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Genetic IQ: Defining Traits That Matter in Your Beef Herd and Tracking Data to Make Decisions

In beef production, genetics play a critical role in management and profitability. However, knowing whether you’re on the right track can be challenging. Compared to other livestock species, beef cattle have a long gestation period. Those 283 days, plus the period from birth to weaning or beyond, can seem like a long time to find out if a particular genetic combination is a winner or a bust. 

What tools and technologies exist that can help producers optimize their genetic selection? What traits are more economically relevant than others? How can genetic selection tools be useful for marketing?

Many purebred/seedstock producers use data collection along with DNA testing to generate expected progeny differences (EPDs) to help their customers make decisions. Commercial producers may take advantage of the benefits of cross-breeding, also known as heterosis, using two or more breeds. They may choose to keep track of which breed combinations work best to help them achieve their goals.

In order to use genetic data as a decision-making tool, you need to start with some form of on-farm record-keeping. The BCRC has a suite of free genetic record-keeping resources available for producers who are at a beginner (Level One), intermediate (Level Two) or advanced (Level Three) stage. 

In the recent BCRC webinar, Keeping Production Data to Improve the Supply Chain, Betty-Jo Almond from AgSights says data has value in both a broad context and on an individual basis. “You may be operating on a herd level, but when you can identify those animals that do a good job, or those silently strong animals, or the ones that are not doing great for you, and cull those, you can see some pretty quick advancements in your profitability,” Almond says. Her company works with producers to analyze data and make on-farm production decisions. 

“Genetic selection is impacted by a lot of different things and a lot of different traits are important to different producers,” explains Sandy Russell, the chief executive officer of the Canadian Beef Breeds Council (CBBC). The CBBC connects Canada’s purebred breeds and genetic industry around the world. 

While commercial and purebred herds may gather and manage their own unique genetic data, most large-scale genetic information is collected and maintained by individual breed associations. Russell acknowledges that keeping this valuable information in silos has made using the data a challenge for commercial producers looking for broader information to make breeding or feeding decisions. 

To address this, the CBBC embarked on an initiative called the Canadian Beef Improvement Network (CBIN) which will help standardize information across breeds. 

Russell explains that having a unified approach to genetic advancement will help highlight information in a way that producers can use to inform their decision-making. “It’s not about identifying the perfect cow but about helping producers make decisions using sound data.” 

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