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General Session I

A Systems Approach to Beef Improvement

by Troy Smith for Angus Productions Inc.

COLUMBIA, Mo. (June 28, 2010) — Maybe it’s time to consider a different approach to beef improvement. That was the suggestion offered by Barry Dunn, South Dakota State University’s dean of the College of Animal and Biological Sciences, during the opening session of the 2010 Beef Improvement Federation (BIF) Research Symposium.

“We can’t invest our way to profitability,” Dunn stated. “And past approaches to beef improvement have taken us down that path.”

Barry DunnBarry DunnAccording to Dunn, the most popular strategies have focused on manipulating gene frequency for economically relevant traits, then diffusing desirable genes into herds as rapidly as possible. Admittedly, those strategies have created change.

“Today, with the same number of cows that we had in 1958, [the U.S. beef industry] produces 1 ½ times more beef. But we have lost well over a third of the number of producers that we had then,” Dunn said. “If that continues, can the industry survive?”

Dunn likened beef improvement efforts to the assembly of a puzzle whose pieces have included ratios, breeding values, expected progeny differences (EPDs), gene markers and, now, genomic EPDs. He said he wonders if breeders have become dependent on a constant flow of new techniques and technologies for genetic selection targeting increased production.

Increased production has come, but not without tradeoffs and unintended consequences, such as the increased mature cow size that has accompanied selection for heavier weaning and yearling weights. Despite advancements in technology and increased production, profitability for beef producers remains relatively low.

Dunn challenged researchers and producers in the audience to look at beef improvement, not as a puzzle, but as a mystery to be unraveled. He recommended a systems approach emphasizing optimum production rather than maximum production, with consideration for controlling costs as well as increasing revenue. Dunn said each beef operation is a complex system where all the parts are tightly coupled and “everything affects everything else.”

According to Dunn, interactions between management and genetics are huge. He cited, for example, fetal programming studies that have shown how the nutritional status of pregnant cows can impact the carcass characteristics of their progeny and the fertility of daughters saved as herd replacements. Creep-feeding calves can improve marbling, but also may decrease the long-term productivity of heifer calves retained. And growth-promoting implants can boost weight gain, but they also can have negative effects on carcass merit.

Rather than waiting for the next new selection tool for maximizing gene frequency, Dunn challenged his audience to consider whether it is more cost-effective to find optimum levels of gene frequency and learn how to turn genes on and off with management. He urged them to consider a creative systems approach.

Themed "Gateway to Profit," the 2010 BIF Annual Research Symposium and Annual Meeting was hosted by BIF June 28-July 1 in Columbia.

Editor’s Note: This summary was written under contract or by staff of Angus Productions Inc. (API). Through an agreement with the Beef Improvement Federation, we are encouraging reprinting of the articles to those who will adhere to the reprint guidelines available on this site. Please review those guidelines or contact Shauna Rose Hermel, editor, at 816-383-5270. PowerPoints are posted with permission of the presenter and may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the express permission of the presenter.

API's coverage of the event is made possible through collaboration with BIF and sponsorship by BioZyme Inc. through its significant gift to the Angus Foundation. For questions about this site, or to notify us of broken links, click here.

Headquartered in Saint Joseph, Mo., API publishes the Angus Journal, the Angus Beef Bulletin, the Angus Beef Bulletin EXTRA, and the Angus e-List, as well as providing online coverage of events and topics pertinent to cattlemen through the API Virtual Library.


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