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To Improve Animals, You Must Improve Performance

18 March 2011

Most beef producers still prefer to make selection decisions based on what an animal looks like, rather than a calculation of its genetic merit. However, this tradition may be undermining future profitability, writes Wayne Upton, Beef CRC extension specialist.

Most producers buy bulls the same way they have done for generations. Generally speaking, they will buy the biggest, fattest animal at a sale, and use their experience as third or fourth generation cattlemen or women to visually assess the genetic worth of an animal by what it looks like.

While tradition plays its part in keeping the status quo, another factor is that many commercial breeders do not have a strong understanding of how to use Estimated Breeding Values (EBVs) to improve the profitability of their selection choices.

They are unsure what the difference between tools like EBVs, which have been around for some 30 years, and genomics (the newer DNA markers and panels) are. For many, genetics is ‘gobbledegook’.

EBVs are calculated from information on the animal’s performance and the performance of its relatives and progeny. This information is used to make a prediction of the genetic worth of an animal. The newer genomic DNA markers are developed from an analysis of the minute differences in the genomic sequences of different animals which may point to genes that impact on a desired trait. In the future it is planned that this DNA information will also be used to increase the accuracy of EBVs.

Although commercial breeders would like to have data on how well bulls perform for certain traits, they don’t demand this information.

An example of some of the outcomes of selecting for traits using EBVs is profiled in the Southern Regional Combinations project (see pages 16-17). This project involved three sets of Angus bulls: one group selected on EBVs for intramuscular fat (IMF), the second for EBVs for retail beef yield. The third group was selected for progress in both traits. These bulls were mated to a random sample of Hereford cows and the progeny measured for IMF and retail beef yield at slaughter.

The results demonstrated:

  1. Clear responses to selection of sires on EBVs for specific traits.
  2. Excellent prediction of effects on carcase traits in the progeny.
  3. Producers can select to improve more than one trait at the same time (even if they are negatively correlated).
  4. Responses were consistent across a wide range of environments.

Collecting measurements on individual animals and their progeny is often raised as a significant issue for the northern beef industry, where cattle run in extensive production systems and where producers have managed herds over generations without measuring the genetics of animals. This is not to say it can’t be done. In these extensive breeder regions, a renewed focus on heifer management, breeder performance and bull selection based on inherent fertility is imperative. The beef industry is not taking as much advantage of genetic improvement as other livestock industries, although it s at a similar level to the wool industry and the lamb industry is making improvement.

March 2011

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