Weekly genetics review: Progression requires some hard questions

Genetics editor Alastair Rayner, 13/02/2024

MOVING a herd towards a defined breeding goal is no small undertaking.

Genetic improvement is generally described as a long-term process, even though the gains that are made will be permanent and generally cumulative over time. Breeders who are on the journey of herd improvement base their decisions on animals to retain or to breed from, based not just on the genetics of animal, but also on their phenotype.

Phenotype is the result of the genetics of the animal combined with environmental effects that animal has experienced.

Within a herd there is always a degree of variation that is observable. A compounding challenge is the variation that exists may occur in a number of various traits. This can make selection decisions more difficult, particularly if animals express highly desirable traits for one production outcome but perform poorly in another important trait.

For many producers, these types of animals can often create some inner conflict when it comes to selection. Some producers are reluctant to remove animals that may have expressed valuable traits but may be less productive overall. The risk of this reluctance is a herd which never truly meets full productive potential, and instead achieves only average outcomes each year.

Overcoming the reluctance to make decisions on these types of animals is often an issue for producers. There are many traits that are described or highlighted in industry conversations, breed promotion and by other producers as being the most profitable, valuable or important to a herd.

Profit drivers

It is certainly not that these conversations, examples, and messages are incorrect.  However, in the noise of these information sources, a vital factor is often overlooked.

This factor is the importance of knowing the actual profit driver for a business. If this is an unknown, how can a producer conceivably make decisions on the traits that actually matter within their herd?

Clearly identifying and understanding the factors that contribute to profit is not always as straightforward as many people would like. Often, the process can be uncomfortable. Some of this discomfort can be attributed to an unwillingness to hear the answers to questions that need to be asked.

Factors that drive profit range from conception rates to weaning rate; kilograms of beef produced per hectare; through to compliance with market and eating quality specifications.

Achieving the outcomes that a producer has for the breeding enterprise has to start with some questions around which of these (or other factors) has the greatest impact on productivity and profitability. That question has to be asked in the context of the individual business.

With this in mind, the second and possibly more uncomfortable question for some, is to consider how well the herd is achieving the outcomes associated with this profit driver.

If this question is answered honestly and openly, there is an opportunity to look at the herd with a more focussed view. The aim is to identify and select those animals that actually meet the profit drivers.


The first step in improvement is to improve the consistency of the herd to meet those goals. As much as it may be nice to have animals that exhibit a trait that is described as highly profitable, unless it also displays the traits that actually drive profit for the business, its actually not contributing.

In fact, it could almost be said that the supposed profitable trait is actually a distraction preventing real improvement for the business.

Producers who accept this approach have the opportunity to make real progress towards improvement within their herds. The consistency they achieve allows them room to start to consider some of the secondary profit drivers that may add additional value. This space is achieved by the cumulative and permanent improvement that genetics combined with focussed selection has bought for them.

Just as there are producers willing to accept the challenge of asking hard questions, and responding to the challenges they have identified, there are others who find the process too daunting.

There is a temptation to avoid asking hard questions and seeking an easy solution. Often that solution is a decision to take a simple approach. Typical examples can be seen in decisions to change breed type or coat colour to compete for perceived higher sale prices; to select bulls based on eating quality traits even if there is no direct financial reward or to hedge bets and aim to keep cattle with a range of traits.

Occasionally these simple changes do show signs of improvement. However, if the fundamentals of the herds productivity remain unaddressed, any improvement will be marginal at best. At worst, it can lead a herd’s long-term direction further away from the things that truly impact its performance.

Herd improvement is a long-term process. It certainly can be difficult and challenging, especially when everyone has an opinion about what matters and what should be done to select breeders.

However, as producers go about their preparations for female selection and choosing the next round of sires, maybe the first step in the process is to ask the hard questions and design the program around the answers.


Alastair Rayner is the Principal of RaynerAg, an agricultural advisory service based in NSW.  RaynerAg is affiliated with BJA Stock & Station Agents.  He regularly lists and sell cattle for clients as well attending bull sales to support client purchases.  Alastair provides pre-sale selections and classifications for seedstock producers in NSW, Qld, and Victoria.  He can be contacted here or through his website











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  1. Matthew Della Gola, 14/02/2024

    Bloody good point you raise alastair. An observation that ive come across quite alot, which is to add to your piece is the reluctance of many producers to get out and do the groundwork of researching the studs and even the commercial herds that use genetics that you may be intending to purchase. Even if you dont like them or have a pre conceived opinion, the more you see good or bad, the more you learn and train your eye. Your 1000% spot on re descisions made last a lifetime. It’s just remarkable that you could arrive at a bull sale and 30min before its sells and you are deciding if its the correct bull. Cheers Matthew Della Gola

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