The Annual Beef Improvement Federation (BIF) meeting was recently held in Lincoln, NE, with an eye on future genetic improvement in the beef industry. This included the role of the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center (MARC), increasing cattle output through efficiency, selection for novel traits and new models for genetic selection.
The program started with a review of the last 50 years of MARC research and what we can expect in the future. MARC has been instrumental in the past in characterizing of breeds for various traits, which has resulted in among other things, the across-breed EPD adjustments. In the early years, MARC work on biologically defining breeds had a big influence on which breeds became popular and those that faded into obscurity. In the future, MARC will do breeding studies on the 18 breeds that have the largest impact on the beef industry.
It is important to note that all of their work on various traits will include genomics. This will include revisiting retained heterosis on various crosses and hybrids. This work has not been done since the 1970s, and should be very beneficial to the industry. They are also looking at more useful ways to calculate and disseminate acrossbreed EPD adjustments. The value of the MARC research in the past and the future cannot be overstated.
Another theme of the conference was increasing production through selection for various traits like maintenance and reproduction efficiency and disease resistance. Reproduction has been shown to be a more economically important trait when compared to growth and carcass, and improved genetic potential for reproductive traits is the best way for the industry to increase output. This will include genomically-enhanced genetic predictions for heifer pregnancy, stayability and longevity. It was noted that a heifer that breeds in the first cycle will produce over 400 additional pounds in her lifetime compared to those that breed later as yearlings.
Feed is 70 percent of the expense in cattle production and 70 percent of all feed goes to meeting maintenance requirements making this a large target for genetic improvement. University of Illinois scientists have shown that improved feed efficiency during heifer development equated to improved maintenance energy efficiency in two-year-old dams.
They observed no decrease in production for traits like reproduction and weaning weight for the more efficient dams, which were eating less feed. It was also noted during the conference that increased acres of forage available to the beef industry would come from low quality feed sources such as corn stalks, and cattle needed to be genetically designed to excel in these types of environments.
Selection for novel traits such as increased nutrient value of beef and disease resistance was also a hot topic. Our industry annually loses $1 billion from the morbidity and mortality associated with Bovine Respiratory Disease (BRD). In a number of studies, BRD has been shown to be a heritable trait, so selection for BRD resistance can be effective. To build genetic predictions for BRD will take both the collection of phenotypes and genomics.
One of the exciting items discussed at BIF was the building of new models to
produce EPDs taking advantage of new computer processing capabilities. This will include adding genomics into the main models to produce genomically enhanced EPDs. This has been difficult to achieve for many breed associations forcing them to currently blend the genomics information in post-analysis. This blending procedure has many drawbacks including information not flowing through the pedigree.
Enhancements in computer technology could allow associations to calculate the true accuracy of a genetic prediction rather than the BIF estimated procedure currently utilized by the industry. Weekly and even daily national cattle evaluations should be in the reach for many more associations while currently only Angus does a weekly evaluation to produce EPDs.
Another novel item discussed was the prenatal environment’s effect on gene activation. It has been shown that prenatal stressors can affect gene expression in progeny and grandprogeny. This and other talks highlighted the need to combine optimum management along with genetic selection.
As the industry moves forward with new trait selection, a review of economically relevant traits (ERTs) versus indicator traits was done by Dr. Bruce Golden. The classic example of ERT was calving ease versus birth weight. Birth weight is an indicator trait while the main trait of interest is calving ease, so calving ease EPD should be the trait a producer looks at for making selection decisions for calving ease. Birth weights should still be collected as they are correlated to calving ease, but this information should be put into the calving ease calculation, and ideally, not published at all.
The problem with selecting using both the ERT and indicator simultaneously is it actually decreases the accuracy of selection compared to using the ERT alone. Examples of ERTs that the industry needed to be calculating genetic predictions for in the future included efficiency, disease resistance/survivability and adaptability.
Another topic, especially in the producer panels, was indexes. Indexes have become more commonplace in the industry, but the question was raised as to whether we are getting too many?
Like ERTs, it was felt that fewer, more meaningful indexes covering wider segments of production would be helpful. It was noted that our current system has led to fads and does not account well enough for production environments. The take home message was that the three big costs to a cow/calf operation are feed, labor and depreciation, while revenue is a function of weaning weight, weaning rate (percent of calf crop weaned) and price.
All in all, BIF was again a big success, and every serious cattle producer should think about attending every year. — Dr. Bob Hough, WLJ Correspondent