Angus genetic potential remains largely untapped

Jon Condon, 10/07/2012


Genetics consultant Dick Whale makes a point during last week's National Angus conferenceDespite its reputation as the industry leader in genetic improvement through heavy application of objective measurement, there remains a vast seam of genetic potential within the Angus breed to be tapped by seedstock producers, and in turn, their commercial customers.

This was one of the key messages to emerge during a ‘warts and all’ panel session and Q&A discussion held during last week’s Angus National Conference in Ballarat.

A panel of high-profile industry experts was assembled for the session, including seedstock producers Tom Gubbins and Lucinda Corrigan, ILRIC and SBTS manager Christian Duff, prominent breeding and genetics consultant Dick Whale, and MLA genetics program manager Rob Banks.

As discussed in an article on Beef Central yesterday, (“Measuring Angus genetic progress”) there has been a gradual decline in the rate of genetic progress in some traits measured within the Angus industry over time.

The frank and open discussion that took place during the Ballarat conference included a number of key messages surrounding the current rate of genetic improvement of Angus cattle, and how this might be hastened going forward.

Several speakers suggested that revamping the breed’s current Breedplan $ indexes to better reflect current industry trends could have a significant impact on outcomes.

MLA’s Dr Rob Banks told the audience that a doubling of the current rate of genetic progress in Angus cattle in Australia was both technically possible and extremely desirable, for both seedstock producers and their commercial clients.

Dr Banks said while he would not get into the discussion about what breeders should be breeding for – breeders themselves had to work-out what made money for clients and their end-customers – he said he could guarantee that whatever combination of those traits was chosen, seedstock producers had the potential to double the rate of current progress.

“And that can be done without changing very much at all,” he said. “That would be worth a lot of money to your clients, yourselves, and to the Australian beef industry.”

Dr Banks said while there were probably as range of reasons why genetic progress within the Angus breed had started to slow, this was definitely not because of running out of the genetic potential to make further progress.

“The beef industry, in relative terms, has barely started making genetic progress. If anybody tells you that a lot of improvement has already been made over the past 20 years, meaning it will now inevitably slow down, I suggest finding somebody else to talk to, because they are wrong.”

He said what the Angus breed was producing now in terms of annual index gains of $2/$3 improved value per cow was something like two percent profit growth per year.

“That’s about the rate of improvement that a beef producer needs simply to keep pace with cost of production,” he said. “What the Angus industry is doing now is just enough to keep their clients standard of living constant.”

“But people who win business are those who drive-up their clients’ standard of living, so it’s worth a lot, to a lot of people, for Angus breeders to be making better use of the tools and the resources, both cattle and human, at their disposal.”

Touching on reasons for the recent slow-down in genetic gain in Australian Angus, Dr Banks said there was some evidence that Australia had either caught up with, or had become a lot closer to the US industry in terms of performance. From an R&D investment perspective, however, that was a little worrying.

“If all we ever do is catch up with the US, it is not a very good argument for genetics-based R&D in this country at all. Possibly, we should just buy a lot more American semen,” he said.

“That means as a KPI for investment in this area by MLA, we should be aiming to get our rates of improvement above those in the US.”


Genomics game-changer

Dr Banks said while breeders had probably heard that ‘genomics will be a game changer’ for ten years or more, he suspected it was now getting very close to the point where that would start to happen, in a significant way.

“The point is approaching because of the power of the genotyping that is now available, and the price that it can be done at,” he said. “It’s becoming competitive with what it costs to record and evaluate cattle yourself. The 50K Angus chip is now available for $40-$50, and that will come down further in the next 12-18 months. That is getting very close to the point where it is competitive with performance recording, on-farm.”

On its own genomics did not increase the rate of genetic progress – it just made it a whole lot easier to do, he said. He said that would force individuals and a performance-focussed breed like Angus to start to ask questions around what aspects contribute to ‘brand value’ and ‘business value.’

He speculated that over time, the function of performance recording was something that increasingly might be outsourced by seedstock producers.

“Somewhere in the future, you might have people recording cattle for you, and it might be as few as 2000 or 3000 animals being recorded each year – but those animals would be really heavily recorded. The rest would act as bull multipliers.”

Dr Banks suggested there were a couple of things that could, and would be done to lift the current rate of genetic progress in Angus. The simplest of these was to use more elite young bulls, regardless of whether they were US or Australian in origin.

“The figures tell us which are going to be good young bulls – and the earlier breeders use them the better. As long as a group of people do it together, there is very little risk involved, and that’s where faster genetic progress comes from.”

As a breed, it might also be worth thinking how the US and Australian gene pools were used, he said.

“There are a lot of bulls currently being bred in this country that are competitive, that don’t end up siring progeny, or enough progeny. We need to think about the reasons why.”


Risk of becoming a terminal bred through mature cow size

Another panellist at the Ballarat conference, genetics consultant Dick Whale, recently returned from a visit to the US where he observed the direction of the US Angus industry.

He said the most frightening message he got out of the trip was during a visit to Clay Centre, Nebraska where noted geneticist, Dr Larry Kundiff, suggested that the US Angus was becoming a terminal breed.

“Why? Based on their data evaluating Angus populations against other breeds for the past 30 years, the problem being seen, because of the heavy emphasis on a handful of top Angus bulls, is that Angus mature cow size is now larger than Charolais and Simmentals,” Mr Whale said

“All breeds have made progress in terms of mature cow weight, but the Angus breed has surpassed the European breeds in the US, and that is a real worry,” he said.

Another apparent trend he noted in the US – perhaps not as evident yet in Australia – was the perception that ‘milk and high milk was good.’

“Certainly under our environment where we often have more limited feed resources, and cows have to survive on grass, selection for high milk production is faulty, as far as fertility goes,” he said.

Longevity was another trait highlighted by Mr Whale.

“The Blockey/Bob Freer work of the late 1980s showed British bred bulls in southern Australia lasted an average three breeding seasons,” he said. “The current data out of the McKinnon project in Western Victoria is 2.3 years per bull. And the current breeding cow longevity is probably only three breeding seasons, on average, I would suggest,” he said.

“If we take 100 heifers, join them for six weeks and get 85pc in calf, and join them again as two-year-olds for another 85pc conception rate, you very quickly get down to 50pc of the starting group.”

“Some cows might last to ten years of age, and a lot beyond seven or eight. I know this is against more rapid genetic progress, and the desire to shorten generational interval, but the commercial cattleman still wants to be able to dispose of surplus females that have good calves every year, and can go into another commercial operation.”

Mr Whale related a case study to the conference audience about a client’s preg test results from last year’s heifer joining.

Of 114 heifers joined, among the 14 highest growth heifers in the group, they only produced four pregnancies.

“The conclusion I make from that is that in his environment, he has hit the wall in mature cow size, or in his case, onset of puberty in heifers. They would probably have averaged frame score 6-6.5. We have to be very careful in terms of mature frame size.”

Mr Whale said he agreed with Rob Banks’ comments over the need for a very good performance recording system underneath current genomics work, or a validation population. The current Angus progeny test program was going some way towards achieving that.

“But genomics will not make any progress unless we can benchmark it against something, using good recording systems.”

‘”It will continue to get cheaper – we visited one US contact who expects parent verification to be as cheap as US$2.50 within 12 months.”

Mr Whale suggested the biggest impact Angus seedstock producers could have on the commercial cattle industry would be in revamping current $ indexes, also alluded to by other panel speakers.

“There is one breed in the US that I think has got it right: it has doubled the weighting on ‘stayability’ within the population. What they mean by ‘stayability’ is all females recorded as two year olds, and the daughters of the sires as a major criteria. The breed’s second biggest component is calving ease (both maternal and direct), and it has no emphasis at all on growth. Growth, in their view, comes at a cost, including bigger mature cow size. Their third criteria is marbling, and lastly, saleable red meat yield.”

The US since 1915 had had a yield grade system, based on saleable red meat yield in cattle. Almost a century later, Australians are yet to be paid for volume of beef produced.

“In the US, 51pc of carcases are sold on the rail, and the great majority are graded towards certain markets based on carcase weight, saleable red meat yield and marbling. The current spread between US low Choice grade cattle (marbling score 2.8) compared to carcases less than that is 16c/lb, on an average carcase weight of almost 900 lb.”

“Work it out guys, marbling is the heart of the breed, and fertility is number two. If we lose one or both of those traits and don’t include saleable red meat yield in it, we will start to lose ground to other breeds and composites,” Mr Whale said.

“It’s a challenge for seedstock producers and the Angus breed in general to improve those economic weightings on traits relevant to the commercial industry.”


Bending the bone/fat/muscle curve

MLA director and southern Angus seedstock producer Lucinda Corrigan said early research work by Dr Rex Butterfield and others had indicated that despite centuries of selection for desirable traits, cattle breeders had not been able to manipulate the basic ratios between bone, fat and red meat on a carcase within a breed.

But since then, through the influence of tools like Breedplan, as part of a maternal productivity project for southern Australia, it had been learned that breeders actually change some of these relationships, to their advantage, which was impossible through subjective measurement alone.

“So why do we focus so much on genetic improvement? For our commercial clients it’s all about cost of production, and that genetic improvement is cumulative and permanent,” Mrs Corrigan said. “We also need to focus on fertility, and the challenge to avoid large-framed, late maturing cattle.”

Her second point about genetic improvement is linked to increasing compliance in the supply chain.

“Where would we like to be ten years from now in terms of genetic improvement? I would suggest it is increasing resilience in a drying climate. Our industry runs on maternal genetics, and how effectively the female stores energy, potentially taking cost out of the production system,” she said.

“So it may be that there are some new traits out there that we may in future need to measure,” she said.

In the area of genomics, Mrs Corrigan suggested more and better phonotypes would be required.

“The Angus breed, for example, may collect the phonotypes on 20,000 animals really well, but the rest of the measurement could be done using the 10K SNP chip,” she suggested.


Beef runs a distant second to other species

Te Mania Angus principal, Tom Gubbins highlighted some of the contrasts between genetic progress being made in the beef industry with that in chicken and pork.

“Currently, chicken is making around 45c/DSE genetic improvement each year, pork 45c/DSE, and lamb and incredible 75c/DSE. While the Angus breed is performing better, beef generally across Australia is currently returning 15c/DSE in genetic gain,” he said.

“It’s not enough, when contrasted with major protein competitors. The performance is reflected in the fact that consumer demand for chicken and pork is increasing, and that’s because it’s quality and price competitiveness is better, compared with beef.”

A lot of this can be put down to the genetic selection pressure that had been applied in white meats over the past 30 years.

Mr Gubbins said the focus on traits not currently included in the Angus index system was something that perhaps was holding back genetic influence. A way of addressing that could be to include some of those traits in the indexes, he said.

Obviously breeders put genetic pressure on traits other than those included in the index. For example structure is one of those, however it would be very difficult to include it. Conversely, there were probably a few traits on which breeders put pressure which were not needed.

“Possibly in this day and age we put too much emphasis on things like ‘spring of rib’ and ‘cutability’ that do not have any relationship to the economics of producing beef at all,” he said.

Mr Gubbins said there remained a need for more technical uptake and greater education across the industry. “There’s lots of tools sitting in the shed that the Beef CRC and MLA have developed which are used by some breeders, but it would be good if their use was more common.”

Data quality was another issue. Illustrated by data presented in Beef Central’s earlier conference report, there were still 20,000 scrotal circumference records missing from the number of registered bull calves produced each year.

“Basic things like that, that are really easy to measure, will help the industry find bulls that aren’t related so closely to current highly sought-after bulls. We desperately need bulls that are unrelated, that have the genetic merit, to put into the equation, so we can reduce the inbreeding coefficients and continue to maintain progress in the indexes,” Mr Gubbins said.

He said the growth ceiling was something that perhaps could also affect key performance indicators in indexes in future.

“Are we getting to a point where perhaps the maturity pattern of our cattle is going to limit the speed at which we can make them grow, and therefore, the rate at which we can increase dollar values?”

He also suggested the quantitative genetic pipeline information flow from producing EBVs and back to the breeder needed to be “completely revamped in order to remove politics and other problems.”

“We need a situation now where people are encouraged to submit good, accurate Breedplan information – not just immediate information so they can get the benefit of receiving an EBV,” he said.

Clearer market signals was also an imperative identified by Mr Gubbins, necessary to deliver greater genetic gain, including good signals on carcase performance from processors to improve performance to secure export markets and improve quality for domestic beef production.

Christian Duff, the manager of the Southern Beef Technology Systems program, raised a number of points, one of which was whether the current Angus Indexes were still relevant to identifying and selecting for traits of importance to the commercial industry.

“Listing the Duane Woodham from JBS during the conference, who told us about the decline in longer feeding programs, we perhaps should be asking whether the CAAB longfed index is as important to Angus breeders today as it was when the index was put together,” Mr Duff said.



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