. Incremental improvements due to hybrid vigor over a number of lowly heritable traits and, feedlot efficiency and cut out yield improvements associated with more muscular breeds relates to potential increased weaning weight productivity per cow of 10 to 20% and product cost savings of 10 to 20% totaling over $200 per head in today’s market.

Heterosis or hybrid vigor is sometimes misunderstood. If breed A has a genetic value of 600 pound weaning weights and breed B a 500 pound weaning weight value, then when crossed we might expect 550 pound weaning weights. What is more likely is a 570 pound weaning weight reflecting 20 pounds of heterosis. But in spite of heterosis, the weaning weight is still not as high as the best parent, so if all we want to achieve is best weaning weight we would stick to breeding straight breed A.

Of course cattle economics are much more complex than weaning weight; with reproductive performance and input costs major factors. For lowly heritable traits as conception rate, calf survival, longevity, etc. heterosis effects are largest between adapted selected breed crosses especially under environments or times of greater stress. The sum of a few percentage points higher pregnancy rates, an additional few calves surviving till weaning, and cows lasting an additional 1 to 2 years before culling translates into additional dollars with the crossbred often exceeding the best parent breed.  The greatest identified benefits are associated with the crossbred cow.

The potentials of complementary are not often appreciated. Recent attention to increased cow mature size and how it affects nutritional requirements ultimately is about stocking rates and numbers. The crossbreeding model of mating a herd of moderate size cows to higher growth terminal sires with calves destined for feedlot markets, addresses both cow/calf and feeders needs. Furthermore if the choice of breeds includes crossing higher muscled with high marbling breed types or genotypes, a likely outcome is of both acceptable carcass quality and cut ability. As the composition of gain is greater muscle and less fat, feed conversion and cost of gain improves. A YG 3.8 has an estimated retail yield of 48.2 versus 52.3 for a YG 2.0, reflecting over 35 additional pounds of retail saleable cuts from an 850 pound carcass.

Today’s trends are reflective of the cow calf producer’s needs of management simplicity, minimized operational problems, and calf crop marketability as operations have grown or exist as part time enterprises of which labor availability and efficiency are of increasing concern.  Opportunity for added efficiency and profitability exists through alternative breeding systems if they can be put into practice easily.  Calving ease, polled, market acceptance, are priorities; and sources of accurately evaluated breeding stock and simple methods for replacement are needed to alter trends.

Seedstock breeders of other breeds and composites who can breed for economic priorities and accurately identify genetic merit, address both market concerns and replacement options for crossbred cowherds, have the potential to make their customers more efficient and profitable.

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