Genetic Selection Made Simpler – More Powerful
Joint multi-breed genetic evaluation promises to revolutionize beef genetic selection and accuracy,
while making life easier for commercial producers.
Bull buyers frustrated with sorting through so many different Expected Progeny Differences (EPDs) from so many different breeds – especially those trying to compare between breeds and breed blends – should soon find the sorting easier and more accurate.
Along the way, the U.S. beef seedstock industry has the chance to clinch its position as the indisputable global leader.
“This effort takes genetic evaluation a quantum leap forward, similar to when the industry moved away from in-herd breeding ratios with the development of Expected Progeny Differences (EPDs),” says Tom Field, professor of animal science at Colorado State University.
Field is talking about what has been dubbed the Joint Venture for Performance Registry Services (JVPRS), the current working name, a pioneering multi-breed genetic evaluation that will begin in October, with hopes of providing genetic evaluation tools within the next 12 months.
In a nutshell, JVPRS is a consortium of existing beef breed organizations that will develop a joint national multi-breed genetic evaluation program and a common suite of EPDs. Participating breeds will accomplish this by sharing their current genetic evaluation databases and by adopting a common system for standardized performance reporting, data collection and data processing.
What this really means for commercial producers are more convenience and more selection accuracy.
“Accuracy will be increased because we’ll have more data and more hybrid data, and we’ll be able to put together more contemporary groups for the evaluation,” explains Bob Hough, executive secretary of the Red Angus Association of America (RAAA), which is a charter member of JVPRS.
For perspective, multi-breed genetic evaluation has been conducted by several breed organizations for a number of years. The American Simmental Association (ASA), for instance, began doing so eight years ago. But these evaluations are limited to the information reported by members of each breed organization. With JVPRS, information reported from members of all of the participating breeds will be included. Consequently, producers will be able to compare animals of different breeds and different breed combinations directly with one another for the same traits with more accuracy than previously available, and they’ll be able find the information on more animals.
Up to now, outside of the limited multi-breed evaluations conducted by individual breed organizations, the closest a producer could get to comparing EPDs across breeds has been using adjustment factors developed and updated annually by the Meat Animal Research Center. In essence, these adjustment factors account for breed differences and differences in breed base year (the year at which the EPD within a breed is equal to zero). With JVPRS the base year is the same and animal performance is compared directly, rather than merely accounting for overall breed differences as the adjustment factors have done.
Moreover, JVPRS will develop a common suite of EPDs so that genetic users are assured of having the same genetic information for all of the breeds involved. Current JVPRS members include RAAA, the International Brangus Breeders Association and the American Salers Association, which also represents the South Devon breed. ASA, the North American Limousin Foundation (NALF) and the American Gelbvieh Association are considering membership.
As important, all breeds participating in JVPRS must adopt Total Herd Reporting (THR). This is a reporting system by which breeders report data for all calves born each year from the cows listed in their individual inventories. This as opposed to choosing which performance information to submit, and which calves to include in the evaluation. Besides increasing genetic evaluation accuracy overall, it also means JVPRS can evaluate Economically Relevant Traits (ERT) such as heifer pregnancy, rather than simply indicator traits for fertility. Another example is the opportunity to provide predictions for cow maintenance energy requirements – an ERT – rather than mature cow weight as an indicator trait of it.
Bottom line, JVPRS will be the largest multi-breed beef genetic evaluation in history.
“This will allow commercial producers to get a handle on breed complimentarity, which until now we’ve really only been able to observe but not quantify,” says Dave Nichols of Nichols Farms, a leading seedstock provider at Bridgewater, IA.
Breeds exploring the possibilities of JVPRS enlisted the perspectives of Nichols and other respected industry leaders. Collectively, this industry think tank unanimously supported the effort. Given the added genetic accuracy and user convenience of the system the only concern expressed was that JVPRS hadn’t begun years ago.
“Crossbreeding is best conducted when we have a good description of the biological types going into the system,” says Field. “One size does not fit all, so there is a need for reliable data describing the components used.” Since JVPRS compares specific animals of specific biologic types, producers will have the opportunity to go beyond matching general breed complimentarity and actually select for specific production environments.
In fact, Hough believes JVPRS is being developed at critical point in beef industry history. Given the growing concentration of Angus within the domestic commercial cowherd, he believes, “The industry is at a crossroads where it will choose to straight-breed to a greater degree, or where it will finally exploit the advantages of heterosis that come through crossbreeding. That’s the urgency.”
Field believes economics have already made heterosis a necessary part of the business, albeit an often misunderstood, mismanaged, under-utilized necessity. “There is absolutely no way the industry can ignore crossbreeding. If you want to put commercial producers out of business force them to use only half the genome and forget the other half,” says Field.
“Commercial producers are struggling with how to make crossbreeding systems work,” explains Kent Andersen, executive vice-president of the North American Limousin Foundation (NALF), one of the organizations involved in the JVPRS exploration process. “Commercial producers should be able to compare bulls they’re considering on a level playing field, based on profit potential in their specific situation.”
The JVPRS genetic evaluation is the essential first step toward such a goal. The next comes with decision-support tools that the group is also developing. “They involve using additive information and non-additive information (heterosis) to begin to predict the actual phenotype (performance) of an animal, which is what commercial producers are paid for,” explains Andersen.
Whatever the view about heterosis, there is no question that increased concentration of Angus genetics in the commercial herd makes it tougher for other breeds to compete head-to-head in terms of genetic evaluation, just by virtue of the sheer numbers of an organization registering more than 200,000 head each year. The most annual registrations of any single breed exploring JVPRS is approximately 40,000 head. Combined, though, members of JVPRS could have about 300,000 head of cows in the data collection inventory. Calves from these cows, by virtue of each participating breed’s agreement to adopt THR would be added to the genetic evaluation each year.
This data power and the ability to harness it obviously helps seedstock producers in their selection and business sustainability as well. Field believes the system will help breeders improve their seedstock and the genetic information associated with the stock – which he believes is more crucial than the animals themselves. He explains the system also provides breeds and breeders with the information to develop convenient how-to breeding systems for customers.
For breeds participating in JVPRS, icing on the cake comes with the fact that the cooperative approach should allow each breed to reduce current expenditures for genetic evaluation. This cost is positioned to increase significantly as the primary universities that have provided statistical genetic evaluation analysis for breeds are beginning to refocus their animal breeding resources on research and teaching.
“This model is designed to support existing breed organizations, not replace them,” says Hough. “This is a proactive step breed organizations are taking with their primary asset, which is cattle pedigree information and performance data.” He emphasizes the process allows participating breeds to offer commercial producers more accurate and cost-effective genetic evaluation, while maintaining the unique identities of their own breeds and the integrity of their respective databases.
Plus, Andersen points out the critical mass of the cooperative organization ensures each participating breed will have a sustainable performance and genetic evaluation program for its breed.
Obviously, that has implications for commercial producers, too. It means producers using any of the breeds participating in JVPRS are assured they will be able to continue getting genetic evaluation for those genetics no matter what the future may hold for the fortunes of the respective individual breeds.
“At the end of the day, this is an opportunity to have a lot better system to use in making genetic decisions,” says Field.
“This represents a new gold standard in genetic evaluation,” says Hough. “The result of this joint venture will be the most sophisticated beef cattle genetic analysis in the world.”
Indeed. Field believes, “This positions the U.S. seedstock industry as the clear global leader for cutting edge cattle data and genetic information services.”
“I think this is the kind of forward thinking that changes industries,” says Field.
“In the end, this will be best for the commercial producer, and what’s best for the commercial producer will be good for the beef industry. That’s why I support it,” says Nichols.