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Are reporting birthweights still necessary?

Jaclyn Krymowski for Progressive Cattle Published on 24 December 2020
John Irvine collecting birthweight

Accurate data is pivotal for sound decision-making and improvement, especially when dealing with animal genetics.

Genomic information has certainly accelerated this process, allowing us to gauge an animal’s potential by looking directly at their DNA.

However, this is only one part of the equation. Collecting solid, proven field data is still necessary to maximizing the accuracy of individual animals and entire breeds.

Just as important as the data itself is correctness of reporting and how it is interpreted. Here, cattle producers find themselves walking a fine line. Although accurate data collection is essential, it can also be time-consuming and difficult to incorporate alongside the many demands of daily chores.

A recent study by International Genetic Solutions (IGS) examined taking birthweight data by scales versus measuring hoof circumference to determine the reliability of this alternative.

Different modes of data collection are part of the key to help ranchers collect and report data more easily. Likewise, an understanding of the significant roles producers and breed associations play in genetic improvement can help encourage participation.

Significance of data

Genomic data has grown in accessibility and acceptance across the beef industry. With its high accuracy and relatively simple testing, it can appear confusing as to why the industry still needs so much hard, reported data.

“If you’re thinking about phenotype versus genotype, both are valuable, but genotypes will never replace the need to have measurements on actual animals,” explains Dr. Jackie Atkins, director of science and education for the American Simmental Association (ASA). “As soon as we get a few generations away from a phenotypic record, records become less predictive to the current population.”

Data is especially important for young sires who are a ways out from being proven. Birthweights and weaning weights from their progeny are critical to getting a whole scope of their performance.

The American International Charolais Association (AICA) also receives calving scores on their females from their membership.

“These scores are critical in providing good calving ease EPDs,” says Dr. Sally Northcutt of Method Genetics LLC on behalf of AICA. “The association has encouraged breeders to completely report birth and weaning data even though calves can be genomic tested at any age. The genotyping of Charolais cattle has not deterred data submission.”

Another reason data and measurements are so important is because what the EPDs contribute to – especially things such as birthweight, weaning weight, yearling weight and so forth – are very polygenic. This means multiple genes contribute to the phenotypic outcome.

Dr. Miranda (Randi) Culbertson, IGS leading geneticist, explains, “They’re controlled by thousands of genes. When we think of genomics, that’s only capturing a small percentage of the genetics that are actually controlling those traits.”

Accuracy matters

Scientifically speaking, reliable results begin with reliable data collection, records and reporting. Finding ways to get this done efficiently but in a way that doesn’t compromise data integrity can be challenging.

The IGS study of 7,000 hoof tape measurements along with 15,000 scale weights were analyzed and found a very high correlation between the two. Some breed associations accept hoof measurements as a valid weight documentation, inspired by the encouraging results of this analysis.

Even when using an association’s approved mode of measurement, there are other principles of accurate recording and submission that makes a difference.

“Consistency is key. When measuring a contemporary group of calves, use the same method on the entire group,” says Atkins. “What you don’t want to do is measure half the group with hoof tape and half with a scale.”

Even if all the individuals in a contemporary group are not getting registered, it is still ideal to submit the whole group, as it makes the best genetic comparison among cohorts. This is especially valuable because all animals in a group are raised under similar environmental experiences.

“If you only send in your top 10 animals, you’re actually doing them a disservice,” Atkins continues. “When you send in the whole group, now we see they are really outperforming the rest of the calves in that contemporary group.”

In cases where you miss a weight, it is best just to not submit at all instead of estimating incorrect weights for them.

Bruce Lawrence runs about 300 cows, most of which are registered Limousin or Lim-Flex cattle, in Anton, Texas. Being involved with bull sales, A.I. and embryo work, providing valuable data to his breed association is very important for their genetic program.

“We want to provide accurate data to our association. We’ve learned the best thing for us to do is let the computer sort the cattle into contemporary groups the way it’s designed,” he says.

He says it can be difficult to weigh all their animals on the same day, but they do try to keep things very accurate. For the same reason, it is always recommended to get birthweights taken as close to the 24-hour mark as possible.

Helpful solutions

While it can be inconvenient, there are different ways in which producers can make sorting, measuring and reporting as easily as possible when working with their respective breed associations. Each have their own requirements and tools to accommodate them.

“Charolais breeders are encouraged to submit proper contemporary groups, and they can utilize group codes to capture valuable data on cattle managed and treated alike,” says Northcutt.

She notes that at this time, AICA only accepts scale measurements for birthweights.

In the cases of ASA, they have accommodated more hoof measurements by allowing members to indicate using this method when submitting records.

As a Limousin breeder, Lawrence says taking hoof measurements has been very helpful in reducing time and labor. In addition, he also sends data on weaning and yield weights and scrotal measurements.

“We also ultrasound all of our cattle and have recently started taking some of our cattle to slaughter to get some hard data on our carcasses,” he says.

Operations of all sizes have something valuable to contribute, be they 10 or 2,000 head, says Culbertson. By submitting complete weights and measurements, everyone can help create a more accurate picture of their breeds and genetics.

“There’s a lot of information that’s seen on the ranch but, if it doesn’t make it into our herd book or our genetic evaluation, then we don’t know about it,” Atkins adds. “We need your help to get the most complete picture for how those animals are performing.” end mark

PHOTO: John Irvine, a Simmental and SimAngus breeder in Manhattan, Kansas, prioritizes consistent and accurate data collection at the Irvine Ranch, making sure to collect birthweight within 24 hours of calving on every calf born at the ranch. Photo courtesy of the American Simmental Association.

Jaclyn Krymowski is a freelancer based in Ohio.