Keys to Association Success from a Scientific Viewpoint By Rebecca Mettler

As referenced in President Scott Starr’s “View from the Board” article on page 6 of this edition of Gelbvieh World, The American Gelbvieh Association (AGA) Board of Directors had the opportunity to hear from a guest speaker at the latest board meeting. Matt Spangler, Ph.D., beef genetics specialist with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, covered a broad range of topics and answered numerous questions from the board regarding the direction of the AGA.

Genomics History Lesson 

AGA and the rest of the International Genetic Solution (IGS) partners are moving away from a two-step approach to genetic selection and toward a single-step approach of incorporating genomics into genetic evaluations, using a software known as BOLT. “Instead of the training process and blending after the evaluation (as done with the two-step approach), those genotypes fit directly into your national cattle evaluation along with pedigree and performance information and are all estimated together,” Spangler explained.

One benefit of BOLT is its speed. Spangler calls the software exceptionally fast, which will make it possible to turn out evaluations more than twice a year as AGA currently does.

By nature, genetics, genomics, expected progeny differences (EPDs), and accuracy are a complex subject matter. Spangler understands that if a producer didn’t have a handle on EPDs and accuracy before, genomics only muddied the waters. Spangler spends a fair amount of time educating producers at every level of the industry on the science behind genomics as well as the practical applications of genomics.

Proper application of genomics technology is essential. Spangler challenges the entire membership of any beef cattle breed association to genotype complete cohort groups. When he pulls the trigger to genotype at the University, he tests every calf born. Spangler explained that the technology is to be used to determine the animals that are going to make the sale.

“I don’t want to use it once I’m putting together my catalog to try and make a bull bring more money; that’s not what the technology was meant to do.” He also cautions breed associations and individual producers about only genotyping their best animals. “Cherry-picking inherently leads to bias in your genomic predictions. You need to do the entire cohort.”

Forward Thinking to the Future

“The trick to a successful breed association going forward isn’t just that the commercial industry recognizes and values Gelbvieh and Balancer germplasm, but they recognize and value the AGA,” Spangler said.“The commercial industry needs to think that if it weren’t for the stuff that the AGA does for me, I wouldn’t know what to do.”

The Gelbvieh breed prides itself for maternal capabilities. Some maternal traits and fertility traits are hard to measure. Spangler points out that one breed will never get enough data within that particular breed to accurately describe fertility traits through EPDs. One would have to harness the power of the commercial cow-calf sector and collect the overwhelmingly large amount of data that could be provided.

“The entity that can leverage commercial cowherd data wins the race. There needs to be a large investment and collaboration to get that done, and it’s not an easy task,” Spangler said. Taking swine production into consideration, Spangler described those swine firms that invested in genomics that doesn’t own commercial assets are heavily involved in genomics. Those that do own commercial assets interest invest in phenotypes before genotyping.

While it’s not an easy task in the beef industry, ideally, data needs to be collected on a mix of Gelbvieh, commercial Balancer females, straight-bred Angus, and straight-bred Red Angus females. Spangler understands that the commercial producer must benefit from the transfer of data in some way. Preferably, the association can provide the producer with impactful herd management tools to make their life easier in one step in the right direction. This falls in line with the Meeting Modern Industry Demands Strategic Plan goal of AGA having the largest commercial cowherd database in the industry. Moving toward that goal calls on AGA members to direct their customers to enroll their cattle in the Smart Select Service, which is AGA’s commercial data management tool.

Being a Seedstock Breeder is Hard Work

“You inherently bare the expense that’s related to genetic evaluation and improvement. Then there’s the investment you made over a long time to increase the genetic merit… It’s all part of being a seedstock producer,” Spangler said.

In closing, Spangler said that he understands that being a seedstock producer is expensive and a lot of work, but each producer chooses to be in the seedstock business.

After all, it’s the seedstock producers’ job to influence genetic progress within the nation’s collective beef cow herd. That task can be daunting and incredibly rewarding all at the same time.