Technology provides producers with tools to create a competitive productWritten by Natasha Wheeler
Casper – “When we think about beef cattle and our competition from a protein standpoint with poultry and swine, we have a longer gestation period and longer generational turnover. How can we make some decisions to be more competitive?” asked Wyoming Beef Extension Specialist Steve Paisley.
Using certain tools may help producers better estimate which management decisions will create an optimal balance in their herds. At the Progressive Rancher Forum, held in Casper on Nov. 30, Paisley discussed using estimated progeny differences (EPD), ultrasound and residual feed intake (RFI) as tools for animal selection.
“We want to think about traits more from an optimum standpoint than a maximum standpoint. The idea is to find an optimal balance of traits, focusing on biological types that work in our management systems,” he explained.
EPDs have been used in the cattle industry for over 20 years. Breed associations calculate EPDs using an individual animal’s performance records and the performance of its ancestors, siblings, half-siblings and progeny, if the animal has progeny.
“Now we also have the ability to use genetic testing and genetic information, and it actually increases our baseline accuracy levels by about 10 percent,” noted Paisley.
Although traditional EPDs include information such as birth weight, weaning weight and yearling weight, the industry is beginning to place more emphasis on maternal traits and economically-relevant traits.
Maternal traits include information such as the chances of sires’ daughters becoming pregnant as first-calf heifers, maternal calving ease and maternal milk production.
Considering economically relevant traits, breed associations are building value indexes, which combine EPD information to simplify certain selection decisions.
“The Angus Association is using cow energy value ($EN). That’s expressed as dollar savings per cow per year. In that case, a negative number indicates an animal that is more efficient and requires fewer dollars to manage throughout the year,” he noted as an example.
“The idea behind the dollar index is to try and keep track of, simplify or improve our ability to rank and select for different traits in cattle,” added Paisley.
Examples from the Red Angus Association include a stayability index, predicting the ability of a bull’s daughter to remain in the herd through six years of age, and a cow maintenance number, which considers feed efficiency relative to mature weight and milk production.
“We have a lot of this information out there, but one of the main things we have to improve is performance, and there are opportunities in our own herd through crossbreeding,” mentioned Paisley.
Luckily, across-breed EPDs have been created, using Angus as a baseline to compare breeds and make selection decisions for crossbreeding programs.
“We can use that information to look at other breeds while still maintaining uniformity,” he explained.
EPDs are also available for carcass traits, but ultrasound is one tool that can be used to predict carcass traits of a live animal.
“We collect ultrasound data for breed associations and sire selection. We also use it for adjusting for management and environment,” explained Paisley.
As an example, ultrasound can be used in feedlots that market small numbers of animals on a regular basis so that similar animals are marketed on a weekly basis.
“We measure carcass attributes in a live animal without harming or hurting the animal. We measure back fat thickness, and we trace the ribeye and measure its area in a live animal,” he noted.
Ultrasound can also be used to estimate the amount of marbling, or intramuscular fat, in a live animal, and those traits help to estimate yield grade.
“We are interested in looking at and understanding yield grade using ultrasound because we are trying to do a better job of understanding and providing the carcass that we are trying to produce,” he said.
For cow/calf producers, ultrasound can also be used to evaluate potential replacement heifers, looking at ribeye area to determine which animals will maintain the best carcass quality in the given environment.
Feed efficiency is another measure that can be used to determine the value of a cow.
“Because we live in a very arid environment, we tend to believe that some of the natural selection that occurs within our own herds is selecting for efficiency,” commented Paisley, “but based on a lot of our bull test data from Wyoming bulls, we’re not selecting for it as well as we think we are. There is still room for improvement when we talk about feed efficiency.”
Residual feed intake (RFI) is one way to measure feed efficiency with data that is unaffected by the size of the cow.
“It’s independent of cow size. RFI looks at the actual feed intake,” he explained.
“Efficient animals, or more desirable animals, eat less than we would predict, and they have a negative RFI. The Achilles heel of RFI is that we are selecting for a negative number, which goes against our tendencies, but that is what we’re looking for,” he added.
Paisley also pointed out that feed efficiency is not equal to production efficiency. RFI is only one trait that contributes to the whole picture.
“We’ve done a great job of selecting for performance in cattle, but we haven’t really looked at feed intake and feed efficiency,” he said.
Producers are trying to produce beef that hits their target and has a high value while maintaining high consumer demand. EPDs, ultrasound and RFI are some of the tools to assist them in creating a competitive product.