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Using EPDs to better your cattle herds

Building a better herd is crucial to improving the profitability of a cattle operation, and the bones of a better herd start with the parents who will lead the next generation.

One of the most effective ways to increase profit margins is to improve the genetics of the animal you are raising.

Though Brad Skaar, an associate professor at Iowa State University, says you won’t find an animal that excels at everything, it is possible for producers to focus on specific traits by using an expected progeny difference (EPD). EPDs serve as a way to evaluate the expected differences in traits based on information collected about possible sires and dams, typically within the same breed. This information can then be used to determine the ideal dams and sires.

“By using EPDs, producers can be more effective, more accurate, and more intentional in selecting the parents of the next generation,” Skaar says. “An EPD on an individual animal is not very interpretable, but it’s a useful ranking. It’s the differences between the candidates that are important.”

Agencies like breed associations or seedstock companies collect and analyze data from registered breed animals, like birth weights, and make best-guess estimates of the genetic differences of the animals. That information is compiled and used to create EPDs.

From birth weight to carcass weight, EPDs can be used to compare a variety of traits.

For example, if a producer wants to focus on reductions in birth weight, he may center the evaluation on that trait in an EPD. When comparing sires, it’s the differences in numbers that matter. If one’s birth weight EPD is a 10 and the other’s is a 4, the latter is expected to produce offspring that are, on average, 6 pounds lighter than the former would, Skaar says.

The way numbers resulting from an EPD are implemented into an operation are largely up to the producer. If there are only a few pounds in difference between two potential sires, that may not matter much to a producer, Skaar says. But if a farmer is trying to solve an issue with dystocia, difficult births typically caused by a large or awkwardly positioned fetus, that number may mean more to them.

Because EPDs include so much information, Skaar says it can be intimidating, especially for first-time users. He recommends looking for index EPDs, which are marked with a dollar sign.

“Index EPDs are a good, productive attempt by our industry to gather all the pieces of this overwhelming information and group them into a single number that tends to revolve around a production goal. It makes sorting through the information much quicker and easier,” Skaar says.

Kelli Retallick-Riley, president of Angus Genetics, Inc., part of the American Angus Association (AAA), says EPDs help producers not only create a better genetic pool, but indexes help them select animals for a particular marketing goal.

“Angus Genetics calls them Dollar Values ($Values), but they are Economic Selection Indexes,” Retallick-Riley says. “They are tools to predict profitability in different segments of the industry. We have all these EPDs from the AAA. What we try to do is distill this large set of EPD tools to target specific marketing circumstances. This aims to provide commercial cattle producers – who are perhaps raising their own replacement females and marketing feeder calves – an index to consider all the costs and revenue associated with that goal.”

The higher a number on an Economic Selection Index, the more profitable that animal’s progeny are likely to be.

The AAA has both maternal and terminal tools, specific for what type of use the animal serves on a producer’s farm. A producer does not have to be a member of the association to have access to these resources. All they need is the registered name or number of the animal to look up in the database.

Producers can also enhance their EPD results by conducting a genomically-enhanced EPD, which combines the normal statistical EPD and blood or DNA sample to paint a better picture.

“We can enhance the statistical estimate of the differences between animals by actually looking at segments of their DNA in the laboratory and taking a little better guess as to which animals carry certain genetic structures that further contribute to a producer’s goal,” Skaar says.

Genomically-enhanced EPDs can be conducted through the same avenues statistical EPDs are; the AAA offers them through Angus Genetics, Inc.

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