Breed Associations: Thing of the Past or Key to the Future? by Kari White

Any cattle producer knows that margins are getting increasingly tighter even in the most successful beef operations. Savvy producers are constantly assessing inputs into their business, looking for places to become more efficient. It’s at times like these breeders may ask whether being part of a breed association worth the cost.

Breed associations in the United States formed in the early 1900s as a way to keep track of pedigrees for purebred animals. Since that time, breed associations have evolved to store and process huge amounts of data used for large-scale genetic evaluation on every animal in the database. Such evaluations are beneficial for every sector of the beef industry, as high performing seedstock for economically relevant traits can speed genetic improvement in commercial animals bound for the food supply chain. Economically relevant traits have grown to include not only end-product traits, such as carcass weight or rib eye area but also include traits to measure cowherd efficiency, such as Stayability or Heifer Pregnancy. Such traits are vital to the bottom line of any operation, ensuring the most efficient animals possible remain in production. Efficiency in this way decreases the cost of production by decreasing input cost derived from developing heifers who don’t breed or buying replacements for animals that remain in the herd only a short amount of time. Further efficiency for commercial producers can be found in seedstock evaluations that are comparable across many breeds, such as the International Genetic Solutions multi-breed evaluation. Such evaluations make Expected Progeny Differences (EPDs) comparable across breeds such as Gelbvieh and Balancer®, Simmental, Red Angus, and Limousin, making the search for the right bull even easier for commercial producers.

In addition to traditional genetic selection tools like EPDs, breed associations have begun to incorporate huge amounts of genomic data into their evaluations. Such data helps explain more variance for each trait, leading to higher accuracy selection tools for producers. High accuracy genomic-enhanced EPDs benefit commercial producers by reducing risk when it comes to buying young bulls for breeding. Genomic enhancements are often the equivalent of several calving records, making the performance of animals more predictable. Genomic data was traditionally cumbersome to incorporate into genetic evaluation because of the high volume of data. Now, however, large evaluations are moving toward methods to incorporate genomic data all in one step. This so-called “one step” method will revolutionize genetic evaluation by using both genetic and pedigree data at the same time, creating a more accurate evaluation for all animals. Such a transition is possibly the greatest advancement in beef cattle evaluation in over 20 years.

Breed associations are also transitioning to collect more data from the commercial sector. Traditionally, the data flow stopped after animals were sold into the commercial market. Now, however, commercial programs are being developed to collect performance data from the cowherd that can be used to give information on seedstock animal performance. All sectors of the industry can benefit greatly from this type of integration, as more information leads to more accurate selection tools to accelerate genetic improvement. Commercial producers can even add genomic information to their herds through ultra-low density panels that test for useful subsets of genomic data. Having both genetic and performance information all in one place on animals enables commercial producers to pull reports that indicate the performance of each cow and how useful they are to the herd.

With the ever changing markets, some seedstock breeders may be looking for alternatives to breed associations to calculate their selection tools, such as a within-herd evaluation. While such alternatives may seem appealing to some breeders, the argument could be made that such evaluations only increase expense for producers. Breed association evaluations have the benefit of cutting edge technology, input from industry leaders in animal breeding and genetics, constant quality control, and continuous research into novel
economically relevant traits. Very few (if any) within herd evaluations have access to such advancements. If the goal is to provide reliable, easy to use selection tools to the commercial producer for industry-wide genetic advancement, multi-breed association evaluations are an
obvious choice.

So, while some producers might be questioning if it’s worth the cost to be part of a breed association, maybe the real question is: can they afford not to be? More importantly, can our commercial beef industry stakeholders afford to miss out on the valuable genetic
information breed associations provide to maximize efficiency in their operations?