Breed associations adapt

REGINA — Breed associations have been around for more than a century but today their roles are changing.

Wade Shafer, executive vice-president of the American Simmental Association, said the beef sector will maintain the need for breeds and associations but their functions may change. More crossbred animals may be used as breeding stock similar to the hog industry, in which almost all boars used at the commercial level are hybrids.

“There is more of it going on in the United States than here,” Shafer said.

“I think it is an inevitability that the lines between breed associations will be blurred and the lines between breed will be blurred. It doesn’t mean we don’t need to keep track of breeds and what composition an animal is, but what it does mean (is) it will become commonplace for people to be buying bulls that have multiple breeds in place,” he said.

More research collaboration among breed associations and resulting genomic analysis can provide more information to improve mating decisions. However, purebred animals will always have a role to play in the same way the hog and poultry sectors have selected for high-performing hybrids, he said in an interview at the Federation of Americas conference held in Regina last fall.

The switch to more crossbreeding is related to a concern over the loss of hybrid vigour and declining fertility.

“Of all the different traits, hybrid vigour affects fertility the most. It also turns out to be the most important economic trait,” Shafer said.

“In the U.S., Angus has become so dominant it is not unusual for a high proportion of the commercial producers to have purebred Angus cows. The problem is, there is no hybrid vigour in purebred Angus cows so there is getting to be a movement by commercial producers to introduce other breeds into their herds,” he said.

He estimated 70 percent of commercial herds in the U.S. are straight-bred Angus.

“These straight Angus herds have been tapering off for fertility. Their breeding rates are going down. It is nothing bad about Angus. It is just straight-bred cattle. If you go to high proportions, you lose hybrid vigour and the first place you will see it (is) in loss of fertility,” he said.

Canada has more crossbreeding than the United States and there are fewer straight-bred cattle in commercial herds.

“We call it mongrelization but in some ways it might be better,” he said.

Breed associations have spent decades convincing producers that breeding stock needs to be purebred.

“You can actually have seedstock that is crossbred and introduce that into your herd and actually improve your bottom line,” Shafer said.

The first scientific references to the benefits of crossbreeding appeared in the Journal of Animal Science in 1943.

“In 1943 we knew about the benefits of crossbreeding and since that time the evidence of crossbreeding improving the bottom line of a commercial cattleman, there are no ifs, ands or buts about it. Crossbreeding increases profit,” he told conference attendees.

When European breeds like the Simmental were introduced to North America 50 years ago, they added tremendous growth and maternal strength to a predominately British cow herd, said Sean McGrath, breed improvement consultant with the Canadian Simmental Association.

“That is how Simmental affected our cow herd in terms of a crossbred maternal female with a little bit of added punch,” he said.

In the early years, no one was promoting crossbreeding, said Schafer.

“We knew even at that time that crossbreeding was central to beef industry profitability but we promoted this kind of thing,” he said.

The attitude shift came in 1997 when the first multi-breed genetic evaluation was published to compare crossbreds, purebreds and breeds.

Developed between the American Simmental Association and Cornell University, 17 million animals were included in that first genetic database. Twelve breed associations participated.

About 375,000 records are added every year. The American Angus Association has about 12 million animals in its genetic database.

This kind of collaboration leads to faster and more accurate genotyping.

With new software, genetic evaluation that once took 55 hours can now produce results in 20 minutes.

“The big deal is the speed allows us to do things that were thought to be unthinkable,” said Shafer.

Armed with more information on expected progeny differences enhanced with genomic data, producers are now better equipped to speed up improvements in their beef herds.

The more accurate and quicker animal evaluations may change genetic predictions because the old calculations often overestimated their genetic merit.

This advancement in genetics would not be possible without performance reports being properly collected to build a database, said McGrath.

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