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Pick the right beef herd genetic mix

Jeff Caldwell 07/08/2013 @ 8:57am Multimedia Editor for Agriculture.com and Successful Farming magazine.

Today's beef industry is no stranger to technology, especially when it comes to breeding for specific traits in your herd. However, don't get too excited about one particular potential trait or another just because you have access to a comprehensive set of genetic tools at your disposal. That's essentially letting the tail wag the dog, says one expert.

"If you single-trait select for any one trait, you'll take your herd in the wrong direction," says Purdue University Extension beef specialist Ron Lemenager.

Instead, he recommends first taking stock of your herd. Where does it most fall short? Instead of focusing exclusively and selecting a bull based on that single trait, its delivery, and the necessary expected progeny differences (EPDs) to yield them, start with your herd's greatest direct genetic needs. Then, consider the rest of the conditions that can improve your herd and prioritize them by their potential economic impacts. And, weigh these conditions against one another. Focusing too much on one trait -- low birth weight, for exmaple -- may have unintended consequences down the road.

"There's a genetic correlation between birth weight and all of the growth rates," Lemenager says. "If you select for light birth weight, you're probably going to end up with light weaning weights, light yearling weights, and a slower-growth rate kind of cattle."

Instead of selecting a bull for this single variable, consider it in a broader EPD context that includes calving ease, calf shape, and other similar factors. And, look beyond birth. Think about how factors like milk production can influence both cows and calves later in life, particularly as they pertain to energy requirements for cows and weaning weights for calves.

"It's a pretty expensive proposition if you have to supplement those cows to maintain body condition, weight, and rebreed rate," Lemenager says. "If you're comfortable with the cow condition and rebreed rate with minimal supplementation, chances are you're pretty close to the level of milk that you need. If cows are thin and failing to conceive, maybe you've got too much milk in your cows for the environment they're working in."

Lemenager recommends using resources like USDA's Meat Animal Research Center EPD comparison table and other similar EPD indices that can break them down by trait selection combinations.

"They're a great way to scan through some bulls to sort out what kind of bull will work for a particular situation," Lemenager says in a university report. "However, realize that these indexes are multitrait numbers."

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